Four years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster ripped through their country, Japanese artists continue to grapple with the aftermath today.

From photography to radioactive soup, Art Radar spotlights the work of 10 artists and collectives who explore the Fukushima disaster in their work.

Lieko Shiga, 'Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore) 46' from the series 'Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore)', 2011. Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Lieko Shiga, ‘Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore) 46’ from the series “Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore)”, 2011. Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 megathrust earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a huge tsunami that swept through the country’s Northeast Tōhoku region. Destroying virtually everything in its path, the great wave caused a nuclear meltdown of three of the six reactors of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant – the largest nuclear incident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Four years after the tragic incident, its aftermath is still being felt. Artistic response to the tragedy continues to be highlighted by recent exhibitions: two current shows include the Museum of Fine Art Boston‘s “In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11”, and RMIT University’s “Japanese Art after Fukushima: Return of Godzilla”.

Scouting out works from a range of sources, including but not limited to the above shows, Art Radar spotlights ten Japanese artists and collectives that employ different media to grapple with the epic catastrophe.

Activist art

1. Chim↑Pom

Barely a month after the tsunami hit, members of the six-person artist collective Chim↑Pom (founded in 2005, Tokyo) dressed up in hazmat suits and trespassed into high-security areas around the Daiichi nuclear plant. Johnny Magdaleno writes that the daring collective

hiked across fractured earth and roads. […] Once at the peak, and with the still-smoldering reactors within clear view, the collective planted a white flag into the ground. The flag was initially unmarked. […] Chim↑Pom spray painted a red circle in its middle to imitate the Japanese national flag, and then added three demarcations around the circle, to turn it into the universal symbol for nuclear radiation.

Chim↑Pom's intervention at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011. Image from dnp.co.jp.

Chim↑Pom’s intervention at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011. Image from dnp.co.jp.

Once described as the “enfant terrible of Japan’s art world”, Chim↑Pom tackles provocative social themes in their work. Blurring the lines between art and activism, their performance at the power plant expressed discontent with Japanese nuclear policy and the way the disaster was handled by the government. Their antics were recorded and featured by major news outlets like CNN and PBS.

Another of Chim↑Pom’s high-profile Fukushima activist pieces took place in the Shibuya railway station where Okamoto Tarō’s iconic large-scale mural Myth of Tomorrow was hung. The famous 1960s-era painting depicted the devastation caused by the US nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The collective conducted an unauthorised installation of Level7, an addition which fit into a missing corner of the mural, representing the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns. Chim↑Pom artist Ryuta Ushiro reportedly said:

There was the first post about it on Twitter [within an hour of the rogue-installation]. The tweet was about whether Myth of Tomorrow foretold Fukushima. So this prediction myth spread like crazy.

Image of the 'Finger Pointing Worker'. Image from japantimes.co.jp.

Image of the ‘Finger Pointing Worker’. Image from japantimes.co.jp.

2. Kota Takeuchi

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, artist and temporary Fukushima clean-up volunteer Kota Takeuchi (b. 1982) performed a similarly overtly subversive activist stunt. Facing one of the live feed cameras recording the post-disaster cleanup efforts, Takeuchi pointed his finger straight at the camera and maintained the accusatory stance for nearly fifteen minutes. His face was hidden in his hazmat suit, so although the recording went viral, for a long time he was only known as the ‘Finger Pointing Worker’.

Koki Tanaka, 'A Poem Written by 5 Poets at Once (First Attempt)', 2013. HD video, 68:30 min, 4 framed papers written by participating poets. Image courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo.

Koki Tanaka, ‘A Poem Written by 5 Poets at Once (First Attempt)’, 2013. HD video, 68 min 30 sec, 4 framed papers written by participating poets. Image courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo.

Conceptual/performance art

3. Koki Tanaka

Award-winning artist Koki Tanaka (b. 1975) responded to the disaster with subtler works of a different nature. Because Tanaka lived in Los Angeles and did not experience Fukushima’s direct impact, he focused his attention on Tokyo, a city which also experienced significant disruptions. Touched by the “manifold expressions of kindness and helpfulness” springing from the unfortunate disaster, Tanaka created collective works to embody the beauty of strangers helping each other.

