The tiny Eurasian girl with flame-red pigtails and implausibly enormous breasts greets me at the entrance and bows politely. After pleasantries are exchanged, Ms. Snakekiss Noir takes me through the hell she made, built between her time in Second Life as a landscape architect and her real life as a sex worker serving clients in Japan’s thriving adult entertainment industry.
“[T]his is Hiroshima Garden,” Ms. Noir says. “The reason Hamlet-san I chose a garden is that my normal 'fame' in Second Life is for beautiful tranquil peaceful Japanese gardens and villages. So this is the real view of destruction as contrast.”
Inside her installation is a diorama of carnage, lit by red light and buffeted by black smoke. Built for Burning Life, SL’s annual tribute to Burning Man, Snakekiss created her memorial to mark the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima’s bombing on August 6th.
It is an immersive experience on several levels. It seems like you are standing in the center of the Japanese city, seconds after the bomb blast-- there are buildings ripped apart, walkways choked with smoldering rubble, and near the center, a glowing impact crater. At the same time, it’s also an interactive tribute to Japan’s contemporary artistic response to the bombing—in particular, to the many works of manga and anime that reference the imagery of nuclear destruction. (Pages from these comics are strewn throughout Snakekiss’site, as if they blown there from books caught in the blast radius itself.) “The nuclear theme is a strong one in [Japanese] comics,” Snakekiss notes.
On still another level, it’s a re-imagining of the destruction in terms of traditional Japanese culture. Corpses are represented by Japanese wooden dolls rendered in human size, sometimes with death heads where their faces would be. (They emit a horrific scream, when you touch them.) Ghostly shadows accompany some of these, too, recreating the eerie scorch marks that US military officers found, burnt into the walls and streets, when they first examined the city’s remains— silhouettes of the human form, imprinted as the blast blew through bodies. There are actual ghosts in Hiroshima Garden, too, glimpsed as flickering forms amid the rubble. (Created by Kim Anubis.)
And though she’s Japanese, the explanatory note you’re given when you enter Snakekiss Noir’s Garden takes scrupulous care to acknowledge both arguments on the right or wrong of dropping the bomb. (On the one hand, that it was unnecessary killing of civilians by the tens of thousands, unleashed on a country that was already near surrender; on the other, that it was brutally necessary to save the millions who would surely die, in a final siege on the Japan homeland that unconditional surrender required.)
“There are two sides,” Noir tells me, “like in all things.” For her own part, she believes, “Each side was wrong, each side believed as all sides do that their 'God' was on their side. Each side did what it must and what it wanted. Each side paid the price. No country yet is free of its history of war or cruelty.”
She visited last year’s Burning Life, and when the event rolled around again, noticed that it’d be happening near the 60th anniversary of the bombing. “I was inspired to think this is my statement for Burning Life. It was especially ironic that in the week of making this, my friends in USA had their city near destroyed.” (Only recently, Snakekiss had visited New Orleans.)
“Second Life is a good place to show that,” she says, “being a new world. But like any new world, it is colonized by us humans... we bring with us our fears and weaknesses and problems. Perhaps to show this in Second Life it’s a new possibility even to make one person think differently than normal.” Snakekiss Noir has received many Instant Messages, she says, from people “thanking me for making this. I’ve had people angry at their governments. I’ve had people apologize for their own nations’ past…”
As if on cue, a muscular man with cornrow hair and a dragon tattoo across his chest comes barging into the site, looking for a train.
“This place is great,” Antonio DaSilva announces. “Is this hell?”
“No,” Snakekiss tells him. “This is Hiroshima Garden.”
“Oh my god, yeahh,” Antonio says, glancing around. “OK. Dammmn. This is really a trip, though. I thought we were in hell.”
“In a way,” she tells him, “you are.”
To me, she says: “I hoped also with the recent events people would realize that in fact tragedy is universal. It is not long since 9/11 either. We were the FIRST Ground Zero though, we Japanese. That expression was coined for the nuclear bomb. Where it explodes it was later used for 9/11 site.”
