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Reed College Cancels Ritual Plane Burning Citing Air Quality Concerns

February 20, 2016

The fallout from the discovery of unhealthy heavy metals in Portland's air continues.

The Oregon Health Authority has recommended people in Southeast Portland not eat vegetables from backyard gardens, some residents are getting their hair and urine tested, and two glass factories have stopped using cadmium and arsenic to color their glass.

And now, in what is one of the stranger consequences of the health scare, a Japanese artist has agreed to forgo the ritual burning of his artwork, which has been on display at Reed College, not far from Bullseye Glass.

For the past two months, a life-size replica of a Mitsubishi A6M "Zero," a famed long-range Japanese war plane used by Kamikaze pilots, has taken up most of the space in the Cooley Gallery at Reed.

The plane, which is made of 25,000 individual color photographs taped together and stuffed with newspaper, sprawls across the room like a beached whale. It has a 50-foot wingspan and is 40 feet long. 

The piece of art, which took hundreds hours to assemble, was due to be incinerated this weekend, according to the wishes of its creator, Japanese sculptor Katsushige Nakahashi.

But the gallery has now called off the plane's ritual burning.

"Out of respect for what everyone is going through in the neighborhood right now, we don't want to burn it and create a big smoke and fire on the Reed lawn," said Stephanie Snyder, Director and Curator of the Cooley Gallery at Reed College. "We're going to store it temporarily while we make another ritual."

Reed alumni and volunteers at the gallery spent hundreds of hours building the artwork, called ZERO PROJECT, following Nakahashi's concept and instructions.

Nakahashi, whose father was a Zero mechanic, based his project on a model plane he played with as a boy.

He shot 25,000 color photographs of a model plane on old-fashioned film.

"He made a contraption to allow him to shoot it in two by 3-millimeter increments, tiny, like a quarter of the size of your pinky fingernail," said Snyder.

From 1999 to 2009, Nakahashi built 19 Zeros, using the photographs, in Japan, the U.S. and Australia. In 2009, he stopped making the sculpture himself and turned the work into a set of instructions.

The Cooley Gallery acquired the work as part of a gift from collector Peter Norton. The gallery received two boxes containing all of Nakahashi's negatives, organized according to parts of the plane, along with a binder of instructions detailing how to print the photos and assemble the plane using tape and Velcro.

"The instructions are not particularly meticulous," Snyder said, which means that each iteration of the plane is shaped by the people who assemble it.  "It's brought us together in a way that no other exhibition here has."

On Saturday, a small team of Reed Alumni and volunteers began disassembling. With a loud tear, they dismantled the plane's wings and rolled them up.

Snyder said Nakahashi has asked that the college consider installing the plane in a tree on campus and allow it to decompose.

The tail of a life-size replica of a Japanese warplane at Reed College. The school decided not to burn the artwork as custom dictates, citing Portland air quality concerns.

Amelia Templeton