Shown in the Japan Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, such works were entitled “Abstract Speaking – Sharing Uncertainty and Collective Acts”. The centerpiece of the pavilion was his film A Poem Written by Five Poems at Once, in which five writers struggle to reach a consensus on what form a collective creative process might take. Speaking to ART iT, Tanaka described the inspiration behind his works in Venice:

I was thinking about what artists can do following March 11. Many artists raised the question of whether it is possible for art to respond to the disaster. […] For quite a while now art in Japan has been removed from dealing with socio-political or even systemic issues. […] If you look at the long term, including issues related to nuclear energy, then it’s not enough to respond with sympathy.

Ei and Tomoo Arakawa served soup with vegetables from Fukushima at Frieze London 2014. Photo by Frank Gualtieri via Wikimedia Commons.

Ei and Tomoo Arakawa served soup with vegetables from Fukushima at Frieze London 2014. Photo by Frank Gualtieri via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Ei & Tomoo Arakawa

In Frieze London last year, two Japanese artists offered visitors the chance to try a soup made from vegetables grown in Fukushima. Insisting that the soup was safe to eat, the duo served it daily at the fair free of charge. As Artnet reports, Fukushima born and raised Ei Arakawa and brother Tomoo flew their mother from Japan to London to prepare the broth. The performance was entitled Does This Soup Taste Ambivalent? and expressed the pair’s solidarity with those affected by the nuclear disaster. According to Artnet, the Frieze catalogue explains: 

The gift of food represents the essence of hospitality, sharing and humanity. However, the soup [that the Arakawa brothers] offer is laced with the (conceptual) possibility that it may be radioactive.

Naoya Hatakeyama, '2013.10.20 Kesen‐chō' from the series 'Rikuzentakata', 2013. Image courtesy the artist, Taka Ishii Gallery and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Naoya Hatakeyama, ‘2013.10.20 Kesen‐chō’ from the series “Rikuzentakata”, 2013. Image courtesy the artist, Taka Ishii Gallery and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Photography

5. Naoya Hatakeyama

Photographer Naoya Hatakeyama (b. 1958) lost his mother when the tsunami destroyed his hometown Rikuzentakata in Tōhoku. Prior to the disaster, Hatakeyama had been taking photographs of manmade detonations since 1995; after March 2011, he focused exclusively on capturing images of his ravaged and obliterated hometown. As Majella Munro writes in ICA Journal, Hatakeyama’s photographs “evoke the sublime”:

[Hatakeyama’s] works remind me of Tomatsu Shomei’s (1930-2012) photographs of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, since both memorialise by means of synechdoche, and find pathos in the detritus left by deceased persons who have left no other physical trace, whose bodies have never been found.

Hatakeyama’s work on Fukushima is featured in the current photographic exhibition “In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11” at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, which goes on until 12 July 2015.

Nobuyoshi Araki, 'Untitled' from the series 'Shakyō rōjin nikki (Diary of a Photo-Mad Old Man)', 2011. Image courtesy the artist, Taka Ishii Gallery, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Nobuyoshi Araki, ‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Shakyō rōjin nikki (Diary of a Photo-Mad Old Man)’, 2011. Image courtesy the artist, Taka Ishii Gallery and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

6. Nobuyoshi Araki

Also featured in the Boston exhibition is veteran Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki (b. 1940). Shunning his trademark erotic photography to pay tribute to the national disaster, Araki created powerful imagery by intervening with the image production process. Slate magazine observes that Araki scratched the negatives of the photographs he took, “creating gashes that look like black rain”Huffington Post writes that Araki’s method “ma[d]e visible his agonised feelings”:

[…] Araki scratched into 238 photographic negatives using scissors. The resulting black-and-white photographs are marked with deep cuts, reminiscent of gaping wounds or nails clawing for help.

Yoi Kawakubo, 'When the mist takes off the suns', 2014. Image courtesy the artist.

