Sharing a Disaster with Others: Contemporary Japanese Art and the Utopian Promise of Tohoku

In May 2011 the Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, held an exhibition titled  The Group 1965 – We are Boys!. The  contemporary Japanese artists included were born in the mid-1960s, making them a generation who had only known the peace and prosperity of postwar Japan. This, however, was ruptured by the Tohoku triple disaster of March 2011, which made seismic impact on Japanese society and culture. The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami of March 11th immediately killed and displaced nearly four hundred thousand people, and sparked a long-term, ongoing nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the ultimate consequences of which remain difficult to foresee. Coming so soon after the  earthquake of March, there was little opportunity for artists participating in this show to respond to recent dramatic events, despite the fact that they had already drastically reconfigured thinking about the role, function and contribution of art, and of the validity of the social, political and economic contexts in which that art was produced. Participant Tsuyoshi Ozawa (b1965), who had developed a reputation for using humour and absurdity to expose socio-political problems in post-war Japan, quickly drafted a story titled Happy Island ('happy island' being the literal translation of 'Fukushima') and read it aloud at the exhibition's opening. In Ozawa's story, an artist becomes aware of a poisonous fire that has broken out in a remote part of his country, due to the mismanagement of a volatile energy source. Initially, he watches the drama unfold on rolling news, experiencing feelings of helplessness. Helping and enlightening people is a key intention of his practice, but he becomes despondent about what positive change his art might achieve in the face of such a brutal and unprecedented disaster. Eventually he visits the Happy Island, making art work with children and local people that brings them some temporary relief. The fictional artist makes a work in which he and local participants illegally obtain irradiated vegetables, pose with weapons fashioned from these vegetables, and then prepare them as a stew; a participatory, event-based art work very similar to Ozawa's own Vegetable Weapons series:

the artist and his friends got together with some of the locals living rough, mostly young people. They bought some of the vegetables her shouldn't buy from the farmers. Some of the farmers were desperate: they were close to giving up because they had lost their livelihood. Some of the locals were angry: they didn't understand or appreciate what the artist was doing. Others were happy: it was an important event. The art was relational, and it was conflictual: an intervention of sorts.[1]

Ozawa Tsuyoshi, Vegetable Weapon Special: Oyster hot pot, Yudoufu (Tofu hot pot), Bisyo-nabe, (Sake hot pot) / Hiroshima 2005, 2005 Ozawa Tsuyoshi, Vegetable Weapon Special: Oyster hot pot, Yudoufu (Tofu hot pot), Bisyo-nabe, (Sake hot pot) / Hiroshima 2005, 2005. Collection of Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art

Ozawa's reworking of Prometheus for the nuclear age contains a latent critique of the endangerment of life and livelihood in the Fukushima region by the presence, mismanagement and ultimate failure of the plant. Authorities at Fukushima have been slow to solicit the international co-operation needed to address an environmental threat of this magnitude, a void which artists have assumed as a space for their practice. Art offers a space for unrestricted creative thought, largely uninhibited by political and economic norms, and is therefore a field in which radically new (albeit potentially fantastical) solutions to problems can be found. In raising awareness of issues which are excised from mainstream accounts of the disaster, these art works acquire an activist dimension: where official discourses fail to provide either solutions or reassurances, the value of critically-engaged visual and discursive cultural practices is sharply affirmed. Happy Island's protagonist explores the moral, spiritual and rehabilitative potential of art. Questioning the social contribution of art could seem curious in other contexts, or at other points in history. Japan's achievement of international economic ascendency during the 1970s was compounded by the rampant commercialism of the 1980s, generating an art form, Superflat, which privileged aesthetic experiment with the tropes of Japanese culture. Superflat, coined in relation to Takashi Murakami (b.1962) and articulated to its most extreme conclusion in his work, came to international prominence by means of its easy co-option by superbrands. This style reigned until very recently: art critic Adrian Favell directly attributes the 'end' of Superflat to the events of 2011 [2]. The kitschy motifs and explicitly anti-realistic handling of Superflat privilege form over content, forging a strong visual similarity to contemporary mass media expressions, and determining international perceptions of Japanese culture. That Ozawa's question over the social value of artistic experimentations can be posed  at all indicates that the late capitalist values espoused by Superflat are now redundant; in their place a relational, social and problem-orientated artistic practice is emerging.

