The month of March marks the anniversary of a catastrophe. No, I don’t mean the anniversary of coronavirus reaching Poland, nor the year that has passed since the first lockdown. The world doesn’t end with COVID-19, and it probably won’t end because of it, either. As for nuclear energy, that’s a different story – it does have the potential to fuel an actual apocalyptic event. 10 years ago, on 11th March 2011, one of the most severe earthquakes in the history of Japan struck the coast of Honshu.
The shock triggered a powerful tsunami wave that, at some points, reached a height of more than 20 metres. Water tore deep inside the land, literally sweeping away whole villages and seaside towns. The exact number of casualties was never established. At least 20,000 people lost their lives, but many of them were never found – the ocean waves probably took the bodies with them back to the ocean.
The coronavirus has changed the world, but so did the 2011 earthquake. It caused the Earth’s axis to move by 10 centimetres, shortening the days on our planet by 1.6 microseconds. And that wasn’t the end of it. On that disastrous spring, the impact of the earthquake combined with a tsunami damaged the reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex in Ōkuma. The reactors melted, adding radioactive pollution to the damage already wrought by the elements.
March is the time of one more anniversary. Six years ago, an art exhibition was set up in the shadow of the destroyed Fukushima plant, inaccessible to visitors until it would be possible for people to safely come back to the contaminated area.
Invisible exhibitions, called-off projects, art hibernating inside indefinitely-closed institutions, virtual spectres of art pieces shared online – over the past year, such artistic experiences have become our daily bread. And were that bread bitter, at the very least, that would’ve been something! The reality is even worse – it tastes of nothing at all. I don’t suppose I’m the only one feeling fed up with this zero-calorie pabulum we consume, hunched over our laptops.
In light of the artistic misery we have been experiencing since 2020, an exhibition set up in a zone of radioactive contamination seems to be somewhat prophetic: an exercise in catastrophism carried out long before COVID made catastrophe a global aesthetic, while the inability to physically participate in artistic events became the most popular form of experiencing art.
This prophetic idea was conceived by Chim↑Pom, an artistic collective made of six members, formed in Tokyo in 2005 by a group of young students and models of Makoto Aida. While Aida (born in 1965) might not be as established on the international stage as Takashi Murakami or Yoshitomo Nara, in Japan, he is one of the leading – and most subversive – personalities of modern art. When it comes to Chim↑Pom, it is safe to say that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. On the young Japanese artistic scene, the collective has established the reputation of an enfant terrible.
In the early years of its activity, the collective’s trademark form of artistic activity was performance, featuring mainly overgrown, super-intelligent rats roaming the streets of Tokyo. The artists stuffed them, dyed their fur bright yellow and styled them as Pikachu, presented in various heroic poses.
In their photos, Chim↑Pom look like a J-rock band and are proficient social media users. At first, they might come across as one of the many groups of artistic attention-seekers, whose magnum opus is their own image, embellished with provocation and skilful use of marketable controversies. However, appearances can be deceptive. In their later projects, the collective presented itself as a group of increasingly shrewd vivisectors of Japanese society’s imagination, untold fears and suppressed traumas. And so, when Japan tried to ‘suppress’ the whole area surrounding Fukushima out of its social landscape, Chim↑Pom immediately showed up right there – at the traumatized, contaminated, deserted territory.
Art that nobody saw
On 11th March 2011, the seaside towns of Honshu were washed by tsunami sludge – rough seawater carrying cars, boats, pieces of ruined buildings, rubbish, trees, dead animals and, sometimes, people who failed to escape on time. Most of the inhabitants did manage to save themselves – over 400,000 people were evacuated from the Tōhoku region, the place affected most severely by the cataclysm.
In Japan, people have to live with the constant threat of seismic shock and tsunami waves. They are as prepared as one can be for a head-on crash with the forces of elements whose power exceeds human measures. In any other country, an earthquake that severe would have taken more lives. The nation began rebuilding as soon as the cataclysm had passed. Victims received treatment, the damage was fixed, normality reconstructed. But not around the Fukushima power plant.
