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Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012
British artists lend hand to disaster victims
By WILLIAM HOLLINGWORTH
LONDON — Japan's artistic community is playing an important role in encouraging communities devastated by last year's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in the Tohoku region, according to a panel of experts in London, with a number of British-based artists assisting recovery efforts.
Specialists from a range of artistic disciplines have been traveling to Tohoku and offering their skills to help revitalize its shattered communities, and Britain's artistic community is also assisting the region by promoting the work of local artists and paying for them to visit the U.K. and recuperate.
Keith Whittle, a British curator and contemporary arts expert, recently toured the area to investigate how art is playing a role in its reconstruction, and was surprised by the "exceptional response" from Japan's artistic community.
"Numerous artists are visiting devastated areas in Tohoku and organizing events for survivors to share moments and experiences and raise hopes for reconstruction, using their creativity in a really positive way," Whittle said in an interview.
"It's not necessarily about producing work for exhibitions, but producing work which engages with those communities and tries to offer some support based on the background of the people who are doing those projects."
In many of the projects the inspiration comes from disaster survivors who inform artists what they can do for the community. For example, architects have been designing temporary meeting places to make them more interesting and comfortable, and one group worked with local schoolchildren to produce a makeshift cinema using cardboard.
Other artists have worked alongside local residents to utilize various items of tsunami debris to make artworks.
"These projects are vital because they give people the chance to reconnect with life, look beyond the devastation and offer hope," Whittle explained.
Sculptor Kate Thomson was staying in Iwate Prefecture with her Japanese husband when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck off Tohoku's coast in March last year, spawning gigantic tsunami that led to the Fukushima meltdowns. She has arranged several Tohoku-related art projects both in Britain and Japan. One of them involved 450 artists from all over the world sending A5-size artworks to the area in the aftermath of the disasters.
"The art provided moral support to the region. And the images became catalysts for people to discuss issues they hadn't been able to talk about," Thomson said from her home in Edinburgh, Scotland. "Many people who have lost their homes are becoming isolated in temporary housing. Art celebrates life and can provide the focus to get out and meet other people."
She says the response from the arts community has been "wonderful" and is happy that artists have been helping survivors to nurture their imaginations.
"But I have been wary about arts projects using disaster debris . . . because what may seem like rubbish is still someone else's property. You have to be sensitive," Thomson added.
The London-based Japan Foundation recently asked a panel of experts to assess the contribution that art has made to the recovery of Tohoku, and the panelists, who include Whittle, were unanimous on the positive effects.
London artist Kaori Homma threw open the doors of her home to Tohoku artists who were looking for some brief respite from the chaos around them and to consider how they could benefit their communities on their return.
"Given the situation in Japan, a lot of artists felt their work was perceived as being superfluous," she told the seminar.
Homma and a group of friends raised money to pay for the visit of a performing artist from Tohoku. The artist put on several shows at British festivals during her stay to raise awareness about life in disaster zones.
"We learnt a lot and are hoping to continue this venture," Homma said.
Artist Ichiro Endo has traveled around the disaster area in a bus — on which he encourages kids to write down their dreams — and has organized numerous arts events for the public.
"Artists gave people in Tohoku the chance to get together and do something. Often the artist was behind the scenes," Endo told the seminar.
"I wondered whether I should be taking my bus to the area because at the time there did seem to be a movement toward banning fun in Japan. But people wanted something to make their hearts dance."