Fukushima: Art & Disaster

March 15, 2014
Tokyo-based artist Kota Takeuchi.
Tokyo-based artist Kota Takeuchi.

Disaster haunts the Japanese psyche. Think of the great fires that have swept up Tokyo, or the major earthquakes that have struck the country at unpredictable intervals. Think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all the ways that nuclear energy has been portrayed in popular culture. This ranges from Tezuka Osamu’s popular cartoon hero, The Mighty Atom (AKA. Astro Boy), to the Kaiju or ‘big monster’ movies, which have commanded huge audiences ever since Godzilla first rose from the sea in 1954. Yet one of the many paradoxes of Japan is that the cultural obsession with disaster is matched by a widespread unwillingness to confront the consequences of a real-life catastrophe.

On 6 October last year, two years and seven months after the Fukushima nuclear incident, Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, finally asked the world for help. Having been elected on a platform of re-opening the nuclear plants that were closed in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 11 March, 2011, Abe had spent his first ten months in office claiming that everything was “under control”. We now know that over that period 400 tonnes of radioactive water were being discharged into the sea on a daily basis. The admission came from the plant’s owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (Tepco), who had spent the past two years claiming that everything was “under control”.

It’s a typically Japanese solution to a thorny problem: pretend it’s not happening and hope that it goes away.

Abe had gone one step further, advocating a swift reopening of the nuclear plants as a way of mitigating the country’s spiralling fuel costs. The economic pain was enough to convince the electorate to vote his Liberal Democratic Party into office, even though the traumas caused by the earthquake and tsunami were still being felt.

At the very least, they were still being felt in that corner of North-Eastern Japan where some 18,000 people died and 300,000 were forced to evacuate their homes. For the survivors, especially those within a close radius of the Fukushima plant, their entire lives were shattered. In the three years since the disaster there have been endless complaints about the mismanagement of the clean-up and the shabby treatment dished out to the victims. Tepco has been profuse in its apologies but niggardly in its actions.

This meant nothing to Abe when he assured the Intermational Olympics Committee on 7 September 2013 that everything was fine. He even made a photo-friendly visit to the plant, dressed in protective clothing. While Tokyo secured the 2020 Olympics, radiation continued to leak into the environment. If the Prime Minister was forced, one month later, to admit there was a problem, it was because his own Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) had decided that none of the plants might be safely re-opened.

Given the magnitude of the disaster, with so many aspects of the Fukushima crisis still unresolved, it may seem extraordinary that the Japanese could have elected an outspokenly pro-nuclear leader. It testifies to a chasm in Japanese society between those who were directly effected by 3/11, and those who came through unscathed. Masahiko Hito, one of the curators of the 2013 Aichi Triennale, says there is an “absolute wall” between the two groups, “or a gulf so wide it cannot be crossed.”

This lack of empathy seems even more remarkable when one learns that a poll taken late last year revealed that 84% of the population would like to see nuclear power phased out or halted. Deep down almost everybody is worried, but in the short-term a significant majority were prepared to vote in favour of a quick fix for the sake of their power bills. Apparently Australia is not the only country that routinely sacrifices long-term policy for immediate gratification.

In Japan, over the past three years, it is artists who have taken on the task tearing down the wall or bridging the gulf between the victims of 3/11 and those who simply don’t want to think about it any more.

In the wake of the meltdown at the Dai-ichi plant in Fukushima, Tepco installed cameras that relayed a live internet feed of the clean-up. In August 2011, five months after the tsunami, viewers watched an anonymous worker in full protective gear, as he approached the camera and pointed a finger at the lens. The pose, which was held for more than fifteen minutes, would go viral on YouTube.

After much speculation, we now know that the “finger-pointing man” was Kota Takeuchi, a 29-year-old Japanese artist who secured a job at the plant and wrote a daily blog. Takeuchi’s gesture was not merely directed at Tepco, whose labour practices were proving to be Fukushima’s second disaster; it was an aggressive challenge to dormant conscience of the Japanese public. “What are you doing about it?”

Takeuchi’s care to conceal his identity kept the mystery alive, even though he was always the most likely culprit. He was also one of the participants in a 2012 exhibition at the Mito Art Tower, called Artists and the Disaster – Documentation in Progress. Perhaps the most striking piece in that show was Atomic Guitar by Fuyuki Yamakawa, which featured two stratocasters miraculously played by the energy emitted by radioactive soil from Fukushima.

When I visited Japan last October it seemed that every major exhibition was haunted by 3/11. Roppongi Crossing, a triennial survey of contemporary Japanese art at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, included numerous works that referred to either Fukushima or the Japanese nuclear industry. The theme this year was ‘Out of Doubt’, which reflected to a growing scepticism that nuclear energy would ever be safe, or that any of the statements made by government and industry could be trusted.

Sachiko Kazama’s Prison NUKE FISSION 235 was a series massive woodblock prints on the theme of nuclear energy and the policies pursued in the years since the war. Yoshihide Otomo took on the role of an activist, organising an outdoor music festival on a site in Fukushima City suspected of radioactive contamination. The photos revealed a group of people determined to enjoy themselves and not submit to the prevailing climate of fear and anxiety. It was also a reassertion of Japanese folk traditions in defiance of the impersonal, secretive, corporate nature of the nuclear industry, and the destruction it had brought to the community.

Sachiko Kazama Prison NUKE FISSION 235, 2012

Sachiko Kazama ‘Prison NUKE FISSION 235′, 2012

Elsewhere in Tokyo, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a show called Bunny Smash: Design to Touch the World, brought together works by artists, architects and designers that sought to change our perceptions of society. Many pieces were humorous or satirical, but there was a constant preoccupation with information technnology and new forms of energy. It was obvious that 3/11 was one of the motivating factors behind the exhibition, but the emphasis was on being constructive and positive. The show set itself against our habit of passively accepting the technologies and designs imposed from above, pointing out that human imagination provided a host of other options.

