Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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Arthur Liou
Arthur Liou
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Video art
Arthur Liou's Blasts, a high-definition video installation.
Photo courtesy Arthur Liou

Osamu James Nakagawa
Osamu James Nakagawa
Photo © Tyagan Miller

inkjet print
Departure, from the series Ma-between the past by Osamu James Nakagawa
Photo courtesy Osaumu James Nakagawa

Family Portraits

by Ryan Whirty

It is the push of family that is strongest.

On the fourth floor of IU Bloomington’s School of Fine Arts building, Arthur Liou, assistant professor of digital art, fights with an uncooperative DVD player. The room is big and spacious and kind of cold. The floors are cement, the walls are largely barren, and drab black curtains cover up the windows.

But the room will soon be given Liou’s personal touch: an excerpt of his video artwork Blood Work, a powerful piece based on his infant daughter’s fight with leukemia. Blood Work is intense and singularly moving.

The errant DVD player finally whirrs to life, and Liou’s work starts developing on a big TV screen. The viewer first sees a reddish mass of what Liou calls “organic stuff”—possibly a brain, possibly other tissue, Liou leaves it up to the viewer to interpret.

Crawling all over the tissue are dozens of tiny pictures of his daughter, now two-year-old Vivian. Soon, however, the tissue begins to pale, and the babies gradually disappear until they all vanish. The tissue turns white, lifeless.

As the video plays, Liou stares at the screen, unflinching, leaning his elbow on his knee. He answers questions, but his vision remains locked on the TV.

On the screen, a red fluid starts to wash down across the pale tissue, which slowly regains its vibrancy and color. The crawling babies return, and the tissue is new again, covered with energetic little infants. All the while, a rumbling sound, perhaps thunder or a low bell, tolls in the background.

Liou flicks the DVD off. He has seen this before, and not just on screen. He has lived it with his daughter—health, sickness, treatment, and (hopefully) health again.

“At one point it was an escape for me,” Liou says of Blood Work. “But it was a weird escape, because you get closer to reality than you think. Sometimes it is relieving when you focus on art ideas and the difficult things you have to work with. You make progress. . . .”

It is the pull of family that is strongest.

A couple of days later, another IU fine arts professor, Osamu James Nakagawa, sits in his office just down the hall from Liou’s office. Nakagawa’s space is cluttered with boxes and computers, camera equipment, and bins of negatives.

While Liou has found success as a video artist, Nakagawa has become a master of photographical art, deftly splicing various forms of photography—film negative, digital, 8-millimeter stills—to create panoramic patchworks that cross generations and continents.

Like Liou, Nakagawa draws inspiration from that which is closest to him: his family. His latest work, Ma–between the past, sprang from a five-month period in 1998 when his daughter was born and his father lost his battle with cancer. The Japanese word ma, Nakagawa says, represents “the space between . . . temporal as well as spatial gaps.”

Because his life has been split between two countries—born in New York, raised in Japan, college-educated in Texas—Nakagawa has “experienced that ‘between’ two cultures and two places,” he says. The goal of Ma was to express his own duality while trying to fill in the generational gaps in his family for his daughter, Hakari.

On this day, Nakagawa sits in a swivel chair, clad in a blue fleece and black-rimmed glasses and sporting slightly tussled hair. He rolls his chair over the cement floor, stopping at a stack of massive file drawers.

Inside are bits of his family’s history, his own history, and his daughter’s future. They take the shape of 30 in. x 60 in. digitally enhanced montages created from archived photos taken by his grandfathers, newer photos taken by Nakagawa, and stills of home movies and video shot by his father and by himself.

Nakagawa pulls one drawer out and thumbs through the pieces. One focuses on a photo of a young Nakagawa with his mother and brother as they walked through Disneyland shortly before moving back to Tokyo. Another pastiche shows them arriving at the Tokyo airport, their jubilant family welcoming them home with outstretched arms.

“Going through the archives, I knew some of the people,” he says as he shuffles the papers. “But most of them I didn’t have any memory of. So how do you connect to those images? How do you remember those people?”

It is the power of family that is strongest.

Photographer Jeff Wolin, the Ruth N. Halls Professor of fine art at IUB, readily notices the power that family has for Liou and Nakagawa. “Both are following a rich photographic tradition of allowing their family experiences to seep into their imagery,” he says.

Wolin says Nakagawa’s Kai series (which eventually evolved into Ma) “addresses the universality of the cycles of life.” He calls Liou’s Blood Work “hard-hitting . . . a beautiful and difficult work” sprouting from Vivian’s battle with cancer.

The artists’ colleagues aren’t the only ones who have taken notice of their work. Liou’s art is featured in exhibitions at the Poissant Gallery in Houston, the Schopf Gallery and the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago, the Asian American Art Center in New York, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the Society of Contemporary Photography in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Museo de Arte in Buenos Aries, Argentina, as well as in video/new media festivals in Sweden, Italy, and Brazil.

Nakagawa, meanwhile, has seen his work shown at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., the McMurtrey Gallery in Houston, the SEPIA International Gallery in New York, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. His art has been reviewed in Time, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and Aperture.

While Liou and Nakagawa haven’t taken identical paths to success, they are without doubt similar, both with Asian roots and adopted American homes.

Liou, for example, a Taiwan native, worked initially as a photojournalist in his home country but became disenchanted with a business he says featured “too much manipulation, too many untruthful practices.” When he entered college, he fell into image-making unexpectedly.

e decided to head for the United States to further his artistic studies, eventually receiving his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Florida. (While he’s giving IU basketball a try, he still loves UF football.) At first Liou “ran away” from video, which he negatively associated with his time as a journalist. But soon he found himself working more and more in the medium.

