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USC Roski artist takes a life-altering journey to Japan

His work on life after cataclysm and moving forward transforms the student

Higashi-Matsushima
Higashi-Matsushima, near the Pacific coast (Photo/courtesy of Brian Dario)

In February, BFA student Brian Dario was still trying to wrap his head around a life-altering journey he had taken to Japan on a Macomber Travel Grant through the USC Roski School of Art and Design.

His summer research inspired a solo exhibition running through March 12 at the Helen Lindhurst Fine Arts Gallery.

“I was interested mainly in life after cataclysm,” Dario said, taking a break from work in his Altadena home and studio. “Japan in particular has a culture and a reality of dealing with immense disaster: the 2011 Tohuko earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to the Fukushima power plant explosions, which echo back to the nuclear disasters of Word War II.”

Grappling with a sense of impending doom

Growing up in California with the threat of earthquakes and of nuclear war, Dario felt a strong connection to the subject matter.

“I guess I’ve been wrestling with that my whole life — this sense of ever-impending doom,” he said.

In Japan, Dario visited various cities, including Higashi-Matsushima and Yuriage, interviewing survivors and documenting through photography and video the devastation still evident from the events of almost four years ago that caused more than 15,000 deaths.

One of his photos captured a flat, barren and gray landscape and a line of ghostly, tall pine trees on the horizon with needles only at the very tops, revealing how high the water level rose as it ripped away everything in its path.

I was asking myself, ‘Why am I here? Why did I do this?’

Brian Dario

“All that remained were three years of weeds growing up through broken concrete and rebar,” he said. “To stand in that place and to look at the ocean, I could almost hear the metal smashing and the buildings breaking. It was really traumatic. I was asking myself, ‘Why am I here? Why did I do this?’”



Intensely personal stories

Listening to strangers share intensely personal stories, developing what turned out to be lasting relationships with others who opened up their homes and hearts to him, and even visiting a Zen monastery helped him deal with his questions.

“Ultimately, the people were so inspiring,” Dario said. “There was such a sense of community. They said, ‘This happened to all of us,’ and they suffered it all together. There was so much hope in spite of the incredible ordeal they went through. It became less and less about a Japanese thing and more about a human thing. It was about impermanence, moving forward and the bonds people share.”

Dario, who speaks no Japanese and knew no one personally in Japan before his trip, found several people who helped him along the way, including a retired English teacher and his wife, who lived in Sendai.

He also stayed with people in villages devastated by the tsunami. His research-based travel ultimately affected him as a person and as an artist.

Dario with ceramic pieces

Brian Dario, foreground, works on ceramic pieces with tsunami refugees under the instruction of Japanese artist Kunikatsu Domon, right. (Photo/courtesy of Brian Dario)

Walking across the room, Dario indicated a small cluster of ceramics in a corner.

“These are like pods or cocoons I started making,” he said. “They were small at first, just big enough to be held in the hand. Then I built them bigger and bigger, and the ones that are going to be in the show are as big as a human. It has to do with the defense mechanisms we build up around ourselves.”

In addition to ceramics, Dario will exhibit sculptural work, found objects and possibly paintings in his show. He said that elements of trauma and psychological defense were present in his previous work, but something changed after Japan.

“My work has opened up to some new possibilities and broken through in some new ways. I’m filled with uncertainty and questioning notions of what I thought art was,” he said. “Now I think there’s a broader horizon that’s kind of terrifying … but it’s really exciting.”

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USC Roski artist takes a life-altering journey to Japan

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