But if one had to nominate a single exhibition that engaged comprehensively with 3/11, it was the second Aichi Triennale, held in Japan’s fourth largest city, Nagoya, from 10 August to 27 October last year. Although a relatively new event, the Aichi Triennale is already one of the largest multi-disciplinary arts festivals in Japan, focussing not only on the visual arts, but architecture, film, music and theatre. Many artworks took the form of interventions in public spaces. Artists organised public events, workshops and processions.

The director was Taro Igarishi, a professor of architecture from Sendai, one of the places hardest hit by the Tohoku earthquake. Igarishi’s own college had been destroyed but he carried on giving lectures in makeshift classrooms. When he travelled around the region inspecting the damage, it became a life-changing experience. “It was like the end of the world,” he writes.

Igarishi has written a book about the disaster and helped design a temporary housing facility for Minami Soma, a town close to the Fukushima plant. For the Aichi project he eagerly accepted the challenge of using 3/11 as the backdrop for a major art event in a city more than 500 kilometres away from the effected regions.

He devised the theme: Awakening – Where are we standing? – Earth, Memory and Resurrection, after a conversation with Yimauchi Hiroyasu, a curator at the Rias Ark Museum of Art, located in one of the most devastated areas. Igarishi explains: “At some point, memories of the disaster fade and are forgotten. It is therefore necessary for us to keep a record based not on objective numbers but on the senses. And in that respect, art, the greatest memory device ever developed by the human race, wields a great deal of power.”

Only about a third of the Biennale’s 76 artworks and projects, by more than 100 Japanese and international artists, dealt directly with the Fukushima crisis but the theme was all-pervasive. It raised concerns that instead of “a light and bright festival”, the Triennale would be a bleak, depressing affair that kept audiences at bay.

These fears proved unfounded. As Igarishi had hoped, the crowds that came to the show found the works to be moving and inspiring. The piece most frequently discussed was also the most direct in its engagement with Fukushima. Architect, Katsuhiro Miyamoto, found that the Dai-ichi power plant would fit inside the Aichi Arts Centre. He outlined the dimensions of the plant in coloured tape, on the walls and floor of the Centre, extending the project across several floors.

In another room, Miyamoto installed a 1:200 scale model of the plant, in which the ugly, functional buildings had been transformed into shrines topped with traditional gabled roofs. It was an eerie, unsettling installation that showed the age-old culture of Japan reasserting itself against an ephemeral era of nuclear power.

Another artist who grasped the opportunity to make spectacular large-scale work was Kenji Yanobe, who has become famous for his Manga-style robotic figures that straddle the worlds of pop culture and fine art. For the Triennale, Yanobe created several new sculptures and installations, including a garish pavilion inside the Arts Centre in which real marriages were performed.

After 3/11, Yanobe had made a 6 metre-high figurine called Sun Child. It featured of a boy wearing a radiation suit, but with his helmet removed. Sun Child became the mascot of the Triennale, appearing in the form of posters, key rings, magnets and as an action figurine. The message of hope it conveyed was not only made popular, it was commercially viable.

Sun Child by Kenji Yanobe, outside at the front of Hankyu Minami-Ibaraki station

Sun Child by Kenji Yanobe, outside at the front of Hankyu Minami-Ibaraki station

This optimism was echoed by many of the artists in the show, albeit in a less flamboyant manner. It testifies to the extraordinary belief in the power of art that exists among Japanese artists, curators and patrons. Haito Masahiko captures this spirit in his catalogue essay when he confesses that initially felt it may have seemed frivolous or opportunistic for artists to descend on Fukushima and start making works. When he saw the art that emerged, and the way it communicated with an audience, he decided that to create a piece of work from such a disaster was “a truly conscientious act.”

It was, finally, the straightforward, conscientious nature of the Aichi Triennale that left such a strong impression. The show had a completely different feel from so many large international art exhibitions crammed with works that pay lip service to political issues or inflict their “subversive” rituals on an unsuspecting society.

In Japan today there is a rigorous need for art to communicate rather than obsfucate. It is reflected in the ‘Awakening’ theme of the Aichi Triennale, and in massive events such as the Echigo Tsumari Triennial in the mountainous region between Tokyo and Niigata; and the Setouchi Triennale, set on the islands of the inland sea. Both these events, generously bankrolled by business tycoon, Soichiro Fukatake of the Bennesse corporation, have a dedicated social purpose: to halt the depopulation of rural areas, using art as a way of attracting visitors, income, and community revitalisation.

In Australia we have few patrons who are willing to take up such challenges, the exception being David Walsh, whose Museum of Old and New Art has become an economic powerhouse for Tasmania. Neither do we have many curators who can overlook the fashions of the moment and find substance. Among the few was Glenn Barkley, at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, who has just quit to pursue independent projects.

Australia, however, need not be singled out. The idealism of large-scale events such as Echigo-Tsumari, Setouchi and the Aichi Triennale is unparallelled anywhere in the world. That such exhibitions can exist in a such a famously insular society suggests the complexity of Japan today, and the deep divisions that exist between those who unquestioningly accept the nature of the system and those who strive for a better, more open model. If the cracks in this most conformist of countries are starting to open up like the cracks in the walls of the Dai-ichi plant, it will be Japanese artists who have played a significant role in rousing a population, not from the sleep of reason, but from “the sleep of non-responsibility”.