Ecological crises, requiring as they do collaborative solutions – sometimes on a global scale - forge a communal spirit,  which can become the source of positive hopes for reconstruction and reformation. Rebecca Solnit, in her book Paradise Built in Hell, speaks of the euphoria described by disaster survivors, their joy in living with normal economic, social and legislative rules suspended, the 'utopia of disaster':

The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it's because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.[3]

The three artists I want to introduce this evening – the ChimPom collective (fnd 2005), Naoya Hatakeyama (b.1958), and Koki Tanaka (b.1975) –  allude to this concept of the disaster-utopia as a motivating idea, and take collaboration as the basis of their recent practice. They seem to eschew recent art historical precedent in favour of mining the emotive, humanistic and politicised response of the immediate postwar period, when Japan was processing the impact of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, offering contemporary artists models for how to respond to the current nuclear threat.

The postwar period, by which I mean both the US Occupation, lasting from 1945 to 1952, and the early 1960s, was a turbulent time of difficult-to-negotiate politics; consequently the artistic developments of these decades have proved challenging to reconstruct. The work of Daitetsuro  Suzuki, an internationally-influential Japanese theologian who popularised the study of Zen in the West, can help to explain how the environment, development and defeat came to be mutually-implicated in the postwar period:

Modern life seems to recede further and further away from nature, and closely connected with this fact we seem to be losing the feeling of reverence towards nature. It is probably inevitable when science and machinery, capitalism and materialism go hand in hand so far in a most remarkably successful manner. Mysticism, which is the life of religion in whatever sense we understand it, has come to be relegated altogether in the background.[4]

For Suzuki, the love of nature was a traditional virtue that distinguished the Japanese people from the rest of the world. However, he was concerned that this indigenous value was being eroded by the imposition of Western standards after World War Two and during the Allied Occupation. Japan's rapid economic development, fostered by US investment, ensured that its international prestige would now be found in industrial competition, rather than in the inherent spiritual superiority of the Japanese people that the subtle nationalism of Suzuki's love of nature had represented. Within just two decades of defeat Japan had become the most polluted country in the world. Japan’s repressive wartime government had been facilitated by the close relationship of parliament, civil services, and corporations, which permitted corruption and militarism, and stifled democracy. The recent repetition of charges of self-interest and inadequate regulation levelled at TEPCO (the Fukushima plant's management) and their dealings with media and government reveals that suspicion of these potentially incestuous relationships has continued unabated throughout the postwar period. With its dramatic and unprecedented history of pollution – including now four serious nuclear incidents – and in a social context where there is little scope for critique in the public sphere [5], Japanese artists hold a particular stake in questioning and raising awareness regarding environmental damage.

This is a role that artists have played since the use of nuclear weaponry in Japan at the end of WWII. Though primarily a military deployment, rather than an environmental disaster, the curious politics of postwar Japan led the ecological consequences of Hiroshima to be emphasised. In 1954, American military tests on the Bikini Atoll went awry, irradiating a Japanese fishing vessel, called the Lucky Dragon. While it may have been contentious for defeated Japan to question the morality of the use of nuclear weapons, attacking the incompetence of Bikini was much less fraught, allowing Japanese citizens to re-present their political reservations over Allied intervention as an environmental protest. While responsibility and culpability for the war can be difficult to attribute, the fishermen of the Lucky Dragon were legally pursuing their livelihoods when they became innocent victims of nuclear recklessness. This, then, is the origination of Japan’s identity as nuclear victim, and a subsequent emphasis of Japan as a non-nuclear pacifist state erodes memories of wartime aggression. Some of Japan’s foremost creative personalities produced powerful and evocative work on the theme of Bikini, including Okamoto Taro (1911-96), whose monumental painting the Myth of Tomorrow, which he began to work on the same year as Bikini, depicts the traumas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki alongside the Bikini incident itself.

