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FOCUS Photography Festival
Curated by Prajna Desai
Presented at the Special Project Space in collaboration with Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum
Since the 1860s, when photography first met landscapes in Japan, cataclysm and erasure have occupied a special place in its photographic imagination, perhaps natural in a land where earthquakes and tsunamis visit often. However, it might well be that Japan also constitutes the permanent address of unforeseen unnatural disaster — attested by the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945. Indeed, if adversity wields a seductive magic in the Japanese imaginary, so does the power of its nemesis. However insidious the adversity, the resilient Japanese will emerge out of the depths and shine, as they have done since 1945. This is what we have been led to believe.
Pretty as it is, this delusion has been shattered since 3.11.
On 11 March 2011, a monster tsunami set off by the 9.0 magnitude Great East Japan earthquake, or 3.11, demolished entire towns along hundreds of kilometres on Japan’s northeastern coastline. Claiming over 20,000 lives across various prefectures (provinces), about 2,500 still missing, the tsunami also triggered a triple nuclear meltdown at the TEPCO-operated Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima prefecture on 14 March, 2011. The flight of 160,000 from their homes catalysed worldwide debates and protests about the human and ecological cost of nuclear energy. Meanwhile nuclear radiation still seeps into sea and soil in and around the nuclear plant in Fukushima, and dozens of kilometres away. The unliveable evacuated 20 km exclusion zone around the nuclear plant is peppered with ghost towns. What this double disaster (tsunami and radioactivity) means for the evacuees of the exclusion zone is to never return home.
This exhibition showcases works that herald a significant shift from the fetishistic silence, ruin, and unspeakable destruction that the tsunami and nuclear radiation have inspired across numerous artworks produced on the theme since 3.11. Japanese artists Yuki Iwanami and Kishi Kota have no interest in posthumous homage or purely poetic conjuring. Instead, they take on disaster through love, pseudo-architecture, and fiction. Their explorations of elemental human acts intimately linked with how people use land reveal precisely what could have been possible had nuclear cataclysm been kept at bay.
Parenthetically, the exhibition juxtaposes 3.11 with the little known but longstanding disaster of Japanese poverty, erased from exports of quirky Japanese culture and sophisticated electronic merchandise, addressing deceptively simple questions along the way.
What does love look like after the apocalypse? How do the unsung and disenfranchised mark a place? Is recovery at all worth the trouble?
One Last Hug (2015)
One Last Hug stages the lives of three parents across Fukushima prefecture and Miyagi prefecture. Striking for its theme – hunting for the dead – each photo essay within is named after a man looking for the personal effects of a mother, father, wife, or child. In trying to recover the bodies of their loved ones, the men look for their possessions — clothes, toys, books, even footprints — but are repeatedly thwarted, either by radioactive contamination which restricts searchers to short, timed entries in Fukushima, or by the lack of state volunteers who have long left the tsunami-hit Miyagi.
Yuki Iwanami, himself a resident of Fukushima prefecture, approaches this Catch-22 situation like a detective assigned to a cold case — that is, a crime or an accident whose resolution is deferred due to lack of forensic evidence. Though framed as love denied, these narratives of searches set against a beautiful marine landscape are nonetheless damning of environmental damage and nuclear power, while at once posing doubts about the state’s capacity to fulfil its duty of care.
Kota Kishi (b. 1978, Japan)
A photo artist based in Tokyo, Kishi produces work about architectural and spatial belonging, location-specific memories, somatic and olfactory relationships to place, and the subdued violence of human experience generated by physical circumstance. Modelled on a fugue structure, much of his work gravitates to invisible places and anonymous faces lost amidst the slick surfaces of Japanese life. His black and white images often merge a sense of low-wattage light and neo-Surrealistic humour to address sites of anomie that slip through the cracks of mainstream Japan.
Kishi graduated from the Department of Photography at Tokyo Visual Arts College. Since 2003, he has been a key contributing member of Photographers’ Gallery in Tokyo, a collective that exhibits and supports established and mid-career photographers in Japan. Exhibited a number of times at this home gallery, Kishi has also published numerous photo books (2003-16): Scratch, Appearance, The Books with Smells, Kamagasaki – Hinata, Kanata, Barracks , and Garakuta and Pictures. In 2014, he participated in Cloud of Unknowing: A City with Seven Streets, a major exhibition gathering artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Japan, organised at Taipei Fine Arts Museum in conjunction with the celebration for the 130th Anniversary of Taipei’s Founding. In 2015, he received the VOCA (Vision of Contemporary Art) Exhibition Incentive Award from Kyoto University of Art and Design, Japan.
Garecki Heart Mother (2015)
From March to September 2013, Kota Kishi visited desolate shores in Fukushima prefecture to photograph large scale sculptures that he jury-built using driftwood, debris, and rubble (or, garecki) washed up after the tsunami. Originally produced as a box set of 100 postcard sized colour works, the images recruit four key elements – colour, light, time, and fixed space – to interrogate the staying power of Japan’s material culture in the face of disaster and at once simulate the power of nuclear radiation.
Each image is titled by the date at the place it was made. Some resemble pseudo-buildings, some tents. A few are reminiscent of playful mobiles. In some, the arrangements of objects evokes grouped figures enjoying a day at the beach. In one, a caped figure looms like the Grim Reaper surveying his dismal domain.
Trading the span of the shoreline for a compact frontal view, these serial images emphasise permutation, combination, and, above all, a sense of physical mutation. Note how these materially-dense, highly-coloured contraptions confidently occupy the beach. Note how they seem to resemble the form of things we know as ‘life’ – building, person, furniture, and scenery. But these are not life, so what are they?
On Fukushima’s beautiful beaches shorn of human presence due to contamination, these new subjects defy the shopworn notion that because radioactive contamination is invisible it is also unimaginable and ineffable. Here, contamination is not just physically manifest. Through the sleight of substitution, reinventing itself a tangible occupant, it has also dispossessed human beings of land.
Hinata, Kanata | Beyond, Sunshine (2015)
In Osaka, Japan’s second largest metropolitan area after Tokyo, is the vast neighbourhood of Kamagasaki. It appears neither on official maps, nor in Osaka’s mainstream imagination, though a popular neon-lit commercial district overflowing with shoppers lies just blocks away. That’s because Kamagasaki is Japan’s largest slum. Home to day labourers, the homeless, the jobless, where one in every three persons is on social welfare, it is among the country’s best kept secrets, much more so than its counterparts Sanya district in Tokyo and Kotobuki area in Yokohama.
To outsiders, Kamagasaki is defined by squatters, men doing drugs, cheap accommodation, flophouses, and easy stimulants. To the scores among its 25,000 residents, mostly men, 40% of whom are over the age of 65, Kamagasaki is affectionately, and bitingly, known as airin, ‘loving neighbourhood’. These were the men who helped build Osaka’s fancy roads and high-rises in the mid 1960s that fortune left behind, now too old and weak to work the construction jobs that might come their way.
Kishi’s luminous silver salt prints, some painstakingly worked with dripped layers, are dense estates of the retinal and somatic experiences of Kamagasaki’s decay. He draws on the sonic and digital disruptions of graffiti that channel snatches of thought, anti-state slogan, or aphorism. He isolates the psychological charge of personal objects in what is veritably a zone of everyday disaster. Because it is in the folds of a fleece blanket, the crimp of a crushed juice tetrapak, and a pop-up stall selling used wares no one might want, that a place many consider “beyond” glimmers with “sunshine”.
Acknowledgements: Ryan Holmberg, Yuki Iwanami and Kota Kishi.
Special Project Space, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum
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