In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11 @Japan Society

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing roughly 90 works by 17 different photographers/groups, hung against white, grey, and dark grey walls in s series of 5 divided gallery spaces/rooms. The exhibit was originally shown in 2015 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (here), where it was organized by curators Anne Nishimura Morse and Anne Havinga.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their dates and processes as background:

  • Takashi Arai: 11 daguerreotypes (including single images, 1 5×5 grid, 1 7×7 grid, and 1 triptych), 2011-2014
  • Nobuyoshi Araki: 6 gelatin silver prints, 2011
  • Ishu Han: 1 inkjet print, 2014
  • Naoya Hatakeyama: 13 chromogenic prints, 2011, 1 two-screen digital projection, 2014
  • Takashi Homma: 6 pigment-based inkjet prints, 2011
  • Kikuji Kawada: 6 pigment-based inkjet prints, 2011
  • Rinko Kawauchi: 1 digital slide show, 2011
  • Keizo Kitajima: 4 pigment-based inkjet prints, 2011, 2012
  • Kozo Miyoshi: 4 gelatin silver prints, 2011
  • Yasusuke Ota: 1 pigment-based inkjet print, 2011
  • Masato Seto: 3 pigment-based inkjet prints, 2012
  • Lieko Shiga: 12 chromogenic prints, 2009-2012, 10 inkjet prints/letter excerpts, 2012, 1 chromogenic print, 2012
  • Shimpei Takeda: 4 gelatin silver prints, 2012
  • Masaru Tatsuki: 4 chromogenic prints, 2009, 2011, 2013
  • Daisuke Yokota: 4 pigment-based inkjet prints, 2013
  • Tomoko Yoneda: 5 chromogenic prints, 2011
  • “Lost & Found Project”/Munemasa Takahashi: 1 array of found photographs against white pine wall (project website here)

(Installation shots below courtesy of the Japan Society, © Richard P. Goodbody, Inc.)

A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (here). Hardcover, 208 pages, with 145 color photographs. Includes essays by Anne Nishimura Morse, Anne Havinga, Michio Hayashi, and Marilyn Ivy and short artist biographies. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Watching the NHK aerial footage of the waves crashing through seaside towns during the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on what has become known simply as 3/11 is a head-shakingly surreal experience. Massive walls of water smashed though miles of human civilization, tossing cars, trucks, and boats around like toys and leveling every single structure in their path with astonishing ease, leaving behind a flat plain of endless debris and muddy sludge, the densely populated environment roughly stripped to its bare foundations like the effortless sweep of an eraser. The horror of such immense destructive power was almost unbelievable, like a CGI special effects movie gone bad, and yet the catastrophe was an impossibility taking place right there on video for the entire nation to watch.

That such a traumatic event would ripple through Japanese society, raising memories of the widespread destruction caused by the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was of course no surprise – and the ensuing nuclear meltdown of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the contamination of the surrounding areas made that parallel agonizingly clear. Not only was 3/11 an unprecedented natural disaster, its effects were deepened by a man-made failure as well, one with painful echoes of the past.

Photography has often played an important role in framing and interpreting historical events in Japan, with indelible images by Kikuji Kawada and Shomei Tomatsu (among many others) poignantly expressing the personal stories of the last cycle of nuclear destruction. Following this pattern, this exhibit examines how a broad selection of contemporary Japanese photographers have responded to the disasters of 3/11. With a mere five years separating those fateful days and the present, there has been little time for patient reflection and numbing distance. What we are shown here is the first round of artistic emotion and reaction, full of immediacy and raw nerves.

For many photographers, even those whose work would never be labeled as photojournalism, the instinctual imperative following the catastrophe was simple – go there, be there, see, look, witness, help. And so this exhibit begins with a selection of works that have a documentary element to them, where the artists have closely examined the aftermath of destruction in search of resonant moments and hard truths. Keizo Kitajima’s photographs of the damaged houses, upended boats, and twisted concrete exude a muted slowness that heightens our attention to the formal qualities of reflections in stagnant pools of water, exposed rebar, and the spatial relationships of walls left standing – and his color prints are so achingly precise and richly executed that we might almost call them beautiful. Kozo Miyoshi follows a similar trajectory, only in crisp black and white, where the textures of twisted train track, a seemingly endless pile of debris, and a huge tanker pushed up to a row of houses are intense studies of tactile light and dark. Rinko Kawauchi ‘s eyes were drawn to a lonely pair of pigeons (one white, the other black) swirling above the towering rubble, finding a symbolic dance between the opposing forces of good and evil taking place amid the squalor, a tiny poetic narrative encompassing everything in two lost birds. And Yasusuke Ota captures the implausible absurdity of it all, a single unlikely ostrich (the TEPCO mascot) wandering in the empty streets of a deserted town.

