Featured in
Issue 166

After Images

How artists and photographers in Japan have responded to the disasters of 3 March 2011

BY Christy Lange in Critic's Guides | 22 SEP 14

Anonymous image from the ‘Lost & Found Project’, founded by Munemasa Takahashi, 2011–ongoing. Courtesy the artist

In the late 1970s, after a prolonged fight with the authorities, it was decided that the Japanese village of Tokuyama would be flooded to make way for a massive hydroelectric dam, and all of its residents would be relocated. Upon learning of the plan, a 60-year-old widow named Tazuko Masuyama began making audiotapes to preserve local birdsong. Then, Masuyama, who had never previously picked up a camera, decided to use a small Pikkari Konica to document the town’s flora and fauna, its residents and rituals. She became known as Camera Grandma, snapping thousands of photographs of everyday life in Tokuyama from season to season, while debates over the dam dragged on. An intimate exhibition of her work at the Izu Photo Museum this summer, entitled ‘Until Everything Becomes a Photograph’, showed only a focused collection of her work, but the extent of her project was revealed in the shelves filled with hundreds of her careworn albums, overflowing with images of a village that no longer exists.

If the museum’s display of Camera Grandma’s archive was an oblique reference to photographers’ and artists’ efforts to record a fragile landscape on a wider scale – the vast regions affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of 3/11 – over the course of my stay in Japan this summer, I discovered many more overt ones. Norihito Ogata’s ‘On the Shoreline’ (2011), for example, is a series of black and white digital images documenting the stricken edifices from the Great East Japan Earthquake in a style reminiscent of Bernd and Hilla Becher, displayed in grids covering the walls. Near to what had been the epicentre of the earthquake, I visited the Sendai Mediatheque, which opened the Center for Remembering 3/11 in May of that year, providing resources for local residents to create their own documentation. The seventh floor of the Mediatheque houses the Center’s bustling office, where several monitors display videos it helped citizens produce after the earthquake. The recordings have a straightforward, almost forensic approach, tracking the progress of sandbagging efforts or the construction of new utility poles. I watched one that was simply someone filming out of the window of their car as they drove past the wreckage.

These were just the first of many works I encountered about the disaster that existed somehow beyond artistic identities or ambitions. There seemed to be no apparent sense in Japan – in contrast to what I remember about the months and years following 9/11 in the US – that this is a subject artists ‘can’t touch’. Curators were also remarkably quick to tackle it. One of the first comprehensive exhibitions was launched only 18 months after the disaster: ‘Artists and the Disaster – Documentation in Progress’ at the Art Tower Mito in 2012. In that show’s press release, curator Yuu Takehisa observed that artists might have been able to produce works following 3/11 ‘by temporarily shelving one’s identity as “artist”’.

Some artists did, in fact, seem to reorient their artistic roles toward more community-based projects. Photographer Munemasa Takahashi, who founded the Salvage Memory Project, began cataloguing the nearly 750,000 family photos that had been salvaged from destroyed homes, organizing and digitizing them, and creating a touring exhibition. The ‘Lost & Found Project’ displayed thousands of these ghostly, decomposing images of family portraits and candid snapshots, with faces all but obscured by water damage. With the help of the exhibition and the database he created, Takahashi returned nearly 20,000 photos to their owners. In the years prior to 3/11, artist Lieko Shiga had maintained parallel practices as a renowned contemporary artist and the ‘community photographer’ in the small coastal town of Kitakama. After her own home, computer and hard drive of images were destroyed in the tsunami, she decided to collect, clean, salvage and archive over 30,000 photographs she found in the wreckage. The events inevitably changed the way she regarded the photographic series she’d begun in Kitakama and Shiga admits to struggling with characterizing these photographs as ‘art’. The images in her series ‘Rasen Kaigan’ (Spiral Coast, 2009–13) span the period both before and after the tsunami, but it’s hard not to see the shadows of those events in all of the photos – many of them nocturnal and spectral.

There was no shortage of images recording or memorializing the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, but there were fewer obvious artistic responses to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster – attempts to come to grips with who’s to blame or what political action should be taken. I saw far fewer examples of interrogations of TEPCO or of the government’s actions, and almost no anti-nuclear demonstrations. The events of 3/11 are still largely viewed as a natural disaster, and when I asked why there weren’t more political responses, a curator explained that one obstacle to these discussions is that it’s often considered crass to talk about politics in social situations. My questions about the political implications of photographing in Fukushima left one photographer totally mute, standing there in awkward silence while I fumbled to change the subject. If artists have chosen to temporarily ‘shelve’ their identities in order to address the topic, has this resulted in a lack of responses about the political causes and effects of the nuclear disaster? 

Keiko Sasaoka, Remembrance 20, published 30 June 2013. Courtesy the artist and photographers’ gallery, Tokyo

The six-member artists’ collective Chim↑Pom has been the most visible exception. The group’s leader, Ryuta Ushiro, admitted that, in the days immediately following 3/11, the things they thought about doing were volunteering and delivering emergency supplies. But, soon, that didn’t feel like enough. ‘I felt that artists of the future will question what artists in Japan produced in the post-3/11 world,’ Ushiro said in an interview with Frontline. ‘Of course the reality was overwhelming, but I couldn’t accept that art was powerless.’ This attitude resulted in a series of works Chim↑Pom made in and around the exclusion zone. Less than a month after the reactor exploded, the members filmed themselves wearing hazmat suits as they breached the barricades and hiked up to a precipice overlooking the destroyed nuclear reactor. There, they unfurled a white flag, laid it on the ground and spray-painted a large red dot in the centre, forming the Japanese flag, then three more shapes to transform it into the symbol for radioactivity. The thousands of people who came to see the video of their performance (Real Times, 2011) at MUJIN-TO Production gallery in Tokyo, were a testament to the public’s thirst for images that the media and the government had failed to show. This was the most iconic in Chim↑Pom’s series of often confrontational, even satirical works addressing the disaster. Japanese Dog (2011) borrowed the aesthetics of the ‘Lost & Found Project’ – using old family frames found in the wreckage and placing photographs they took of stray dogs in the evacuated zones.

The stray dogs were a reminder of the ghostly abandonment and lack of visibility of the exclusion zone, where, for months, the only people who had access to it were the clean-up workers. At that time, performance artist Kota Takeuchi got a job at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and kept a blog about the labour conditions of clean-up workers. In 2012, he exhibited an ‘anonymous’ video taken from the 24-hour live feed on TEPCO’s website that monitored the clean-up activities. The video, which later went viral in Japan and became known as ‘Finger Pointing Worker’, captured someone in a protective suit and ventilator, entering the frame and then pointing his finger at the lens. He remained there for nearly 20 minutes, in a public act of defiance and accusation.

What Japanese artists have to represent in the wake of 3/11 is something inherently silent and invisible on the one hand, and an event that has caused inconceivable suffering and damage on the other. Three years on, I was surprised and heartened to see such a sustained representation and engagement with the subject. Silent images like ‘Finger Pointing Worker’ attempt to indicate something ineffable. Like Keiko Sasaoka’s ‘Remembrance’ (2012–ongoing), a monthly ’zine in the form of a poster, which documents a different part of the affected landscape in its current state, allowing us to trace the progression from total devastation to rebuilding. Works like these ensure there will be enduring images that fix memories, mark time, plant a flag or point a finger.

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.