> Trauma and Memory in the works of Kirk Palmer

Marco Bohr / Trauma and Memory in the works of Kirk Palmer

March 2013


War’s End: An Island of Remembrance is Kirk Palmer latest film installation which interrogates the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is the third film of a trilogy which began with the visually arresting piece Murmur in 2006 and Hiroshima in 2007 – a nuanced and subtle portrait of a city which has seemingly overcome its troubled past. With War’s End from 2012, Palmer’s deep and intense involvement with the subject matter comes to a befitting finale. 

The 40-minute film was made on Yakushima, an island in the south of the Japanese archipelago. In a dramatic opening sequence, a NASA satellite image not only indicates the precise geographic location of this island, but also hints at the reason why it became notorious in relation to the atomic bombings. As a natural landmark in the East China Sea, with an unusually high mountain of nearly 2000 metres, it was the meeting point of the US Air Force bombers that dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki on the 9th of August 1945. In order to avoid all radio contact, and thus make itself undetectable to the Japanese Army, the US Air Force habitually relied on visual markers as rendezvous points to complete secret missions. Lead by a B-29 endearingly named Bockscar, the bombers circled Yakushima for 40 minutes – the precise length of Palmer’s film – before they began their approach together to Nagasaki. The delay over Yakushima ultimately prevented the bomb from being dropped on the city of Kokura, which was the primary target, and as a result Nagasaki’s fate was sealed.

In complete contrast to the horrifying and traumatic events of a war that was, by all accounts, already over, Palmer’s film is a collection of carefully paced shots that depict an island so beautiful and visually captivating that it seems utterly surreal. Filmed with high definition equipment, Palmer purposefully transports the viewer into a world of subtropical nature, crystal clear rivers, waterfalls, marshes, slowly changing cloud formations and a constant mist lingering in the mountains of this otherworldly island. Similar to a still image, each shot is carefully constructed, often by using natural elements as a self-referential framing device. An ancient tree, said to be one of the oldest trees in the world, becomes a re-occurring motif in this beautiful montage. The slow pace and rhythm of this film is further emphasized by one shot dissolving into another. Aesthetically, the sublime landscape shots in War’s End are evocative of Romanticist painting while the textures and details of the subtropical fauna perhaps allude to the work of Henri Rousseau.

Yet it would be misleading to place too much emphasis on the seemingly overindulgent aesthetics of the film. They are only one part in a complex narrative. An intense and reverberating sound, not too dissimilar to the long horn sound in the film Inception, ads a dark twist throughout the film. The sound in War’s End actually originates from the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki which rings its bells every year on the 9th of August in remembrance of the victims of the atomic bombings. Palmer slowed his original recording of the bells to dramatic effect. The haunting sound and the aesthetically pleasing visuals create a film that is at once meditative and tranquil, as it is ambiguous and unsettling.

In Palmer’s work, the visual experience of the film is replicated in the physical setting where the film is presented. For instance Murmur, which was first screened at the Royal College of Art in 2006, not only stood out for its sublimely beautiful depiction of bamboo slowly waving in the wind in the ancient city of Kyoto. The visual experience of the short black and white film was also dramatically underscored by a completely blacked-out room. The carpet on the floor, especially installed for the film installation, firstly allowed viewers to sit on the floor and secondly, it ‘softened’ the sound emitting from the screen. In this context, I am therefore quite consciously referring to film installations. Palmer’s attention to detail with regard to the presentation of the film in the context of the gallery is comparable to the meticulously detailed video work of the Belgian artist David Claerbout. 

The location, the aesthetics, the sound, the pacing, the length and even the presentation of War’s End are all deeply metaphorical. In one sense, this is a film about a beautiful island in the south of Japan. Yet to another extent, this is a film about the many ambiguities of war and the seemingly banal sequence of events that create and end wars in the first place. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the B-29 bombers couldn’t find the misty mountains of Yakushima. Or what if they confused Yakushima with another island and consequently get lost in the East China Sea. If they circled Yakushima longer than 40 minutes, when would they have to abandon the mission because of a lack of fuel? What if? What if? What if?

While watching War’s End, I couldn’t help but think of Keisuke Kinoshita’s classic film 24 Eyes from 1954. The film tells the story of a schoolteacher and her students on a remote island called Shodoshima. The film captures a section of Japanese society at peace with itself, yet struggling to cope with increasing nationalism, militarization and, towards the end, all out war. Like Palmer’s film, 24 Eyes is noteworthy for its beauty and aesthetics which seemingly stand in complete contrast to the ugliness of war.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has argued that trauma is partially defined by the fact that it cannot be represented. A holocaust survivor might be able to retell the horrors of the concentration camps, yet the trauma he or she has suffered can never be fully represented in any visual or textual medium. Instead, Palmer’s film seems to suggest, this trauma can only be referenced on a metaphorical level. The trauma of the Real (with a capital ‘R’) remains unknown. The importance of metaphor is emphasized in the last few minutes of War’s End: filmed from an airplane, the clouds that are gathering above and around Yakushima are eerily reminiscent of the giant cloud formation taking shape above Nagasaki after the bomb was dropped.

Palmer’s films are subtle and carefully constructed observations that allow the viewer to make subjective interpretations. In his own words, Palmer does not wish to be ‘didactic’ and as a result, his films are deeply ambiguous and metaphorical. Watching his trilogy is akin to a form of meditation that not only questions our relationship to memory and trauma, but ultimately, it questions our relationship with the image purporting to communicate this trauma. 

 – Marco Bohr



Kirk Palmer‘s recent works will be exhibited at Paradise Row Gallery, London from  15 March to 13 April, 2013.