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Review: Artist brings to light harsh realities from World War II

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
From one of the films that are the centerpiece of the exhibit “Comfort Women Wanted” by Chang-Jin Lee.
Wood Street Galleries
From one of the films that are the centerpiece of the exhibit “Comfort Women Wanted” by Chang-Jin Lee.
A replica of a poster used in World War II to find 'comfort women' for Japanese soldiers is on display in New York's Times Square.
Wood Street Galleries
A replica of a poster used in World War II to find 'comfort women' for Japanese soldiers is on display in New York's Times Square.

Outside of Asia, it's a little-known fact that, during World War II, nearly 200,000 young women were exploited as sex slaves by the Imperial Japanese Army. But now Korean-born, New York-based visual artist Chang-Jin Lee is bringing it to light via her latest exhibit, “Comfort Women Wanted.”

It opens Nov. 1 on the third floor of Wood Street Galleries, and Lee will be present to talk about her multimedia project and the brave women she met.

The exhibit's title is a reference to the actual text of advertisements that appeared in newspapers during the war. When there weren't enough volunteer prostitutes through the ad campaigns, young women from Korea, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Netherlands were kidnapped or deceived and forced into sexual slavery.

Most were teenagers, some as young as 11 years old, and were raped by as many as 50 soldiers a day at military rape camps, known as “comfort stations.” Women were starved, beaten, tortured and killed. By some estimates, only 30 percent survived the ordeal.

At the center of the exhibit is a two-channel video installation, one projected opposite another, that features interviews with a former Japanese soldier and several “comfort women” Lee tracked down on trips to Korea, Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines.

Lee first learned about comfort women in 2007 from reading about U.S. House Resolution 121, which called for the government of Japan to formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its armed force's coercion of young women into sexual slavery during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands, from the 1930s through the duration of World War II.

In the video, the women talk haltingly about memories many decades old against the backdrops of their current homes. “Many of these women weren't able to return to their original homes because of the shame of their involvement,” Lee says.

The video also includes footage of three comfort stations, one from Indonesia and two from China, which Lee visited in October 2009.

One was Dayi Salon in Shanghai. Opened in 1932, it was the first comfort station ever in Asia. “In China alone, there were 150 comfort stations,” Lee says. It is currently occupied by low-income residents.

“I had a chance to visit one of the residents' homes, and, inside, there were carved wooden sculptures of Mt. Fuji,” Lee says. “Outside, near the entrance, there was a building that used to be a watch tower, guarding these women from escaping.”

A majority of all comfort women were Korean, and most did not survive the war. Of those who did survive, Lee says most kept the events a secret because it would be considered shameful and reflect badly on their families. Despite this, more than 250 Korean comfort women came out in the 1990s.

“Now aged in their 80s and 90s, most of them are in poor health, and only 99 surviving women remain,” Lee says.

Lee is quick to point out that not all of the women were of Asian descent. A total of 300 Dutch women had been coerced into Japanese military sex slavery. For example, the video includes an interview with Jan Ruff O'Herne, who was born into a Dutch colonial family in Java, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

At the age of 21, after being interned by the Japanese Imperial Army in Ambarawa, located in Central Java, Indonesia, she, along with six other Dutch women, were repeatedly raped, day and night, by Japanese military personnel.

In October 2011, Lee traveled to Australia to meet Ruff O'Herne, who is the first European comfort woman to come forward publicly.

“She is very elegant and artistic,” Lee says. “Her home is filled with beautiful paintings which she painted herself, and many are from her memories of Indonesia. She has such affection and love for Indonesia and her childhood in Java. Before I left, she gave me her biography, called ‘50 Years of Silences,' in which she tells of her experiences as a comfort woman.”

As for finding former Japanese soldiers to interview for her project, Lee says the task was a bit more difficult. “There are a lot of Japanese (soldiers) who talk about World War II, but most don't want to talk about the comfort-woman system.”

Lee found Yasuji Kaneko and visited him in the summer of 2008.

“Mr. Kaneko was a soldier of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II and came forward in the '90s to speak about war crimes,” Lee says. “He had a strong sense of duty to tell what he experienced and witnessed. ‘So this kind of violence against women doesn't happen again. War is not good for anybody,' he said.”

The exhibition also includes a number of Lee's print works, which take the form of posters that feature youthful images of some of the women she interviewed set alongside posters featuring the silhouettes of the now-aged women against the backdrops of their current homes.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee trained at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. It's worth noting that she is the creator of “Floating Echo,” the larger-than-life, clear, floating Buddha sculpture that was on display under the overpass at Point State Park during the 2013 Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Pittsburgh Cultural Trust curator Murray Horne learned about the comfort-women project while coordinating the “Floating Echo” installation and decided to showcase it at Wood Street Galleries.

“The reason why I was interested in showing this is because war has become anonymous now,” Horne says. “You just push a button and fire a missile. You might hit a few terrorists or soldiers, but there is also periphery damage as well. To me, this is about other people harmed as the result of war.”

“This is so unknown in the West, whereas, in Asia, this is a very emotional and taboo subject,” Lee says. “So, I am hoping to create awareness and start a dialogue about this, because it is so important. There aren't that many survivors left.”

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