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‘Japan Syndrome’: Fukushima and some thoughts on articulating a response

Tadasu Takamine, Japan Syndrome – Utrecht Version, 2013, installation, 3 videos displayed on flat screen monitors, timber frames, chairs. Installation view, Casco, Utrecht. Photograph: Niels Molenaar. Courtesy the artist
Nick Aikens reflects on the work of Tadasu Takamine, the Otolith Group and Koki Tanaka, asking how we might attempt to grasp the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster.
Tadasu Takamine, Japan Syndrome – Utrecht Version, 2013, installation, 3 videos displayed on flat screen monitors, timber frames, chairs. Installation view, Casco, Utrecht. Photograph: Niels Molenaar. Courtesy the artist


Earlier this year I visited ‘Japan Syndrome: Utrecht Version’, Tadasu Takamine’s exhibition at Casco in Utrecht.01This article is an attempt to articulate some thoughts related to the show and to explore the questions that subsequently arose – namely, how to respond to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster?

The central component of Takamine’s exhibition consisted of three videos, shown in large monitors that divided the installation into equal thirds, each presenting a series of re-enactments of encounters the artist secretly filmed in shops, restaurants and markets in different cities in Japan within varying proximity to Fukushima. In each re-enactment a protagonist subtly asks a shopkeeper or waiter probing questions regarding the origins of certain products: where fish were sourced, whether fruit has been tested and what is deemed safe to eat. The scenes take place in a black box theatre studio, the actors are dressed in matching T-shirts and trousers, and equipped with minimal props. The original location of the conversations enacted in the films shifts from Kansai to Yamaguchi and then Mito, gradually bringing the viewer closer to the source of the radiation, although Fukushima itself is not physically referenced in the space.

Tadasu Takamine, Japan Syndrome – Utrecht Version, 2013, installation, 3 videos displayed on flat screen monitors, timber frames, chairs. Installation view, Casco, Utrecht. Photograph: Niels Molenaar. Courtesy the artist

As a multiple-screen video work, Japan Syndrome is both repetitive and engrossing. During my visit to the Utrecht version of its installation, I felt compelled to wait for each short sequence to play out, to see how a different set of protagonists might tentatively approach or directly confront the question of food safety. As scene follows scene, the level of trust required between those vouching for certain foods and the consumer becomes amplified, as does the extraordinary politeness of those trying to ascertain whether certain foods might be contaminated by radiation. ‘I don’t mean to be rude but has this been tested?’ might be met with ‘I don’t know what kind of test we provide but I know it is safe’. The words ‘tested’ and ‘safe’ are loaded, their very utterance offering a guarantee. Are these traits, presented by Takamine as a national syndrome, symptomatic of new protocols developing in Japan? New etiquettes that reveal deep undercurrents of fear on the one hand and a misplaced loyalty or patriotism on the other, as people are encouraged to support the national economy at the risk of their health.

In some ways I feel equipped to analyse Takamine’s artistic approach – a former member of the performance group Dumb Type his use of re-enactments as a form of performative documentation is deft. His sartorial reduction of the people and locations to standardised outfits and modular sets (that get gradually more elaborate throughout the sequences: the empty studio in the first film gives way to simple wooden sets in the Yamaguchi sequence followed by the introduction of tables and chairs in Mito) is an effective aesthetic strategy. However, the consequences and repercussions of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, the devastating tsunami it triggered and the subsequent (and ongoing) release of radioactive material from the plant at Fukushima – for Japan and the world – are hard to grasp, let alone articulate or respond to. There are elements of the nuclear disaster as a phenomenon that demand examination and which a project such as Takamine’s prompts us to consider. But what becomes apparent when trying to understand Fukushima, its causes and wider political implications, is that it is clouded in deep uncertainty. Just as Takamine’s protagonists could not vouch for the blind assertions over the safety of food products, no-one can accurately foresee the effects on the 150,000 residents who were evacuated from the area. Facts – where they can be found and verified – are not much help and only go so far. So much about the disaster was not effectively monitored and cannot be tracked. Indeed, any consideration of Fukushima is defined by opacity – or, more precisely, invisibility. It is an invisibility that has its dark core in the radiation itself but that permeates and leaks into the whole discussion that pervades the disaster. It is an invisibility that is ungraspable, incomprehensible but impossible to ignore.

Tadasu Takamine, Japan Syndrome – Utrecht Version, 2013, installation, 3 videos displayed on flat screen monitors, timber frames, chairs. Installation view, Casco, Utrecht. Photograph: Niels Molenaar. Courtesy the artist

To expand this idea further, a strange parallel emerges between the ungraspability of Fukushima as a phenomenon and its blurriness as a historical subject – like an object that has been placed right in front of your eyes, so close that its form becomes fuzzy to the point of illegibility. What will the physical and mental toll of the Fukushima disaster be? Consider the millions of people affected, the billions of yen that will drain the country’s coffers, how the country’s politics might respond or how the world’s love affair with an energy form that can turn so deadly might shift. We can only speculate. The kernel of the Fukushima horror is the spectre of an uncertain future and the unquantifiable damage that has been caused.