Yoi Kawakubo, ‘When the mist takes off the suns’, 2014. Image courtesy the artist.

7. Yoi Kawakubo

On the other side of the globe, an upcoming solo show entitled “To Tell a (hi)Story” at Husk Gallery in London organised by Art Action UK will feature the work of artist Yoi Kawakubo (b. 1979). Kawakubo combines photography with conceptual art: he buried photographic film under the ground in an area of the Fukushima exclusion zone such that the resulting images feature radiation exposure. Kawakubo’s works are said to

focus on the limits of photographic representation, particularly with reference to nuclear energy and the social impact of the tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

Collaboration between JR and Takao Sharaishi. Image from jr-art.net, courtesy the artists.

Collaboration between JR and Takao Sharaishi. Image courtesy the artists.

Installation/sculpture

8. Takao Shiraishi (collaboration with JR) 

Here’s photography with yet another twist: installed as an ephemeral, site-specific structure. When famous street artist JR visited the disaster area, he brought with him one of his Inside Out Photobooth trucks and let it to a group of Japanese artists. Takao Shiraishi was among their number, and he apparently made an impression on JR. The street artist sings Shiraishi’s praises in an interview with Cool Hunting:

I love Takao’s incredible energy. […] I have rarely met such a dedicated artist. His whole life is dedicated to the making of art.

After collaborating in various projects around the world, the pair reunited in Fukushima in 2015. For this collaboration, Shiraishi built temporary wooden structures near the sea close to Fukushima, and together they pasted enormous photographs of the eyes of twelve local people. JR tells Cool Hunting:

We have chosen the eyes from my imagery because we thought it would connect with Takao’s wood-wave architecture in the best way possible. But most importantly, it’s a symbolic representation of the hundreds of people who have given their life or their health to save others and limit the damage. […] This time we wanted to focus on the people who have worked inside the nuclear plant and tried to clean the mess that was left there by the company.

The powerful installation was ephemeral by nature, existing and disappearing in “a blink of the eyes”, and only stood for two days. 

Ken and Julia Yonetani, 'Radioactive', 2012, uranium glass tubing and UV light. Image courtesy the artists and RMIT Gallery.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, ‘Radioactive’, 2012, uranium glass tubing and UV light. Image courtesy the artists and RMIT Gallery.

9. Ken + Julia Yonetani 

In 2012, Australian and Japanese collaborative duo Ken and Julia Yonetani created 29 uranium chandeliers, each made up of hundreds of vintage uranium beads. Each chandelier represented a country that relied on nuclear power for energy, with their dimensions proportional to how much nuclear power the particular nation used. The work was exhibited at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney, whose Director Aaron Seeto said of the display

The particular focus on the exhibition is on shared cultural expressions on environmental anxieties within indigenous Australian and Japanese culture, and whether these function as either warnings or premonitions. Ken Yonetani is now based in Australia but was born in Tokyo and grew up there. However, both artists have spent considerable time in Japan so the issue holds particular emotional significance for them.

Other works by Ken and Julia Yonetani, also dealing with the Fukushima disaster, can now be seen at the RMIT Gallery’s “Japanese Art after Fukushima: Return of Godzilla”, which runs until 30 May 2015.

Film

10. Takashi Murakami

Last but not least, international superstar artist Takashi Murakami‘s feature film debut Jellyfish Eyes (2012) is “a sort of post-Fukushima fairy tale populated by adorable, if pugilistic, Pokemon-like creatures”, writes Artnet. According to another Artnet article, the artist

repackaged elements from Japanese and Western film traditions, drawing on everything from 1950s-era Japanese monster movies such as Godzilla to E.T. and Pokemon, to create his own unique hybrid.

Set after the Fukushima disaster, Jellyfish Eyes tells the story of Masahi, a young boy who moves to a small town with his mother after the tsunami, who befriends an adorable jellyfish-like creature. The film will headline Art Basel 2015 next month.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Japanese artists, activist art, performance art, conceptual art, interactive artphotography, installation, sculpture, video, film, art and the environment, lists, artist profiles

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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