Artist's birth is a link to birth of the Atomic Age

March 15, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

On July 16, 1945, the atomic bomb was tested successfully at Alamogordo, N.M. On Aug. 6, 1945, at 8:16 a.m., the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, another one was dropped on Nagasaki. On July 29 of the same year, between the test and the bombings, Peter d'Agostino was born in New York.

D'Agostino, now a professor in the school of communications and theater at Temple University in Philadelphia and a widely acclaimed video artist, has a sense of identity with the events of those weeks 50 years ago because of the coincidence of his birth.

His latest work, "TRACES," now debuting at Goucher College, is a video installation that attempts to connect the individual living today with the end -- and also with the beginning -- of America's involvement in World War II.

"It's my attempt to make an individual connection to this," the artist says.

The central part of his work consists of two videotapes, shown on separate television sets and seen by the viewer through openings in Japanese-type screens. One is a three-minute tape of the annual Aug. 6 Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony. It shows the "die-in," when people lie on the ground to memorialize the dead, the drum-accompanied chanting of healing prayers, and floating lanterns inscribed with names of the dead.

The other, 12-minute tape, begins with physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer recalling the atomic test he witnessed. "I was reminded of the Hindu scripture . . . 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' "

It continues with film footage of the bombing, the destruction afterward, and examples of the human mutilation that resulted. But then we leave the scene. The rest of the video consists of home movie scenes of the d'Agostino family in the 1950s -- a prom, a birthday party, etc. -- and scenes from the present, taken by d'Agostino on visits to the vastly changed New York neighborhood of his youth, to Nagasaki, and finally to the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.

To the viewer, this comes across not so much as history interspersed with d'Agostino's autobiography as history combined with visual material that we can relate to: growing up in postwar America, the increasing interdependence of cultures, the gradual decay of cities. The past becomes one with the present as, throughout, the drumbeats and chanting from the shorter video recall to us the necessity of remembering.

In a few months, d'Agostino's 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima will occur. "At 50, you have to go forward, but there's a historical realm you have to bring with you," the artist says.

In addition to the videos, the installation also includes still photographs from Hiroshima along with photos of a baby, of the bomb exploding, and of Life magazine covers -- printed backward, to suggest the other side of life, or death. "I hope there's an edge to this, and people will internalize it and ponder it," d'Agostino says.

The inclusion of Pearl Harbor broadens the emphasis from Hiroshima to make a more general statement about war. "There is the idea of all the destruction that is left in the wake of war, any war -- and it's certainly still going on," says Helen Glazer, director of exhibitions at Goucher. She also is organizer of the exhibit, which will travel to universities in North Carolina and California.

Not only does war continue to plague the planet, but the effects of individual wars continue long after they're over. This is brought home by d'Agostino's assertion that 50 years after Hiroshima, people continue to die from the effects of the bomb.

"We don't have the final count, because every year there is a new toll," he says. The estimates of death from the Hiroshima bomb, he says, now run as high as 200,000.

"TRACES" functions as d'Agostino's own war memorial. "It's not on the scale of the Vietnam Memorial or the Holocaust Museum," says Glazer, "but it's one person's individual way of saying it's important to remember these things."


What: "TRACES: A Multimedia Installation of the Atomic Age"

Where: Rosenberg Gallery, Goucher College, Dulaney Valley Road, Towson

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and evenings and weekends of events in Kraushaar Auditorium, through April 28

Call: (410) 337-6333

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