In the process of coming to understand Fukushima as defined by both invisibility and unknown repercussions I have sought out other artworks that have attempted to articulate a response. Researched, shot and edited just months after the earthquake, The Radiant (2012), an hour-long film essay by the Otolith Group, attempts to piece together the different historical, political and aesthetic components of Fukushima, rather than the day-to-day reality that Takamine focuses on. The film includes what looks like promotional footage from the time of the plant’s construction, accompanied by a boisterous soundtrack and voiceover telling us of the different stages of the site’s development. Later we see more recent shots of protesters demanding that bureaucrats leave their offices to visit the site, as well as discussions on Japan’s place within what radical theorist Sabu Kohoso describes as the ‘global nuclear regime’.02

The Otolith Group, The Radiant, 2012, HD video, colour, sound, 64min 14sec, still. Copyright and courtesy the artists

The Radiant weaves together the complexities of the disaster, offering a mediation on the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake, rather than a clearly defined position – the Otolith’s characteristically assured but distanced editing acknowledging their position as outsiders within an unfolding and as yet incalculable catastrophe. The film’s combination of different source material: recent interviews, anecdotes, archival sequences and aesthetic strategies, from sweeping shots of Tōhuku by night to following a farmer through his fields with a handheld camera, provide a range of entry points into Fukushima. Its play with various documentary techniques and registers, asks us to consider not only the subject at hand, but the manner in which we receive and digest information. In one sequence, the film seems to directly address the notion of invisibility: an overhead shot shows a pair of hands dismantling a camera, taking apart the film’s different components and carefully lining them up on a white sheet of paper. This meticulous operation is followed by an interview with a Japanese photographer, who holds up an image of a landscape to the camera, describing how radiation has made what we see invisible. ‘It added another element’, he explains. Yet here the Otolith Group are addressing more than the latent effects of the Fukushima disaster. They are making a tacit recognition of film’s inability or unwillingness to try and capture the moment, suggesting we might do better to reflect on what we cannot see.

Koki Tanaka’s ‘Abstract Speaking: Sharing Uncertainty and Collective Acts’, an exhibition for the Japanese pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, responded more broadly to the Tōhoku earthquake and perhaps most explicitly revealed how an aesthetic, experiential and cultural response can create new layers of meaning. Tanaka is an artist who has not previously engaged directly with the events, politics or history of Japan. Based in Los Angeles, and having watched the earthquake and its effects unfold through social media, he told me that when he was invited to represent his country he felt compelled to respond to events in Japan – as if any other gesture would seem obsolete.03

His pavilion re-used elements from Japan’s exhibition for the architecture biennial a year previously. Titled ‘Architecture. Possible here? Home-for-all’ and curated by Toyo Ito, the architecture pavilion was conceived in the immediate aftermath of the March 2011 disaster and presented a series of documentations and speculations about whether it would be possible to build on the remnants of such devastation. In Tanaka’s pavilion, the idea of recycling the biennial from the previous year – with its components of wall divisions and structures for architectural models along with logs salt-damaged by the tsunami – most obviously pointed towards sustainability. Yet it also layered Ito’s exhibition with further meaning – allowing for an accumulation of responses to the earthquake within this very particular nation-framed context.

Koki Tanaka ‘Abstract Speaking: Sharing Uncertainty and Collective Acts’, 2013. Installation view, Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2013. Image shows pots made during A Pottery Produced by 5 Potters at Once (Silent Attempt), 2013, and video documentation of A Haircut by 9 Hairdressers at Once (Second Attempt), 2010. Photograph: Keizo Kioku. Courtesy the artist; Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou; Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo; and The Japan Foundation

Amongst the recycled structures, Tanaka presented a series of what he termed ‘collective acts’. These humble gestures – some of them made before March 2011, others set in Fukushima and other cities in Japan after the earthquake – included people coming together to experience moments, or actions, of collectivity. Viewing photographs of people sleeping in the same room in Sharing dreams with others, and then making a collective story (2013) and lines of people using the stairs on the outside of a building in Tokyo, as opposed to the energy-powered lift, in what Tanaka called A behavioral statement (or an unconscious protest) (2013) gave a human and physical face to the disaster. The photographs, videos and texts on the wall describing the collective acts, gave the sense of a reaction in process, a gathering of thoughts, actions and responses from both the artist himself and others. Tanaka’s position was open-ended, collaborative and empathetic.

When viewed in relation to one another these three responses to the Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima disaster give a rich and complex evocation. They reveal a commitment to articulating recent events, a history in formation, in myriad ways – to delve into the daily reality or collective experience of an event and its aftermath. Indeed, when approaching Fukushima, where the most elusive, invisible, extreme and deadly of phenomena pervades, the necessity of artistic and aesthetic devices, in all their variations, to grasp what we cannot yet understand, becomes ever more apparent.