Okamoto Taro, Asu no Shinwa (Myth of Tomorrow), 1968 (detail) Okamoto Taro, Asu no Shinwa (Myth of Tomorrow), 1968 (detail)

Myth of Tomorrow shows a human skeleton illuminated by the impact of an atomic bomb: the political contents are latent, and instead Okamoto focuses on a reduced human body, stripped of identity and distinguishing characteristics, in order to emphasise the human cost of nuclear misadventures. By this point the Cold War had made the encounter with atomic weaponry not a specifically Japanese experience, but a world-wide threat, and Okamoto's violently de-personalized protagonist evokes the universality of this threat. The imposing thirty-meter wide painting, situated in Tokyo's Shibuya station and passed by nearly half a million commuters a day, is a constant public reminder of the nuclear hazard, yet the public has become inured to its presence. Looking for a model of artistic response to the nuclear, in spring of 2011 the ChimPom collective updated Myth of Tomorrow to include Fukushima, bringing the painting to renewed prominence. The title of their addition, Level 7, refers to the highest categorisation of nuclear emergency: Fukushima had just been put into this category by the International Atomic Energy Agency, making it one of the most severe nuclear disasters in history. Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Bikini, Fukushima was caused by natural forces, not by a military deployment. However, in the days and weeks after the earthquake, that the reticence of the plant's management to deal with the risks effectively and transparently was inhibiting stabilisation efforts became very clear. Thus the leak at Fukushima is a man-made disaster, exposing the machinations of the political-industrial nexus. By linking the failure of a civilian nuclear power plant to the military incidents depicted by Okamoto, ChimPom reveal the double-think inherent in a nation constitutionally renouncing nuclear weapons because of their unpredictable long-term consequences, yet continuing to build nuclear plants along a tectonic shore line. ChimPom's critique is environmental, but it is also anti-capitalist. Their appropriation of Okamoto's status as the paramount articulator of a human-centered pacifist critique has helped their provocative art works to be received seriously, but has also purposefully highlighted the cyclical and, unfortunately, enduring nature of the nuclear problem. Their intervention proved controversial, partly over charges that they had somehow vandalised Okamoto's painting, but mostly out of fear: fear that the nuclear meltdown ChimPom predicted might actually occur.

ChimPom, Making the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!”, 2008. Photography by Cacus Nakao. Courtesy ChimPom and Mujin-to Productions ChimPom, Making the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!”, 2008. Photography by Cacus Nakao. Courtesy ChimPom and Mujin-to Productions

Their interest in exploring nuclear issues predated the  Fukushima disaster. In 2008, in connection to a planned survey exhibition at the Hiroshima City Museum of Art, they wrote the onamatopeia 'Pika!', meaning 'boom', in the sky above the dome of Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Hall. Their intervention transforms the atomic bomb dome, a resilient and uncompromisingly sombre monument, into a page of manga, a project which has continuities with the postmodern provocation of Superflat. It was of course controversial, and the emotive local debate on the propriety of their gesture led to the cancellation of their exhibition. However, this controversy has ensured that what might have been an ephemeral intervention has became a long-lasting trope: it forced amongst ChimPom's members a reconsideration of the depth of their engagement with nuclear issues, culminating in a publication that solicited dialogue with their local critics [6]. In December 2013 ChimPom returned to the city to hold an exhibition in the Hiroshima branch of the Bank of Japan – the only building to survive the atomic bombing intact – to great acclaim.

