JOHN MICHAEL KOHLER ART CENTER | 2002 | Exhibition Essay

Barbara Hashimoto: Moral Stories
by Lina Vilna | Curator of Exhibitions

Based on her work, it could be said that Barbara Hashimoto likes loose ends. Such a statement seems in direct opposition with one of her chosen subject matters—moral stories. Moral stories are generally tidy, with a clear resolution and defined parameters indicating right from wrong. These narratives—like the popular Greek AESOP’s Fables—are used to teach and entertain. Animals, people, and, sometimes, mythological characters learn lessons about life, and, ideally, so does the reader of the story. Moral stories also underscore social mores—in some instances, they could be seen as codes of conduct. With veiled references, they can be used as a way to reinforce existing modes of power, commenting obliquely on history and cultural dynamics.

"Top of the Stack", 1998 | 28 x 31 inches (framed) | ceramic, book, dye

Interested in how knowledge is obtained and processed, Hashimoto uses these “clear-cut” moral stories as tools to deconstruct the idea that there is any one “correct” way to read a story. This notion is clearly—although not necessarily consciously—related to the theories of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida suggested that any text is subject to a break down from its own internal logic. Or, as literary theorist Terry Eagleton states, “There is something in writing itself which finally evades all systems and logics. There is a continual flickering, spilling and defusing of meaning.” 1 Ultimately, with this model, any text could be understood as an implicit contradiction of itself, with the notions of truth, reality, and knowledge called into question.

Hashimoto questions truth by suggesting that there are many possible interpretations of any story. For her Moral Stories suite, she combined text and images from Hindu moral storybooks with pages from books that she dipped in clay slip and fired at 2000 degrees. She also adds drawing, painting, or collage elements, smudges the paper with pigments, or pulls text from the story and repeats it. Layers of information—metaphorically and literally—work to both conceal and reveal meaning. While she keeps the format of a book—the pages are grouped together, displayed one after the other as if back to back in a bound book—the moral story that is told is not reconstituted as a clear narrative but changed and expanded. She states, “By isolating single frames from the illustrations or phrases from the text, I want to present a glimpse into the story, something out of context, from which one can fashion one’s own story.” 2

Process and concept are closely connected with Hashimoto’s work. The process of covering book pages in clay results in a fragile and, in some ways, mutable repository of meaning. The book page becomes a parallel to the stories. The stories, passed through time, can be changed and modified just as the pages of the books—and therefore, the meaning of the story—can be altered. Hashimoto challenges the idea that what one reads—what one can find in books—is truth.

While formally trained in ceramic techniques, Hashimoto has long been fascinated with books and how they convey information. She started incorporating pages from popular texts into her work after a chance incident with a Japanese manga comic book she found on a subway in Tokyo in the late 1980s. Her desire to investigate the boundaries of social morality was spurred by the discovery of this text filled with pornographic imagery. Her response, rather than a specific critique of Japanese culture, has been a broader exploration about how stories are told including how those tellings might change over time, how knowledge is obtained, and how aspects of culture are presented.

Drawn to their brightly colored illustrations, flimsy paper, and “proper but incorrect English,” 3 Hashimoto picked up several Hindu moral storybooks from an Indian spice shop. While she did not read these particular stories when she was young, she recognized that many of these storybooks had the same “lessons” that she was once taught. She first used material from the Hindu storybooks in a series of book works that explored the Indian practice of satidaha, or, ritual burning of a widow with a deceased husband. For Hashimoto, the material that she was pulling from the storybooks was a reference to indoctrination, allowing her to ask questions about the factors that influence our lives. These interests run clearly throughout her work, regardless of what specific subject she addresses. For example, The Snake also addresses the topic of sati. This work includes a moral story illustration juxtaposed with a public record that lists women who had exercised sati. In the original record, the woman is never named; she is referred to as the widow of a husband who died of a snakebite. Hashimoto connects the moral story to a specific instance in history—concretizing the event. This blending of two themes reflects Hashimoto’s desire to question how history records information and how some incidents only exist for others as stories that are modified and incomplete. It also alludes to the complex cultural and social factors that can impact an individual’s decisions.

Hashimoto understands that in certain instances—such as with the Hindu moral stories or the practice of satidaha—she is looking at stories as an outsider. But she has also used other subjects as original sources, such as a romance novel, Shakespeare, or even a Los Angeles phonebook. This flexibility reflects the core of her interest—how knowledge is disseminated and how books in various forms can be used as carriers of meaning. As one writer suggests, “She [Hashimoto] mediates meaning by transforming texts according to each book’s individual content.” 4

With the Hindu moral storybooks, Hashimoto was particularly affected by the relationship—or lack thereof—between text and image. She comments on the metaphorical space between what the image cannot say and what the text can and vice versa. This space can leave the story enigmatic, not determined and well-defined as one might first think. Hashimoto even uses the same story for several different works—for example, the moral story of “The Failed Cock” is the source for her Top of the Stack, One is Stronger, and …the cock in the sky. The original source documents the story in four illustrations laid out much in the same manner as a comic book, with one frame after the other. Hashimoto uses three of those illustrations but within each work she repeats one or layers it with text. Top of the Stack presents a page with repeated images next to a page with large but essentially unreadable chunks of the original story. Because she takes the images and text out of their original context and re-formulates them in another, she broadens their meaning. In structuring the work this way, Hashimoto raises questions about how knowledge is conveyed and about who conveys it.

Because she leaves the work is open-ended, Hashimoto is able to express a critical viewpoint without appearing didactic. Barbara Hashimoto’s “ceramic books” invite engagement but not resolution.

1 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction. (Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 116.
2 Barbara Hashimoto, unpublished correspondence with Lena Vigna.
3 Ibid.
4 Nancy Baker Cahill, “Barbara Hashimoto’s Books,” Ceramics: Art and Perception 40 (June 2000): 32.