“As I matured and acquired more knowledge in art, I realized there was no escape (from video),” he says, “and I was able to handle it more in a way where I’m not being directed by the media but using the tools more comfortably.”

Gradually his work became more experimental, especially with digital techniques and approaches. He arrived at IU Bloomington in 1999, and he became drawn to “true human stories or work that deals with humanistic issues.”

That focus on humanity’s struggles and success has culminated with Blood Work, a two-part artistic documentation of his daughter’s fight with leukemia and his own fight to cope with the illness and be strong for his daughter and his wife, Peilin Chiu. Vivian was diagnosed at five months, an age when infant leukemia is much harder to cure. However, Liou says she recently started a new medical regimen, and everyone is optimistic about her chances.

Vivian’s health has forced Liou to reflect on his art and on life in general.

“The art-making experience, in and of itself, before you see the results, is very challenging and joyful,” he says. “I think every artist would say that the passion of art has two aspects—one is the making itself, the other is the reward you get from someone looking at it and giving you feedback.

“Having said that, I have to say what keeps me going at this point is my daughter,” he adds. “It’s hard to describe how much motivation a new life will bring to you. All of a sudden you’ve got this baby in your family, and everything is in perspective. I’m much more grounded in terms of what art means to me right now.”

Nakagawa, meanwhile, was born in the Big Apple to Japanese parents. The family soon moved back to Japan, but they returned to the United States in 1987. After high school and college study in Houston, Nakagawa caught the early waves of digital photography and became hooked.

One of his early works, the Driving Theater/Billboard/T.V. Monitor series, took on a somewhat political bent by pasting images of American culture on drive-in movie screens, juxtaposing the decay of the mythical American drive-in with the crass commercialism of billboards.

But Nakagawa always harbored a desire to explore his Japanese and American roots, and his work evolved to reflect that urge to get personal. “In a bigger sense, I was always concerned with my cultural heritage, so it was a natural progression,” he says.

“There are artists who continue to make art in the same style,” he continues, “but I happen to keep evolving. I try not to lock into one type of style.”

He arrived in Bloomington in 1998 with his wife, Tomoko, who, he says, “became my work.” His father died on Nakagawa’s second day on the job at IU, an event that would soon spur the son to honor his father—and the rest of his ancestry—with Kai and Ma.

Those projects allowed Nakagawa to pull together different media and different archives culled from decades of family life. He felt a special affinity for the 8-millimeter films his father shot in New York and Los Angeles in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and he felt a pressing challenge—how to make them relevant to new generations.

“When I started working with them, I started to question how memory is digitized to video,” he says. “These films had such a nostalgic quality to them. So I started to wonder how these videos become nostalgic. I was kind of thinking how my daughter would perceive them.”

But perhaps the most beautiful part of Ma is that, like a family, it will continue to grow indefinitely into the future. “It is still going,” Nakagawa says of the work. “My daughter is growing up, and we are getting older. So in that sense, the series is still going on.”

It is the ties of family that are strongest.

Whether they know it or not, Liou and Nakagawa have brought a sense of family to the School of Fine Arts, both as digital artists and as teachers. By more than one account, their enthusiasm and willingness to experiment have rubbed off on those around them. Says Professor and SoFA Director Georgia Strange: “They both have high standards for their work and their students’ work. Students respect and admire them.”

Strange calls Nakagawa a cheerleader who “gets the undergraduate students all excited about their individual work and about working collectively. As a result, the students have a strong sense of community.”

She notes that Nakagawa issues a challenge to his classes: rent a space in the Bloomington community in which to show their work not just to the campus, but the town’s residents as well. Four former B.F.A. students founded a nonprofit arts organization, Your Art Here, with the goal of giving art a larger presence in the Indianapolis and Bloomington communities.

Liou has similarly affected the School of Fine Arts. He has “rebuilt a moribund digital art program,” Strange says, helping to create a digital art M.F.A. degree and to bring two more digital artists to the faculty. “Arthur’s teaching and creative work have affected students in a variety of disciplines in fine arts, as well as students in telecommunications and music,” she adds.

One former student affected by both Liou and Nakagawa is Owen Mundy, one of the four founders of Your Art Here, who took multiple classes with both professors. Mundy’s respect for their artwork is apparent; he says Nakagawa’s Drive-In Theater project “broke new ground in regard to digital image-making” while he asserts that Liou’s Blood Work contains techniques “that have only been seen before in Hollywood special effects.”

Mundy says he is still learning from them.

“Liou and Nakagawa are not only well-respected artists and IU faculty,” he says, “but also mentors in a sense. Even now, two years after school, they serve as a sounding board for me, sharing their advice, knowledge, and confidence.”

While others might say they’re inspired by him, Nakagawa says he is inspired when his students do well.

“Art is like making a new language, and these students have just started to communicate with other people, with their work, and those are the times they get a rush out of their visual language,” he says. “I love to see students go on and do well. Because it’s so hard to stay in this field, I really want to see them do well.”

For his part, Liou says he and his family have drawn strength from the feedback on Blood Work from those around him and by other families going through a similar ordeal. “You don’t know how encouraged we were when we received nice comments and reviews and positive feedback from people, whether they were an art audience or not,” he says. “We were able to communicate with other people through this work, and whenever we receive good response, it’s important for the family, not just me as an artist.”

Beyond their students and fellow faculty, beyond the art critics, there’s one final person Nakagawa and Liou influence: each other.

“They push each other to be better artists,” says Strange. “They support and help each other. What more could we want from faculty?”

What more could you want from family?

Ryan Whirty is a freelance writer in Rochester, N.Y.