ChimPom, One Thousand Cranes, installation view at “Hiroshima!!!”, Bank of Japan, Hiroshima, 2013. Reproduced courtesy ChimPom and Mujin-to Productions ChimPom, One Thousand Cranes, installation view at “Hiroshima!!!”, Bank of Japan, Hiroshima, 2013. Reproduced courtesy ChimPom and Mujin-to Productions

This show included works based on the Tohoku disaster: as a Tokyo-based group, ChimPom were safe from the immediate consequences of the disaster, and instead attuned to the long-term, political and national repercussions.

ChimPom, KI-AI 100, 2011 (still). Reproduced courtesy ChimPom and Mujin-to Productions ChimPom, KI-AI 100, 2011 (still). Reproduced courtesy ChimPom and Mujin-to Productions

Prior to the Level 7 controversy, ChimPom had broken into the stricken plant to take some provocative photos. The stakes of their visit were high: they ran an impressive legal and personal risk in infiltrating the restricted area. Member Ryuta Ushirō feels a moral obligation to execute these works, as he believes artists will be judged by history on their response to Fukushima. During their visit to the area they made a collaborative film with survivors, linking arms with locals and giving one hundred unscripted cheers (KI-AI 100, 2011). Participants mostly expressed their fears over contamination, but as the cheers progressed their scope widened, with participants expressing their love for their grandfathers or their desire to find a girlfriend. The final cheer is “Let's go with the clean up!” Here, ChimPom are transformatively engaged with the spirit of disaster-utopia, resulting in an explicitly rehabilitative, relational work, which sees participants progress from feelings of helplessness to a resolve to take action, reflective of a psychological shift that is in progress as temporal distance from the disaster increases.

ChimPom's engagement with Fukushima and intervention with Okamoto's Myth of Tomorrow later led to their staging an  exhibition at his former home, now his memorial museum, in Tokyo. This opened in 2013, an edition in their Pavilion series of site-specific installations. ChimPom filled one room with landfill, a comment on development and pollution, and a theme they have explored often before, as their interest in the environment originated with the problem of urban waste. This installation included film of landfill sites in Fukushima, the problem of waste exacerbated by the problem of radiation. By contrast, the other room they requisitioned, Okamoto's former bedroom, was purposefully minimal, containing only a small fragment of the older artist's bone. Hirano Akiome, director of the museum, issued the invitation to ChimPom in the belief their response was similar to what Okamoto himself would  have been doing in the wake of the disaster were he still alive today: responding in an accessible manner that stressed the long-term human costs. He also described the landfill film as a cenotaph to the deceased of Tohoku “whose lives had been consigned to oblivion”, who have left no physical remains except the detritus of their ruined houses.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Blast #08316, 1999. Lambda print ©Naoya Hatakeyama. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery Naoya Hatakeyama, Blast #08316, 1999. Lambda print ©Naoya Hatakeyama. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery

My next case study is also the artist most deeply personally affected by the disaster. Naoya Hatakeyama, a native of Rikuzentakata in Tohoku, lost his mother when his hometown was completely destroyed by the tsunami. Hatakeyama had been taking photographs of man-made detonations in the natural landscape since 1995, a series that does not make explicit reference to natural disaster or to bombings, but which inescapably invites comparison to them.

The works evoke the sublime: Hatakeyama has spoken of his feelings of alientation in the face of large scale and perilous natural objects. It would be a mistake, however, to read these photographs as exercises in aesthetics: they have a documentary potential, exposing through the photographic medium moments and events otherwise invisible to the eye. Each work in the series depicts a transient moment, and acquires a critical dimension when it documents the exploitation of nature in mining and quarrying (the example here shows limestone blasting). Hatakeyama was therefore well placed to become the artist of record for Great Eastern Earthquake. He ceased work on this detonation series, BLAST, in 2011, retrospectively ascribing to it an eulogistic meaning. From then on he has concentrated on recording Rikuzentakata.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Rikuzentakata / Kesen-cho, 2011.4.4, 2011. C-print ©Naoya Hatakeyama. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery Naoya Hatakeyama, Rikuzentakata / Kesen-cho, 2011.4.4, 2011. C-print ©Naoya Hatakeyama. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery

His 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. Tomatsu produced his series of photographs in 1960 at the behest of the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, later publishing them alongside Domon Ken's (1909-90) photographs of Hiroshima in a double volume titled Document Hirohsima-Nagasaki (1961). As this volume specifically, and Tomatsu's work in general, was so widely influential, certainly Hatakeyama has these works as a precedent (in fact, Document even includes a section entitled 'BLAST'). Hatakeyama's before and after photographs documenting the obliteration of his hometown captured the imagination of his friend and long-time collaborator, the Pritzker-prize winning architect Toyo Ito (b.1941), who selected Rikuzentakata as the site for the first realisation of his Home-for-All project.

Toyo Ito Associates, Architecture: Possible Here? Home-for-All. Japan Pavilion, 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2012 (installation view). Photograph by Naoya Hatakeyama Toyo Ito Associates, Architecture: Possible Here? Home-for-All. Japan Pavilion, 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2012 (installation view). Photograph by Naoya Hatakeyama

Hatakeyama's Rikuzentakata photos were an integral component of Toyo Ito Associates' winning Home-for-All Venice Architectural Biennale presentation of 2012. Following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Ito became aware of a disconnect between modern architecture and the environment. Soon after he designed the Sendai mediatheque, a public library, the realisation of which Hatakeyama's documented in the photobook Under Construction. Sendai, the largest urban area in the Tohoku region, was particularly affected by the earthquake and tsunami, but Ito's design, built to new specifications post-Kobe, withstood the impact intact, proving the effectiveness of his earthquake-sensitive approach. Ito sought opportunity to forge a communal housing that drew on Japanese precedent and was executed with respect for the landscape, opportunity which he found in the adversity of 2011. His and Hatakeyama's collaboration reveals the reality of surviving a natural disaster, of overcoming trauma and displacement, and how to turn crisis to advantage by rebuilding on better terms. Together they examined what artistic production could do to improve the material circumstances of displaced communities. The work has justifiably received international acclaim, and given that we all face increasingly urgent ecological threats, it is valuable to examine what this contribution indicates for the future of Japan, the region, and beyond.

Ito has explained that:

When I first launched the "Home-for-All" project, there were three objectives. One, it needs to provide people living in temporary housing a place to eat together and chat with one another. Two, it needs to be made by everyone--residents, architects, volunteers--all together. And three, it needs to serve as a base for local residents to discuss about community regeneration.[7]

His three conditions state the temporary structures should include communal space; be made collaboratively, and serve as a base for planning permanent rebuilding.  As there is no stylistic prescription, these buildings can be responsive to place and circumstance. Hatakeyama joined Ito's team on a visit to Rikuzenkata to select a site for the house, as Ito describes:

The site was symbolic--a vast plain at the foot of the mountain where the tsunami had washed away everything, an empty flatland that commanded a clear view all the way to the ocean. After the finding of this symbolic site, the project made remarkable progress. The team members gradually developed common goals. For one [...] we wanted the building to resemble a grove, making use of Japanese cedar salt-damaged by the tsunami.  […] This idea was in part inspired by a remark from Mr. Hatakeyama […].[8]

It is not difficult to see how the strong verticals of the exposed cedars in the pavilion and in the realised Home-for-All suggested themselves through Hatakeyama's photographs and local knowledge. This is an important example of artists working in cohort with specialists in other fields to address real, existential problems. Though architecture is more obviously utilitarian than art, there remained uncertainty over the potential contribution; Ito's collaborator Sou Fujimoto recalled “I wasn't sure I was prepared to think about architecture after the Great East Japan Earthquake. [...] I will never forget that moment when the fog in my mind cleared and I caught a glimpse of the true nature of architecture.” [9] Ito’s architects thus found their social purpose through disaster; for example, collaborator Kumiko Inui mentions disaster-utopia as motivating her understanding of collective action, and their communally-centred architecture was intended to sustain a community forged by adversity, a new local community made up of displaced survivors. Ito noted that the greatest challenge of the project lay in working with others, trying to assimilate the ideas of various artists and architects to those of this fledgling local community. Similarly, Koki Tanaka explores the challenges of collaboration through relational video works, exposing the dependence of reconstruction efforts on a shared sense of communal purpose. Some of these recent works, including those from the Precarious Task series as shown at the 2013 Venice Biennale, are continued and reconstructed  through his participation in the group show “Journal” at the ICA.

