SCULPTURE | october 2001 | vol. 20 no. 8
A publication of the International Sculpture Center

Barbara Hashimoto's Critique of Power
by Collette Chattopadhyay | photographs by Yoshi Hashimoto

"Nailed", 1999 | 7 x 4 x 3 inches | ceramic, book, india ink, encaustic, steel

Whether showcasing clay tablets on gallery walls or presenting sculpture in the round, Barbara Hashimoto’s works explore the structures and strategies of power. Surveying a wide array of contexts, she has studied Japanese manga images, Hindu moral storybooks, and, more recently, the European tales of Shakespeare and Zola. Defining a circuit of exchange between East and West, between so-called low and high culture, her works both deconstruct popular and historically respected voices, pointing to their patriarchal paradigms and whispering of both the failure and dream for a greater democratization of social power.

The artistic journey of the Yale-educated American began while she was living in Tokyo in 1988. Traveling home by subway one evening, she idly picked up a manga comic book left behind by another passenger. Opening it she suddenly found herself face to face with the demimonde of Japanese pornographic mangas. Disturbed, she took the book home and threw it into a kiln, hoping to destroy it. But the next day, she found its pages permanently etched onto the surfaces of clay works simultaneously being fired.

"Little Black Book", 2000 | 7 x 4 x 3 inches | ceramic, book, glaze, sumi ink

Jarred by the accidental regeneration of the pornographic imagery, she began a suite of works that used this new clay process to address social debauchery. Typical of these works, Embedded Bed (1990) presents a small black book set within a white, handcast paper rectangle. Soaked with clay slip and kiln fired, the book was then plunged into a thickening mass of Kozo paper pulp, becoming mired in the solidifying paper sculpture. The final image presents the permanently sealed, charred black mass as something of a gift to the world. Endowing the artistic act with social meaning, the image juxtaposes the “noir” book with the virgin and unmarked paper plane, while challenging traditional Japanese paradigms of pictorial hierarchy by presenting the book in the highest spatial register, a place normally reserved for revered, rather than debased, cultural symbols.


"Triangle Book", 2001 | 8 x 5 x 5 inches | ceramic, book, encaustic, raw pigment

These interests emerged in a new guise following Hashimoto’s 1992 trip to Northern India. Chancing upon contemporary Hindu moral storybooks that, like Aesop’s Fables, are used to instruct children, she began a series of clay tablets probing the processes used to construct social morality. Then, when she found a satidaha shrine at Fort Meherangarh, near Jodhpur, Rajastan, she furthered those explorations to consider the cultural constructions of sexual difference. The experience led to a body of work that addresses the satidaha deaths of Maharaja Man Singh’s 15 wives, who in 1843 allegedly threw themselves alive upon his burning funeral pyre. In 1829 India had outlawed this ancient Hindu custom, in which “wise, honest, faithful wives” are said to willingly follow their husbands into death. But the ban was explicitly ignored in conservative Rajasthan 14 years later.

Hashimoto’s Sati clay tablet series abounds with evoked and effaced notations that metaphorically overlap the transformative power of the kiln with that of the funeral pyre, playing the physical against the metaphysical in ways that mingle Mono-ha, Art Informel, graffiti, and feminist art interests. Underscoring satidaha’s inescapable relation to tragedy, these pastel blue and green tablets besmeared with sooty black, gray, and charred white images reinterpret history. Memorializing the deceased women, they significantly deny and diminish the exalted legacy Maharaja Man Singh sought. Ironically, while Hashimoto was working with the satidaha theme, she happened upon Shakespeare’s sordid tale of Troilus and Cressida, which narrates a similar story of patriarchal lust for sexual power and preeminence.

"White Scrolls ", 2001 | 26 x 33 inches (framed) | ceramic, paper

Extending her explorations of Western cultural tropes in the late ‘90s, she began a suite of clay tablets critiquing Emile Zola’s novel Nana, which portrays a 19th-century demimondaine who rules the lives of several allegedly respectable businessmen. Hashimoto’s first work in the series, Nana#1, mimics the rationalistic structure of contemporary society, presenting 12 component images within a grid. Most highlight textual passages, but one reveals a nude, which turns out to detail a Toulouse-Lautrec painting, once used as a cover for the Zola book. Musing on the relation between replication and sexual obsession, Nana #1 is studded with random, abject black dots that resemble orifices and accentuate the tale’s fixation with sexuality. In deconstructing Zola’s novel as a symbol of social depravity, Hashimoto’s clay tablets anticipate her most recent sculptural direction. Moving away from specific texts, the new works translate the essence of books into fully three-dimensional sculptural forms.

Infused with decidedly feminist wit, these individual works reveal the predominantly patriarchal paradigms of socially revered and replicated texts and literature. Winking at Meret Oppenheim, for example, the Little Black Book parodies with its title and plump essence those secret men’s books logged full of women’s names, numbers, and addresses. Yet sealed through the firing process, it is thoroughly censored and unusable, its contents forever inaccessible. With similar élan, Triangular Book seems to satirize Zola’s novel as a fantasy of women in heat. Its sensual noir color highlighted with a streak of crimson red, this sculpture grants Nana a beguiling abstract form. Other sculptures literally skewer books with nails or railroad spikes, figuratively torturing texts in ways that mingle sexuality and death. Emphasizing the delimited, patriarchal scope of inherited literary and historical tomes, these works and the related scroll sculptures underscore the phallic vantage points of historical writings and frameworks.

Challenging the privileged status traditionally granted to the verbal, Hashimoto’s newest works capture in sculptural form the seductive allure and intimacy associated with the privacy of reading. Suggesting that books function as conceptual embodiments of the flesh, they conflate distinctions between the verbal and visual, the conceptual and physical. Revealing the inadequacies of established hierarchies, these works argue for a larger interpretation of reality that permits female as well as male voices to construe the narrative of existence.


Collette Chattopadhyay lives in the Los Angeles Basin and works as an independent critic, lecturer, and curator..