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Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012

News photo
Time heals all wounds: For "Minding My Own Business" (2011), artist Yuken Teruya cut miniature trees in the newspapers that reported the Great East Japan Earthquake.

What is art in the face of disaster?


Special to The Japan Times

Broadly speaking, two types of art have emerged in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami and nuclear crisis. On the one hand there is art that has been made for the crisis — that is to say, for the benefit of those who were or are suffering from its manifold effects. On the other hand there is art that has been made about the crisis.

News photo
"ReBuild" (2012): For its "Pika Pika" project, artist group Tochka asked members of the public to write in light messages to victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. © TOCHKA

Art Tower Mito's "Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress," which is one of the first large-scale shows to attempt a survey of disaster-inspired art, includes both types, though without quite acknowledging the distinction in those terms. This makes it an ambitious but somewhat problematic affair.

Curator Yuu Takehisa adopted a strictly chronological approach to her material. Large curtains hang from the gallery ceilings and divide the exhibits by the month in which they were made. In March, 2011, we are informed, Yuken Teruya, the 39-year-old Okinawan who is now based in New York, was an artist-in-residence in Gunma Prefecture. It was the local daily newspaper that delivered to his country retreat the shocking news of destruction in the northeast, and by the end of the month he had turned those newspapers into a series of artworks.

Teruya cut miniature trees and plants into the page-one photographs of the disaster, folding them up so that they formed small forests sprouting from the pages.

The works have a complexity and a poignancy that belies the speed with which they were obviously conceptualized and realized. In one way, Teruya's focus on the photographs chastens us for the voyeuristic fascination with which we all pored over visual documentation of the disaster. They also toy with the concept of time: While the newspaper itself (not to mention our thirst for information) was very much of-the-moment, the appearance of his trees and plants suggests the passage of time, as though nature has had time to grow over the wounds of the immediate past. The effect is to subtly relativize the disasters within a longer time-frame, and suggest healing.

Next up, in the "April" section of the show, is creative unit Tochka's "Pika Pika" project, whereby they make nighttime photographs that capture people writing words or drawing images in torchlight.

Three days after the disaster, the two-person group established a website asking people from around the world to make their own torchlight messages of encouragement for the victims of the disaster.

They soon started uploading the results: A Taiwanese family squiggled a picture of a flower; Shingo in Los Angeles wrote "Love" on a beach; someone in Osaka wrote "Be with you"; someone in Bangkok wrote "Standing by you."

At Art Tower Mito these and many similarly squiggled messages are exhibited in a collage-like jumble of album-sized prints. They are colorful and energetic, but when you walk away, all you are really left with is one of those pleasant warm and fuzzy feelings inside: Isn't this nice.

And thus in the first two exhibits, the dichotomy is apparent. Teruya's work represents a single artist's response to the disaster — he has observed, reflected, and condensed myriad ideas into a single object that is about the disasters. Tochka's is different. On its website, the group expressly states that they collected the photos so they could send them to "those who are in the affected areas with still no electricity." "Pika Pika" is for the disasters.

And the exhibition continues in this vein.

Also in April is art unit Chim↑Pom's "Japanese Dog" series, consisting of old photo frames recovered from the tsunami debris. Inside the frames the artists have placed photographs of stray dogs they encountered in the disaster zone. The work poignantly expresses the idea of rebuilding a devastated community from the scraps of what is left.

Chim↑Pom's work is very much about the disaster, as are later exhibits, such as a haunting video by Hikaru Fujii of a forest in Iitate, near the Fukushima nuclear power plant; Fuyuki Yamakawa's "Atomic Guitar (Mark I/Stratocaster-type, Mark II/Stratocaster-type (Left Handed)," an ironic depiction of an electric guitar that is rigged to play when it detects radioactivity; and a series of photographs of the tsunami-damaged town of Rikuzentakata by Naoya Hatakeyama.

Meanwhile, other exhibits that were made for the disaster's victims include Noboru Tsubaki's bicycle with a trailer affixed, a sample of the kind of equipment he organized to have sent north in the quake's aftermath; documentation of artist Tanotaiga's sludge-removal project, for which he marshaled volunteers to help clean up the mud left by the tsunami; Takehiko Sanada's "Prefab Coat EGB11" project of multipurpose cloth sheets that can be utilized as tents, bags, toys or blankets; and many others.

One of the problems with combining these two types of "art" is that in many cases art of the "for" type is not art at all. It is simply a form of volunteerism — a perfectly admirable form, mind you.

Takehisa acknowledged this in explaining to The Japan Times her thinking behind the exhibition.

"The key focus of the exhibition is to show the public what it was that artists were doing in the aftermath of the disaster," she said. "It's the job of the curator to keep tabs on what artists do, regardless of whether it is in the aftermath of a natural disaster or not."

Takehisa's decision to focus on "what artists were doing" meant she avoided the task of determining whether what they were doing was art.

"I still haven't really gone through the process of deciding if each exhibit is art or not," she said. "Some artists aren't sure themselves. I think that ambiguity is one of the key traits of the show."

In some ways this all-inclusive approach makes sense. Perhaps the disasters will change our perception of what it means to call something "art." Perhaps it will represent the arrival of an age in which such distinctions no longer matter.

Takehisa writes on the exhibition website that the emergence of this kind of art-that-might-not-be-art represents a "renewed questioning of the concept of art as established by modernity," and that it demonstrates "the sort of role that art ought to play in society."

That's a big claim. Art ought to contribute to sludge removal? Art ought to facilitate the sending of messages of support from a Los Angeles beach to the other side of the world? That is tantamount to saying art ought to have utility.

If so, I'm not sure I agree. What is clear is that the approach taken by Takehisa and perhaps many of the artists included in the show is one that wholly embraces the trend for community-based, collaborative art projects that have become popular over the last 15 years.

In some ways, the March 11 crisis provided the ultimate canvas for the kind of artists who grew up with — and whose practice has been shaped by — now-common events such as Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, which expressly attempts to marshal art to the cause of rural revival.

For such artists, art is indeed not just about something; it is for something.

But the fact is that in the context of an exhibition, in an art museum, such art tends to appear woefully lacking.

"Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress" at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito runs till Dec. 9, 2012; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥800. Closed Mon. www.arttowermito.or.jp.

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