Many photographers moved beyond the dispiriting sea of destruction to consider the implications of the invisible nuclear contamination that had taken place. Shimpei Takeda turns all-over black samples of irradiated dirt into galaxies of pinprick stars. Takashi Homma forages for contaminated mushrooms in local forests, his eerie bulbous caps evidence of ongoing cycles of stunted growth and decay. Masato Seto visits the actual Fukushima reactor site, and makes downright frightening reversed tonality pictures of men in masks and tangled tree limbs, full of haunted unseen threats. And Takashi Arai overtly connects Fukushima back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his daguerreotypes of crashed boats and backhoes matched with images of the atomic bomb dome and a smashed wristwatch, the seething blue tonalities of all of the works creating an unbroken continuum of lingering despair.

Two of the strongest bodies of work in this show (from two of its most esteemed photographers) are less literal than most of what’s on view, opting instead to see the tragedy more expressively. Kikuji Kawada’s recent photographs are thick with tension and anxiety – cancer cells clog an x-ray, unnatural electric green ivy chokes a forest, a partial eclipse of the sun turns into a fiery ball, and an ominous morning glow settles over the city. His sandwiched, multiple exposures writhe with subtle pessimism and seen-it-before weariness. Nobuyoshi Araki’s contributions to the show aren’t much more upbeat. Emphatic black slashes have been scraped across his images, like aggressive black rain or blatant rejection. Like Thomas Barrow’s cancellations (which use a similar X-out scratching), Araki negates the optimism of puffy clouds and interrupts the features of his own face, the dissonance of the moment overwhelming the rhythm of the everyday.

Toward the end of the exhibit, the tight editing of the early sections loosens up, and the show wanders a bit. A selection of shadowy works by Daisuke Yokota feel appropriately anxious, but seem to have little relevance to the events of 3/11 – a cynic might think his inclusion here has more to do with his current artistic momentum than with his reaction to the tragedies. A similar criticism can be leveled at the entire last section of the show, which focuses on the Tohoku region (where the brunt of the destruction took place). The problem with most of the works by Lieko Shiga and Masaru Tatsuki isn’t that they aren’t evocative or intriguing, it’s that they were largely made before 3/11. So while they certainly can be used as powerful background evidence for the spiritual quirkiness of this northern region, it doesn’t seem possible that they can plausibly be seen as responses to the disaster. Perhaps as a result of the specific room configuration at the Japan Society, these tangential choices unfortunately end the show without real resolution or conclusion.

But maybe the lack of a neat bow to tie up this exhibit is an apt metaphor for the long, slow process of rebuilding that has been taking place for the past 5 years and will continue into the future. There is no easy way to wrestle these painful memories into line, and artists and photographers will continue to examine these events over the coming years, likely finding new ways to interpret their outcomes and consequences – in short, the story isn’t at all finished. One of the most poignant displays in this show is a massive white pine wall of decaying photographs, most washed out to the point that their subjects are largely unrecognizable. Part of the archive of the Lost & Found project, they have been gathered by volunteers who have recovered them from the debris and cleaned them, hoping to return them to their rightful owners. But it’s the scale of this wall of lost memories that hits home with such force – there are just so many unanswered questions and stories left open-ended by this disaster. In the Wake does an admirable job of taking stock of the early photographic reactions to the events of 3/11, but national traumas like this one percolate through the collective psyche of a country in unexpected ways. As the recovery progresses and evolves, we can expect that nuanced photographic responses will continue to emerge as well.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. And given the diverse group of photographers included in the exhibit, we will dispense with the usual discussion of prices, gallery representation, and secondary market histories typically found here.

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Read more about: Daisuke Yokota, Ishu Han, Keizo Kitajima, Kikuji Kawada, Kozo Miyoshi, Lieko Shiga, Masaru Tatsuki, Masato Seto, Munemasa Takahashi, Naoya Hatakeyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, Rinko Kawauchi, Shimpei Takeda, Takashi Arai, Takashi Homma, Tomoko Yoneda, Yasusuke Ota, Japan Society, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

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