Koki Tanaka, abstract speaking – sharing uncertainty and collective arts. Japan Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, 2013 (installation view). Photographed by Keizo Kioku Koki Tanaka, abstract speaking – sharing uncertainty and collective arts. Japan Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, 2013 (installation view). Photographed by Keizo Kioku

So close were Tanaka and Ito's biennale themes that Tanaka sought and obtained from Ito permission to reuse parts of his pavilion, in order to indicate that rebuilding is a collective project; that it is ongoing and requires collaboration; and that it is ill suited to territoriality and authorship. For Tanaka, Japanese art practice is motivated by questioning what Japanese artists can contribute to art history, revealing consciousness of their own exclusion from the Euro-centric canon; like Ryuta of ChimPom, he is sensitive to how his actions will be judged by posterity, a seeming pre-condition of environmental concern:

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. I think it's partly related to the fact that 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.[10]

Prior to 2011, Tanaka had been making works in which a group of skilled professionals, all strangers to each other, were set a creative task that investigates the nature of co-operation and the limits of subjectivity. As with ChimPom and Hatakeyama's post-Tohoku works, Tanaka deployed a pre-existing form that was suited to these new socio-political concerns. As he has no strong personal connection to Tohoku – in fact Tanaka currently lives in Los Angeles – his focus was on the impact on Tokyo, which also experienced significant disruptions, and where there were manifold expressions of kindness and helpfulness. The beauty of strangers helping each other, especially in a cultural context in which social isolation was becoming more the norm, is reconstructed by the works shown at Venice under the title “Abstract Speaking – Sharing Uncertainty and Collective Acts”. Documents and videos of the performances were uploaded by Tanaka so they could be experienced asynchronously and by viewers outside Venice – especially by viewers in Japan.[11] Tanaka has explained that because he lives in LA, and did not have a direct experience of the disaster, it was necessary to establish a sense of distance in the project. Thus, as with Ito’s Home-for-All project, the pavilion is not the centre of the work.

Koki Tanaka, a poem written by 5 poets at once (first attempt), 2012. Still photography by Takashi Fujikawa Koki Tanaka, a poem written by 5 poets at once (first attempt), 2012. Still photography by Takashi Fujikawa

The centerpiece of Tanaka's pavilion is the film A Poem Written by Five Poets at Once, which sees five writers struggle to reach a consensus on what form a collective creative process might take: some want to hear and consider individual ideas, others are impatient to write. The theme they work to, “sharing an event with others”, is determined by Tanaka, though this is the limit of his direction, and the participants have to navigate their own way through the difficult task: “He wants us mortals to decide for ourselves.” At one point a participant states that “as poets, it is natural for us to share with words”, seeming to indicate the special potential of creative activity to facilitate collective action (which is also the reason why Tanaka always selects a constructive, not destructive act as the basis of the tasks). Commencing by analysing the terms of the economic instruction, after a period of individual writing they reach a shared definition of 'event' – it is something that happens, not something you do. This passivity reflects a post-disaster context. The group reached a consensus that seemingly accorded with Tanaka's intention without his explicit direction. Partly, this is because the themes he chooses are meta-themes: in the process of considering the theme “sharing an event with others”, the poets were sharing an event with others. A similar manipulation occurs in the Precarious Tasks series documented at the pavilion: for instance, Tanaka staged a walk through Yokohama, which reminded participants of their walks home immediately after the earthquake, when transport services were suspended, and sparked emotive conversations between the strangers involved.

Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks #1 swinging a flashlight while we walk at night, 2012. Created with blanClass, Yokohama Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks #1 swinging a flashlight while we walk at night, 2012. Created with blanClass, Yokohama

These processes reveal Tanaka's connection to both recent and historical Japanese cultural practices. The act of walking was like an active meditation, as advocated by Zen Buddhist practice, and certainly had reflective and therapeutic benefits for the participants, who were able to articulate and share their recollections of the earthquake following the walk. Collective poetry writing is a well-established practice in Japanese literature. Though I am hesitant to designate work by an international contemporary artist as specifically Japanese, a description which Tanaka himself would resist, Japanese patrimony nonetheless remains a source of reference. In fact, his next task after the walk was loosely based on the tea ceremony, and saw participants each bring a tea bag to be brewed in a communal pot, a task recreated within “Journal”.

Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks #9, 24 hrs Gathering Activity 3: re-staging Precarious Tasks #0: Communal Tea Drinking, 2014 Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks #9, 24 hrs Gathering Activity 3: re-staging Precarious Tasks #0: Communal Tea Drinking, 2014

Tanaka describes tea as a firmly transnational product, yet it also has a specific connection to recent events in Japan: Tanaka noticed fluctuations in the price of tea depending on the proximity of the source to Fukushima. This international dish, served in a Japanese manner, and with mindfulness of current issues, is a metaphor for his transnational position and response to the disaster. Meanwhile, his use of public participation, collaboration, and event-performances is determined by more recent exempla from Japanese art history. Tanaka admires the work of experimental collective Hi Red Centre, whose happenings, often based in the street or held in other public spaces, melded protest and performance within a critique of Japan’s self-conscious and potentially dangerous pursuit of international standing in solely economic terms. In 1964 they staged Shelter Plan, in which members of the public and invited guests were subjected to arbitrary measurement: for example, the capacity of their mouths, or how much water they displaced in the bath were recorded, in order to provide them with a custom-built (but presumably entirely ineffective) individual nuclear shelter, parodying the futility of national preparedness initiatives after the advent of the hydrogen bomb.

Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks 7 (2013) including Jiro Takamatsu Remark 5 (1974) Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks 7 (2013) including Jiro Takamatsu Remark 5 (1974)

Tanaka has continued his precarious tasks since Venice, showing at last year's Frieze a remaking of one of Hi Red Centre member Jiro Takamatsu's (1936-98) instruction pieces, his Remarks of 1974, in order to “update and connect the political moment of Japan in 1960s and '70s to the current political awareness in Japan.” Takamatsu asks participants to “Try to repeat the content of a specific consciousness as many times as possible,” which Tanaka rewords as: “Try to keep conscious about a specific social issue, in this case 'anti-nuke', as long as possible while you are wearing yellow colour.”

Of the three case studies examined here, Tanaka's oeuvre most explicitly applies the political critique of the postwar avant-garde to contemporary environmental and social issues, and demonstrates that the disaster has not only local and national but also international ramifications. It is important to focus international scrutiny on the process of stabilising Fukushima if it is to proceed without further incident, and against the failure of domestic media and governors to properly solicit international assistance, Japanese artists are cultivating this attention exceedingly well. For instance, Koki printed the number 9478.57 on the exterior of his Venice pavilion,