The radioactively contaminated area within a 30-kilometre radius from Fukushima was declared a kikan konnan kuiki, meaning a ‘difficult-to-return zone’. Nuclear radiation had turned this piece of land into a permanent ruin, a monument of the cataclysm – an invisible monument. At least that’s how Chim↑Pom approached this place in 2015 when the collective set up an exhibition inside the radioactive zone. They titled it Don’t Follow the Wind, in reference to the evacuation process, when the inhabitants were instructed to leave the contaminated area against the wind to avoid the deadly radioactive air.
Apart from Chim↑Pom, the exhibition featured works by Ai Weiwei, Aiko Miyanaga, Grand Guignol Mirai, Nikolaus Hirsch and Jorge Otero-Pailos, Kōta Takeuchi, Eva and Franco Mattes, Meirō Koizumi, Nobuaki Takekawa, Ahmet Ögüt, Trevor Paglen and Taryn Simon. All the pieces were created in collaboration with inhabitants of the contaminated areas and were installed in places lent by the exiles in their absence – in warehouses, abandoned homes and farms, scattered around the radioactive zone.
What are these artworks? We know that Ai Weiwei set up a solar panel on the roof of an abandoned house, powering an art installation inside – a bare lightbulb that, for years now, has been switching on at dawn, only to turn off during the day and light up again in the evening, as if life inside the house kept on going. Ahmet Ögüt designed a special garment: a hybrid of a modern radiation suit and ancient samurai armour (a family heirloom owned by one of the survivors). There is gossip about some other pieces, but it’s all just hearsay – a comprehensive catalogue of all the works made for the project was never created. What was made in the zone, stayed in the zone.
What a beautiful disaster
I open the website Don’t Follow the Wind. It is empty, apart from two dates written in a small font on the white background: 2015 and 2020. I click on 2015 – still no pictures, only an audio file with a short introduction to the project in Japanese and English. We can hear the voices of the artists participating in the project, along with the announcement that the exhibition will be made available to the public once the zone is opened and its inhabitants are allowed to return there.
The 2020 page also contains a short voice recording, along with an update: six years later, the exhibition is still waiting. The ‘difficult-to-return zone’ is gradually shrinking as the Japanese decontamination service remove layers of contaminated soil. The day on which we can see the exhibition is drawing near – or, should we say, whatever will have remained of it. The impact of time, nature and radiation affecting the pieces – along with the slow process of their disintegration – were taken into account from the very start of the project.
The exiles are slowly getting ready to return to their homes. Meanwhile, nuclear tourism is already growing around Fukushima, as it did in Chernobyl – after all, who wouldn’t want to see how the world looks after its end? Tragedy shifts to banality, morphing into just another spectacle. However, the artists creating the exhibition were guided by a different idea. “What cannot be perceived has an immense power,” say Chim↑Pom, who came up with this project not as a spectacle, but as a myth. And if they still entered the zone in 2015, holding Geiger counters in their hands to set up their exhibition, risking radiation exposure, it was because a good legend – just like good art – needs a grain of truth to it, a root that must take to the soil of reality. Even, or maybe especially, radioactively contaminated soil.
Don’t Follow the Wind isn’t over, but the coronavirus has already added a premature epilogue to the project. In the few videos from the zone, published by Chim↑Pom, we can see artists working in a strict sanitary regime: they are wearing hazmat suits, shoe covers, goggles and, of course, face masks. Were the pandemic to strike back then, they wouldn’t have even had to change their outfits; they were already dressed the part. Catastrophes merge and overlap, contamination multiplies. During the subsequent lockdowns, inaccessible shows have also come up one after another. Over the past year, there were plenty of exhibitions I did not visit. And yet, Don’t Follow the Wind remains one of the most interesting projects I never got to see.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
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