I ask if her if she means to suggest that America was acting like Al Qaeda when it bombed Japan.
“Yeah,” Antonio interjects, confronting Snakekiss. “That’s what it sounds like when you say it like that. See, when you say ‘the first ground zero’, it’s like we [Americans] did the same thing. And it wasn’t.”
“Oh no,” the tiny woman replies quickly. “No connection. I meant that’s where the words came from. The first place to become a Ground Zero was Japanese. Later someone did a similar awful thing on America and caused similar horror.”
“Not similar at all,” DaSilva persists. “We retaliated. They just came.” He laughs. “This is very controversial, I got to say you got balls.”
His angry reaction makes me wonder what her response would be, if the roles were somewhat reserved. “I'm curious,” I ask her, “what do you think your response would be to a Chinese Resident who depicted the Japanese rape of Nanjing [in Second Life]?”
She thinks for awhile. “It’s the work which is assessed and its thought and expression,” she answers. “Someone making a crude exhibit poorly thought out and lacking in empathy on almost any tragedy would find little true response. I believe someone made a cut-out [World Trade Center] building once, and against [it placed a] plane and burning stick men in Second Life, and it caused offense? Did the Lindens not in fact remove it?”
I know the offensive build she’s talking about, a juvenile (and not a very talented) attempt to grief Residents by creating a 3D mockery of the 9/11 terror attacks. But I don’t recall it ever being removed, and I tell her that.
“Yet I believe it would be possible for an artist to make a sympathetic and powerful exhibit about 9/11,” she says. “After all, making a work in Second Life is like being a movie director. One can be an amateur, a tasteless fool, or the SL equivalent of Spielberg. Something with power, empathy and sympathy could be made here of anything.” She nods to the inferno we’re standing in. “I know when I made this, I wanted to make sure it didn’t look... exploitative, shallow or lacking in depth. It had to have... how would you say, 'soul'.
“Virtual worlds have such immense possibilities,” Snakekiss Noir continues. “Such a pity we cannot move into the digital realm when our bodies collapse on us. And preserve our minds and imaginations. Sometimes it’s interesting to me that in Second Life people are often better or more free versions of themselves than in real life. Look at the things and ideas that are emerging [here]… Surely those things will overpower the sad politics and envy and distrust we have also brought with us from first life…
“Perhaps,” she concludes, “That’s what I hoped to show by making this.”
“I have to say, it seems strange discussing such things with an avatar with giant breasts.”
Snakekiss is unruffled. “No more than winged dragons, seven foot
bunnies or tiny pandas,” she says. Despite her avatar’s appearance, she
doesn’t take her day job in adult entertainment with her into Second
Life. “Apart from dressing [my avatar] how I feel I don’t have much to
do with that adult stuff in SL.” She looks like a Eurasian Mae West
wearing extreme Tokyo street fashions, she says, “‘cos my avatar is
made to look like the first life me, and ‘cos I grew up on too much of
my hero, Lara Croft.” She describes herself as a gamer since childhood,
member of a girl gamer web ring, and a subscriber to many online worlds.
“Yes,” she says, “I’m quite opposite to some in Second Life who work in first life then play at such [sex] work in Second Life. Which I suppose is why in SL I’m a landscaper and artist and Japanese creator, not an adult club owner.”
After arguing with her awhile on the meaning of Hiroshima, Antonio DaSilva stands there in the Garden memorial for a bit, thinking.
“It’s a shame we live in a world where these things even occur at all,” he tells her. “It’s time we looked at our way of handling things. Either we gonna take ourselves out, or GOD is gonna put an end to the sorrow.”
“Well,” Snakekiss tells him, “this provokes many thoughts but the one thing is universal. The suffering and endurance and the recovery of people after disasters.”
“I agree, Snake.”
“Look in fact at Japan now. And at USA. These things do not defeat us.”
Antonio nods. “We do recover, worldwide.”
“We humans recover and rise.”
“But? Do we learn?”
“Ah,” says Snakekiss Noir, “there’s the question I cannot answer.”