Koki Tanaka, imaginary distance (or the distance from FUKUSHIMA). Japan Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, 2013 (installation view). Photographed by Keizo Kioku Koki Tanaka, imaginary distance (or the distance from FUKUSHIMA). Japan Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, 2013 (installation view). Photographed by Keizo Kioku

to signify the distance between Fukushima and Venice. It may sound far, but off the west coast of the USA, approximately 9000 kilometers from Fukushima, increased levels of radioactive caesium from the plant have been detected. Tohoku, then, has widespread and international consequences, yet it can be difficult for audiences in the rest of the world, especially in Europe, to imagine the disaster and the circumstances of an earthquake:  that the ground beneath our feet is solid and immutable is absolutely taken for granted. In “Journal” Tanaka links Tohoku to the UK's own disaster of 2011, the London Riots, to help bridge this imaginative chasm. The language used by participants in the new five channel video work, Going Home Could Not be Everyday Routine, echoes that of participants in Koki's Tohoku-related works made in Japan and the testimony of survivors in Solnit's Paradise Built in Hell. This shows five Londoners stranded by the riots recreate their walks home. On the way participants describe the riots and the suspension of normality: they recall that no one knew how the situation was unfolding; that the usual technological and infrastructural props of their everyday lives were unavailable; and that there were significant human costs. This absence of modern convenience is emphasised by the current installation, which presents video screens on shelving which purposefully recalls the shelves of a supermarket, in this case a post-disaster supermarket in which there is nothing to eat. But what also comes across in their video testimony is a celebration of a strong sense of community, and a recognition of the value of having had an extraordinary experience and survived. One participant, Mala Naiker, even calls the riots a tsunami of anger, a pertinent metaphor that shows that in the riots, too, political concerns and natural forces – in this case the unpredictable actions of individuals - cannot be disenfranchised. The retrospective first-person accounts also expose the distance between experience and retelling, which becomes the subject of the works. The positioning of the camera reinforces this. It could have been placed in front of the walkers, showing us directly what they saw, allowing us to trace the walk from their point of view. But instead we are behind them, watching them: we are offered a human subject to emphasise with, but we do not have our own experience; instead we must imagine what they see and feel. The mental effort that we make in empathising with another's suffering, or respecting someone else's individual subjectivity, is the core concern that each of Tanaka's Collective Acts and Precarious Tasks explores, uniting them into a consistent series, despite the divergent circumstances of their realisation.

Tohoku has undeniably changed the context for the making and viewing of contemporary art. While each of the artists I have discussed had developed these particular ways of working before the disaster, it is the reconfiguration of our values and concerns in its wake that has led them to greater domestic and international prominence. This new focus on documentary,  relational, and socially-orientated works is much closer to the politically-engaged interventions of postwar artists than to the self-referential and self-aggrandising works of the 1980s and 90s. The engagement of contemporary artists with postwar exempla reveals the nuclear problem to be enduring and cyclical in nature. Yet rather than acquiesce to a seemingly inescapable threat, or direct their efforts to protest and conflict, these artists explore collaboration and collective action as a means of rebuilding society, of finding ways in which individuals can come together to address large-scale and universal problems. They are ably focusing an international audience on an ongoing nuclear disaster which, if it reaches its most catastrophic potential, will represent a world-wide existential threat.■

Dr Majella Munro
Researcher, Tate Research Centre: Asia-Pacific, London.
Visiting Research Fellow, International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, Kyoto

[1] A text of this version of Happy Island is given in Adrian Favell, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011, Blue Kingfisher, 2012, pp221-30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Viking, 2009, p7.

[4] Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk, 1934, p55.

[5] Indeed, current discussion over the forthcoming implementation of what has been termed the 'Special Secrecy Law' reveals widespread anxiety concerning a perceived lack of press freedom in Japan.

[6] See ChimPom, Naze Hiroshima No Sora Wo 'PIKA!' (Why Can't We Make the Sky of Hiroshima 'PIKA!'?), PARCO, 2012.

[7] Toyo Ito quoted in “''Home-for-All' in Rikuzentakata, and the Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition”, Wochi Kochi, available at, accessed June 1st 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sou Fujimoto quoted in ibid.

[10] Koki Tanaka quoted in Andrew Maerkle and Akira Rachi  “Koki Tanaka: The Center Cannot Hold”, ART-iT,  available at, posted 24th October 2012, accessed June 1st 2014.

[11] See