Curating from the contaminated zone: An introduction to Don’t Follow the Wind

Excerpt from the Introduction to Don’t Follow the Wind, edited by Nikolaus Hirsch and Jason Waite, published by Sternberg Press, distributed by The MIT Press, 2021

What can art do in an ongoing catastrophe, when destruction and contamination have made living impossible? Don’t Follow the Wind is an ongoing exhibition project that has sought, since 2012, to answer precisely that question.

The project is located inside the Fukushima exclusion zone, the evacuated area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which was established after the 2011 nuclear disaster that contaminated the area and separated residents from their homes, land, and community. The collaboratively developed project is a long-term engagement by Chim↑Pom, Kenji Kubota, Eva & Franco Mattes, and Jason Waite, who, in the midst of the project, formed an eponymous curatorial collective. On March 11, 2015, the fourth anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the ongoing disaster at the power plant, an inaccessible exhibition entitled Don’t Follow the Wind opened inside the contaminated zone. It is sited in homes and places of work lent by former residents, all of which are contaminated.

The exhibition is comprised of works by twelve artists and artist groups – Ai Weiwei, Chim↑Pom, Grand Guignol Mirai, Nikolaus Hirsch and Jorge Otero-Pailos, Meiro Koizumi, Eva & Franco Mattes, Aiko Miyanaga, Ahmet Öğüt, Trevor Paglen, Taryn Simon, Nobuaki Takekawa, and Kota Takeuchi – all of whom, responding to the catastrophic conditions, created new works installed at various sites. From a house lit by solar-powered lights that go on twice daily in the darkened zone, to a single hut as a monument continually coming into being, to reclaimed broken glass from windows in the area merged with the radioactive material Trinitite from the first ever nuclear explosion, the projects exist in the zone closed to the public by authorities; hence, the exhibition continues to be open but remains unseen and inaccessible. It is largely invisible—a condition akin to radiation itself—only to be viewed in the future, when former residents can return. There is no clear timeline for the entire zone to reopen—it could be years or decades, or it could stretch beyond our lifetimes.

While the project acts as a powerful mnemonic, continually flagging the zone and those displaced through the exhibition’s parallel inaccessibility, it has also generated an unlikely social formation: the local residents who have lent their spaces remain anonymous to protect their privacy. However, they, and other former residents collaborating on the project, have all become deeply entangled with the artists, curators, and cultural workers of Don’t Follow the Wind. While nuclear contamination has displaced and ruptured communities, in this void, new temporary and translocal formations have emerged.

When the collective first began planning the project in late 2012, it hoped that one aspect of the project could be that it functions as a “black box,” the emergency flight recorder critical to understanding air disasters. That is, that the artworks presented in the unoccupied zone could act as a material witness to the contamination and the durational separation of the former residents—many of whom feel the artworks are their placeholders while they are away.

The Fukushima exclusion zone includes seven municipalities and as of March 2021 totals 130 square miles, extending out from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station that is owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Following the March 11, 2011 (3.11), earthquake and tsunami, three nuclear reactors, designed by the US conglomerate General Electric (GE), melted down in a level-seven nuclear catastrophe. The subsequent independent report and the report by the Japanese government both stated that the catastrophe was a human-made disaster.

The Extra-ordinary in Crisis

The project’s title, Don’t Follow the Wind, comes from the experience of a former resident and collaborator who volunteered his home as a site. Soon after the earthquake and tsunami, this individual received a call from a friend who worked at the power plant. The friend told him that the situation in the power plant was actually worse than was being reported by the media and that he and his family should evacuate immediately. So, this resident gathered his family and started driving with them, initially north. He happened to be a recreational fisherman and hobby sailor, so he knew how the wind works. While driving north, he stopped to get out and check the wind; he realized that the radiation was blowing in that direction. He immediately turned around and drove his family to relative safety. For the collective, his story became significant, not only in terms of how friendship, as an informal network of knowledge sharing, was able to alter the course of life, but also how everyday skills, such as fishing or sailing, were able to shift from ordinary to extraordinary in a time of crisis. Those participating in “Don’t Follow the Wind” felt that culture also needed to shift from the ordinary to extraordinary in order to respond to this unique and urgent catastrophe.

Reconfiguring Rumor

The project’s durational character requires an ongoing collaborative effort by the artists, former residents, and curators to maintain its existence. Don’t Follow the Wind is an institution without a visiting public, but it is also a social formation that has generated a participatory public of affinity. Through labor and friendship, the project has existed as a form of rumor about its material existence despite its inaccessibility. This form of rumor was very important as an intentional methodology for thinking about how the project could travel slowly, quietly, and persistently through social bonds. Rumor was very important after the disaster, as media accounts about the impact of radiation levels varied. There were conflicting reports from the Japanese government about the events and as the evacuation radius slowly grew, other entities and foreign embassies were recommending more significant evacuations. In that flux of information, there were rumors circulating to fill the void of reliable information, which has continued to this day. Rumor generally has a negative connotation as hearsay, but as the narrative behind the title Don’t Follow the Wind substantiates, rumor is also an alternative form of knowledge sharing that is deeply important to the experience of the residents in Fukushima. This notion of intimate sharing growing from the experience of the former residents has been a critical lesson of how meaningful work can be impactful and durational.

Jason Waite is an independent curator and cultural worker and is currently a doctoral candidate in Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Oxford in the Ruskin School of Art and Christ Church.

Presentations and Discussions with artists Meiro Koizumi, Kota Takeuchi, and curator Jason Waite
Wednesday 16 February 2022, 1pm – 2pm GMT

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics were meant to celebrate the end of the reconstruction efforts of nuclear disaster from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station that started ten years ago. Artes Mundi winning artist Meiro Koizumi, Fukushima-based artist Kota Takeuchi, and curator Jason Waite, DPhil Ruskin School of Art, discuss the present state of the disaster through the lens of the collective artistic project Don’t Follow the Wind and the first book in English that has just been released on it. 

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