Not Repitition but Reimagination: The "Zero Project" at Reed

Looking back, I’m not sure where I expected Zero Project’s sense of communal mourning to come from, or how a collection of 25,000 photographs, a boxed model plane, and a set of minimalist instructions written by an artist residing halfway around the world would release the sentiments I had so neatly push-pinned into my perception of the exhibit.

Zero Project is about reconstruction, post-WWII communal healing, and grief in Japan. These were the themes under which I labeled the latest undertaking of Reed’s Cooley Gallery before even stepping through the door. What we received as a college from artist Katsushige Nakahashi was a formula, and our goal was to follow it.

Construction of the Zero Project in the Cooley Gallery

Construction of the Zero Project in the Cooley Gallery

Zero Project is a response to Katsushige Nakahashi’s experiences living in a post-WWII Japan and a way to substantiate a collective denial and grieving, that most seemed to want to push away. He based the project on a plastic toy model of a Mitsubishi A6M Zero warplane flown by the Japanese forces during WWII that he had played with as a boy. Twenty-five–thousand color photographs of the model captured with a macro camera were to be constructed into a life size recreation of the plane, and then burnt. Since its conception in 1999, Zero Project has been constructed and destroyed 18 different times across Japan, Australia, and the United States. Each time the outcome of the plane, and the process of creating it, is different.

This is the 19th installment of the project, and the first one in which Katsu Nakahashi was not present to oversee the entirety of its construction. Within moments of walking into the gallery during the process of the Zero’s construction, it became clear that the project was many things, and none of them were formulaic. It’s difficult to describe how a space separated from the rest of the library by a door became a world within itself, how a team of artists and students at Reed College transformed a static set of photographs into a new piece of art, or why I immediately became so invested in it, but it probably begins with the feeling of bare feet on hardwood floors and packing tape.

The plane was spread out in gargantuan puzzle-pieces, and the slippery tape-coated surface of them tickled my soles as I walked across the gallery to greet Stephanie Snyder ’91 (2003–), curator of the Cooley and overseer of Zero Project. She untangled herself from a heap of trash bags and paper that was in the process of becoming the body of the plane and padded towards me, stepping over the product of weeks of exhausting construction along the way. While anyone was welcome to contribute to the project, Stephanie and a group of ten students, alumni, and interns were at its core. Between themselves, they developed a language comprised of mechanical plane parts and every kind of tape imaginable. Zero Project unfurled into every aspect of their lives; they spent hours each day in the gallery and went home to piece together its unfinished parts in their dreams.” Some days we talked, some we didn’t,” Snyder said about the dynamic that formed amongst the group, “We listened to a lot of music. Some days we had so many volunteers that we spent most of our time training and helping other people work on the plane. Some days we had no volunteers. It was a constantly shifting rhythm. It was an enormous effort and I’m so grateful to everyone who participated.”

Stephanie handed me a pair of scissors and soon I was squatting down on the floor cutting away the jagged paper edges on one of the wings. I have always been a compulsive art-toucher; I’ll walk through the Portland Art Museum with my hand brushed up against the walls, snaking my fingers along the outside of the frames with the trepidation of a kid afraid of being caught sneaking into a candy bowl. Working on Zero Project was like getting to race down the museum hallway with both arms outstretched. I was touching the same artwork that different hands around the world had touched during 18 previous installments. And this time there was no security guard lurking around the corner to reprimand me. The more time I spent in the Cooley, talking with the team of artists and watching a plane form out of pile of plastic and paper, the more I came to appreciate the creativity that contributed to the project. While the project is Nakahashi’s in many respects, it also belongs to each of its successive creators. In the process of constructing Zero Project, a ritual was also created.

Because the project is destroyed after completion, there is only ever one Zero Project at a time. Each time, a new group of people must discover for themselves what significance the project holds. The goal is not to replicate, it is to recreate. For this particular recreation, the most viable theme seemed to be that of community. A community formed around the plane, sustained on coffee and the lulls of easy conversation. “To be honest,” Snyder said on the process of building the plane, “every day was different. Some days were simply joyous and we cruised along; some were kind of agonizing. We’re people, and the nature of the project demands that the participants negotiate one another’s moods and personalities. We literally worked over 3000 hours on the Zero, collectively. Some days involved very steep learning curves. Katsu’s instructions are not very detailed, so we were constantly engaged in self-learning and adaptation to figure out how the plane was really constructed. Doing, undoing, learning, re-learning — these were all a part of the process.” Every time I visited the Cooley during the period of the plane’s construction, there was an excited energy scattered between the photo scraps and crumpled balls of newspapers. By selling the rights to Zero Project, and allowing reproductions to be produced without his presence, Nakahashi has made a profound statement about the ownership of his art, whether or not it was intentional. Even when stopping in for only a few minutes, I was taken by the sense of belonging that the project gave me.

We were taking part in a transaction, Zero Project and I; I gave myself up to the broad strokes of its production, and in turn, it gave a little bit of itself to me. I can’t say that’s how everyone who worked on Zero Project felt. In fact, the only thing I can say with the utmost certainty is that the project had a unique effect on each individual who interacted with it. Some cited the history that the project stirred up; the testimonies from World War II that it inspired, and the facts about Portland’s involvement during the war that it unearthed. Others experienced a connection to the project rooted entirely in the present moment and in the novelty of their own interactions with its creation. Each experience was built into the plane and the anticipation of its burn.

As such some found the completion of Reed’s Zero Project slightly anticlimactic. After several weeks of back and forth with the school’s administration, a burning of the project on school grounds was approved. However, due to air quality concerns, Snyder decided to find an alternative means of destruction. “The revelations about toxic air in SE Portland presented a very serious concern. While the plane itself is not toxic, burning it would release a large plume of smoke and fire. I decided it was irresponsible to do this, when the community is, literally, in crisis over air quality concerns. It was very unfortunate timing for the project, especially with everyone working so hard to make the burn happen — students, administration, and faculty together. Katsu was deeply moved that the community found a solution for the burn. He told me that for him, the Reed community dialogue was even more important than the burn itself.

We will destroy the plane. It will return to Zero. We have found an ecologically responsible incinerator outside of Salem where we can watch and film the plane as it enters the burn tube. We have decided to do this during Reading Week, when the weather is fine and it’s easiest for our student interns to participate. Before we take the Zero to the incinerator we will reconstruct the plane on campus and have a party, a farewell ceremony, a wake — whatever we want to make it. We’re really looking forward to it!”

The Reed community and the general public was invited to the Cooley on February 20 to dismantle Zero Project for storage. Throughout the long process of deciding how to bring the project to an end, the question of the significance of the burn was continually raised. When I walked into the project’s construction site for the first time, I probably would have maintained that its immediate burn was necessary as the final stage in the cycle of healing that Katsushige Nakahashi had established. But as I have engaged with Zero Project and the phenomenal individuals who brought its 19th installment to fruition, it has become clear to me that healing is not a process that can be brought about through formulaic repetition. The ritual that Nakahashi created through his project does not lie in the instructions, or the photographs, or the boxed model plane set. Instead the ritual lies in creating an experience that is all one’s own. Personally, I think the healing started with feeling tape-covered photos slide underneath my bare feet. For the time being, the plane is all rolled up and waiting in storage. It may be the romantic in me, but part of me is proud that Reed is creating a ritual that diverges so greatly from Zero Project’s previous installments. Call it anticlimatic, or call it intensely original, the fact remains that the Cooley and all its constituents have not quite reached zero, at least not yet.