Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.
Don't Follow the Wind: Nuclear Non-Visitor Center for a Post-Fukushima World Alan Gleason
Measuring the surface radiation on a pump house in the Fukushima exclusion zone. From Nikolaus Hirsch and Jorge Otero-Pailos, Becoming Monument (2015-).
The exhibition's website is a blank white screen with only an audio track. The artists' works are represented by samples, models, and videos viewable only through a window from a catwalk atop a narrow staircase. And the actual installations will not be open to the public for years -- possibly decades. What mandates such inaccessibility, and determines its duration? In a word: cesium.
Don't Follow the Wind is the latest foray by Chim Pom, the Tokyo-based art collective, into nuclear politics and the Fukushima no-go zone itself. When Here and There last checked in with them, in August 2011, the group was showing footage of the still-steaming Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant No. 1, shot on the sly mere days after the meltdown from an abandoned overlook just a stone's throw away. Dressed in hazmat suits, the artists raised a flag bearing the radiation symbol in lieu of the rising sun, made scarecrows of their suits, and snuck back out of the zone. A few days later Chim Pom made the news with its guerrilla "addition" to Myth of Tomorrow, Taro Okamoto's atomic-holocaust mural in Shibuya Station. The added panel depicted the smoking remains of the Fukushima nukes in a style that fit seamlessly with Okamoto's work.
Radiation level at a site visited by the Don't Follow the Wind team, Fukushima exclusion zone.
That was only four years ago, but since then time's passage, the media's limited attention span, and a change of administrations have conspired to take Fukushima off the front pages and out of the minds of most people not directly affected by the disaster. Japan's long-dormant nuclear plants are being revved up again, one by one, while the press sporadically reports on TEPCO's latest efforts to stem the relentless leakage of radionuclides into the environment. It sometimes feels as if the entire nation has been told to shut up about Fukushima. But, as it turns out, Chim Pom didn't get the memo. Since 2012 it has been spearheading an international project with like-minded artists in a new stealth endeavor: the creation, at risk to their own health, of site installations in abandoned towns like Futaba and Namie, hard by Fukushima No. 1. Initiated by Chim Pom, Don't Follow the Wind was developed with the curatorial team of Kenji Kubota, Eva and Franco Mattes, and Jason Waite. Nominally "opened" on March 11 this year, the fourth anniversary of the disaster, this "exhibition" can only be viewed indirectly for the time being, through a proxy show at Tokyo's Watari Museum of Art (Watari-um).
A resident's permit provided to the Don't Follow the Wind team to enter the town of Futaba in the "difficult-to-return zone" on September 12 this year. Photo by Alan Gleason
The installations lie inside the euphemistically named "difficult-to-return zone," from which all residents were evacuated shortly after the meltdowns and where radiation levels remain too high for human habitation. However, residents with permits are allowed to visit up to 15 times a year, for no more than four hours at a time. Through the good offices of a few permit holders, the artists were able to visit the zone several times over the past couple of years and obtained permission to install their works at four sites: a home, a warehouse, a farm, and a recreation center. The locations remain confidential, and as a project brochure puts it, "there is no clear timeline for public access to the sites, perhaps 3 years, 10 years, or decades." Realistically, visitors will probably have to wait out the 30-year half-life of cesium-137, the radioisotope that is the primary contaminant in Fukushima.
Installation view of the Non-Visitor Center. In the foreground is a dais with a key to the exhibits; to the right, through the glass, is a model of a house in the exclusion zone showing gradations in its surface radiation as measured by Nikolaus Hirsch and Jorge Otero-Pallos.
Fortunately for those of us who don't wish to wait that long, Watari-um has given Don't Follow the Wind a temporary footprint in Tokyo. The show's subtitle, "Non-Visitor Center," both highlights the inaccessibility of the works and lampoons the lavish PR facilities, now closed, that Japan's power utilities built next to every nuclear plant in the country. As for the main title, it refers to the true story of a Fukushima resident (one of the project's collaborators) who ignored the instructions issued by the authorities and safely evacuated his family by checking the actual wind direction and driving the other way. There is, of course, a political and artistic admonition intended as well.
In lieu of the real installations, the Tokyo venue offers a digest of sorts. Climbing up a precarious ladder-like stairway to a catwalk under Watari-um's high second-floor atrium, one reaches a wall-sized picture window through which one can see, but not enter, a room full of video screens, articles of clothing, and various other objects. These are samples of the works installed in Fukushima by the 12 participating artists or art units. Though diverse, certain themes prevail -- notably the loss of home and the danger of radiation.
From Ai Weiwei, Family Album (2015), 22 framed photos placed in houses in the Fukushima exclusion zone.
China's Ai Weiwei has placed photos of his own family and events from his life in two abandoned homes, and installed a solar panel on another that illuminates it for five hours each day -- the only house currently with lighting in the entire zone. Ahmet Ogut of Turkey, on the other hand, finds mordant humor in the situation, dressing up in an allegedly radiation-proof suit of samurai-style armor and filming himself bicycling around the neighborhood -- and even going for a swim in a pond. One of the few concrete objects crafted for placement in the zone is a translucent cube made by the American artist Trevor Paglen from a combination of Trinitite, a glassy mineral formed by the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico in 1945, and glass melted from broken windows in the zone. The work resonates with another glass sculpture, Aiko Miyanaga's transparent, rope-bound Tome-ishi Boundary. A tome-ishi is a stone that marks a border; this one, Miyanaga explains, was inspired by her questions about the meaning of the boundary separating the exclusion zone from the outside world. She has placed one such work on a pedestal in a house in the zone, and another in the Watari-um exhibit.
Trevor Paglen, Trinity Cube (2015-), irradiated glass from the Fukushima exclusion zone and Trinitite, 20 x 20 x 20 cm; installation in the zone.
Aiko Miyanaga, Tome-ishi Boundary (2015), glass, rope, exhalation; installed in the exclusion zone.
Pivotal to the Tokyo show's impact are various monitors scattered around the gallery that show live footage from cameras set up at random spots throughout the zone. For the most part, there is nothing going on -- no human presence except for the occasional car rushing by, and no other movement besides the wind rustling through the trees and overgrown fields.
Unfortunately, the Watari-um exhibition ends on November 3, and Here and There regrets that this article is appearing too late to afford most readers a chance to see it (though if you can, do!). However, the curators describe the Non-Visitor Center edition of Don't Follow the Wind as a "traveling exhibition," and say that there are indeed plans to take it on the road. In the meantime, an excellent introduction to the show, and to conditions today in the no-go zone, is provided by this 22-minute video:
The Creators Project, Don't Follow the Wind: An Art Exhibition in the Radioactive Exclusion Zone, (2015), film, 22'23".
There is also a project website, but in keeping with the emphasis on invisibility -- "a condition akin to radiation itself," as the brochure points out -- viewers find themselves confronting a blank white screen, from which the disembodied voices of the artists and curators take turns discussing the project. Happily for admirers of the work of Chim Pom and its co-conspirators, these various media add up to a fairly comprehensive overview of the project, certainly enough of one to confirm its significance as a long-term exploration of the human effects of radiation-induced dislocation. In any case these bits and pieces of the project will have to do for now, until the gamma rays subside.
Ahmet Ogut out for a ride in his "modified samurai armor that protects from radioactivity" in the Fukushima exclusion zone. From Once Upon A Time Breathing Apparatus for Breathable Air (2015).
All images are courtesy of Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, the artists, and Don't Follow the Wind.
3-7-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Hours: 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. (9 p.m. Wednesdays); closed Mondays
Access: 8 minutes' walk from Gaien-mae Station on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line
Alan Gleason Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 30 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).