The Tohoku Great Earthquake of March 2011 has been a turning point in Japanese contemporary art. While international art shows have continued to represent Japanese contemporary art through the very successful “pop art” styles of the 1990s and 2000s — associated with superstars like Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo — there was a very distinctive change in mood among artists in Japan, particularly younger ones, after the triple disasters. Less commercial socially engaged art, addressed to the participative relations artists develop with communities, as well as a mode of survival among themselves — some of it with a critical political edge — became more prominent, in gallery shows, exhibitions and major bi- and tri-ennale.
A lot of artists were attracted to working in or near the regions affected by the disaster. This mode of work developed on from the organisational practices pioneered by the influential curator Kitagawa Fram, who spoke at SISJAC in 2015. At a post-disaster festival he organised in Fukushima, for example, the musician Otomo Yoshihide developed an astonishing collaborative work of 6000m2 of furoshiki (square wrapping cloth), collected and sewed together by ordinary Japanese locals, that was laid on the ground to protect the audience from radiation. This was one of many post-disaster works, and part of a documentary about the festival, that was featured in a major retrospective Catastrophe and the Power of Art at the Mori Museum, Roppongi Hills, Tokyo in late 2018.
Other artists similarly found ways of making powerful socially collaborative art in the ruins of the disaster. The photographer Shiga Lieko, whose works often feature elderly local residents in Tohoku (the north of Japan) and their mysterious folklore, was caught up in the disaster while she working on site at a small village, Kitakama, on the coast near Sendai. The village was swept away by the tsunami, along with her studio and much of her work. The resultant show, Rasen Kaigan, with recovered work and others made after, was an eerie monument to the many old people that had died locally. The participative artist Kato Tsubasa also headed north to work with the local community. He is known for video works in which he gathers groups of locals to build constructions that are then physically pulled over by the people as a collaborative project. In Iwaki, in Fukushima, however, he built with them a massive replica wooden lighthouse — that had been lost in the tsunami — and persuaded the townspeople to haul up the work in a massive effort of collective catharsis.
The controversial art unit Chim↑Pom were one of the first to seize the disaster as a crucial moment for political protest in Japan. In their series of performance works, Real Times, they broke into the site of the devastated nuclear station to make an illegal protest video. Another related artist, Takeuchi Kota, staged a performance work where a mysterious power plant worker was caught on the official online CC-TV at the Dai-ichi site pointing an accusatory finger at the government. These young artists have faced media criticism and potential censorship: a political trend that has seen the shut down of exhibitions, notably at the Aichi Triennale, Nagoya, in 2019. At a SISJAC workshop in collaboration with the Tokyo University of the Arts in 2018, we discussed the question of censorship and the arts.
Internationally, one of the most significant initiatives has been the founding of Art Action UK in London, led by the artist Homma Kaori. This programme has supported a series of younger artists and curators from Japan on residencies in the UK. Among these, the video artist duo Kyun-Chome follows in the footsteps of Chim↑Pom with satirical videos commenting on the absurdities of everyday life in Japan since 3/11. Meanwhile, another duo Komori and Seo made moving documentaries about the post-disaster reconstruction, offering a contemplative narrative of the secrets and scandals buried under the busy corporate-led rebuilding of Rikuzentakata in Iwate, where they lived and worked for many months.
The Olympic Games offers the government the chance to restore business as usual after a tough decade. They have predictably reached for Japanese pop culture and the arts that reflect it as a reliable tool of international branding. But there has also been a good deal of financial support for major art projects taking place in the regions, addressing chronic ageing and population decline. Japanese contemporary art internationally has been quieter in the last decade, perhaps as reflected in the introspective mood of a country which was rocked to the foundations by the triple disasters.
A full video lecture by Adrian Favell on this subject, with discussion by Mouri Yoshitaka, can be viewed on the Tokyo University of the Arts website, Relations (2020).
Professorial Academic Associate, Sainsbury Institute
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