Yukie Kamiya on the possibilities of creating art in times of crisis.

Image: Clipping of illustration by Shigeru Mizuki in <i>The New York Times</i>, 20 March 2011.
Image: Clipping of illustration by Shigeru Mizuki in The New York Times, 20 March 2011.


It was another fine midsummer's day bathed in strong sunlight as Hiroshima commemorated August 6, Atomic Bomb Memorial Day. The enormous devastation of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are a reminder that there is little difference between the menace of nuclear weapons and that of the peaceful use of atomic energy, providing much food for thought in Hiroshima, where sixty-six years ago nuclear weapons were used for the first time. Why, as it underwent modernisation was Japan unable to share the burden of suffering despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki having done all they could to indicate the extent of the sacrifice paid as a result of this catastrophe and the length and untold hardship of the road to recovery? Spending time in Hiroshima, one feels even more keenly anger and regret over the present state. Yoko Ono, the winner of the 8th Hiroshima Art Prize, which is awarded once every three years to an artist who has contributed to world peace, has named her exhibition The Road of Hope and dedicated it to Tohoku (a change from her original intent to dedicate it to Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and with it is sending out her message from the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (30 July–16 October). From Hiroshima, which has recovered from the ravages of its past, I report on how art and creative endeavours are responding to this latest disaster and the changes they are undergoing as a result.


The situation immediately after the disaster and the confusion over the ban on lending by overseas institutions

Two works by manga artists captured boldly and aptly the circumstances after the earthquake and tsunami. A full page of the 20 March edition of the New York Times was devoted to an illustration by Shigeru Mizuki, best known for his horror manga, showing a person's hand reaching up from the tsunami. And in the evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun on 6 May there appeared a four-panel manga by Kotobuki Shiriagari that was unprecedented in that all four panels depicted nothing but rubble. In newspapers that are usually crammed with written reports, these cartoons without text spoke volumes about the loss arising from the disaster.

The impact on art museums in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, which included damage to facilities in eastern Japan and closures due to planned power outages, was such that recovery was possible. Of greater concern was the cancellation of exhibition after exhibition due to the refusal by overseas institutions to lend works in light of the worsening situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The suspension by the French government of the shipment of artworks to Japan and the stoppage of courier services not only affected exhibitions in the disaster area but led to the cancellation of an Impressionist exhibition in Hiroshima (at the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum), where the earthquake was not felt and where there was no damage. Numerous other exhibitions were postponed or cancelled due to the refusal of art-lending institutions and owners of collections in countries such as Russia, the United States, and Italy to lend artworks. This served as a stark reminder that large-scale art exhibitions in Japan are events that involve the shipment and display of artworks from overseas. Urgent changes had to be made to programmes, although as time passes, the situation is showing signs of settling down.

Financial support as an initial reaction

In Japan, where cultural activities are spearheaded by public organisations, the practice of donating to the arts is not yet widespread, although having seen streets reduced in an instant to rubble as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, people have been spurred into fundraising activities, and in the cultural sphere as in others people responded immediately with charity and the raising of donations. Taking a leaf out of the book of Yoshitomo Nara, who in response to the devastation of the Indonesia Tsunami raised money by selling some of his own possessions flea market-style, six Tokyo galleries in cooperation with 109 artists held a series of silent auctions one month after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. As a result, over 39,000,000 yen (506,688 USD) was donated to the affected area.

From donation to personal exchange. Response in the fields of architecture and music

It gradually become apparent that even though donations were being collected they weren't reaching those affected because the devastation was so bad that the organisations tasked with distributing aid no longer existed. Artists were impelled to break out of a situation in which they felt disheartened at being unable to physically repair art museums and artworks by actually creating new art that reached out to the affected area on a personal level by volunteering to hold workshops, for example, thereby making a manpower contribution albeit on a small scale.

Among architects who witnessed urban landscapes in the affected area being transformed in an instant to rubble, there was a quick response in the form of organised activity. Kishin no Kai (Group Longing for Home), a group set up to consider how architects can contribute to the reconstruction effort, was formed by five of Japan's leading architects: Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Kengo Kuma, Hiroshi Naito, and Riken Yamamoto. In May the group held a symposium, with each of the five offering opinions on how architects should respond to the apparent fragility of our cities in the face of nature's fury. Whereas this was very much an opportunity to exchange ideas, ArchiAid, a network of architects formed to support the reconstruction effort whose members include all five members of Kishin no Kai, has a more practical focus. In an effort to address both the physical destruction to buildings in the stricken area and the damage to intellectual property such as the region's architectural culture and education system, the network will link together the architectural departments of local universities and create a platform for appeals and support for donations and cooperation. By positioning the long-term support for regional reconstruction as a process of cultural revival, those involved hope to match the expertise of architects and specialists with the needs of disaster-stricken areas, encouraging the involvement of young architects, residents, and students in this ongoing process. Taro Igarashi, an architectural historian at Tohoku University who is one of the founding members of ArchiAid and was recently appointed artistic director of the Aichi Triennale 2013, considers "reconstruction" one of the important themes of international art exhibitions in Japan.

There has been much activity among musicians, too, with networks expanding. With musicians from Fukushima taking the lead, Project Fukushima has been launched in an effort to spread a positive message from Fukushima, which many people view negatively as a result of the earthquake and nuclear accident. Those involved organised an outdoor musical festival in Fukushima on 15 August and are planning other events to encourage people to gather together through the power of music, thereby providing a source of ongoing energy for the reconstruction effort. Yoshihide Otomo, an internationally acclaimed guitarist and turntablist whose activities span multiple genres including the visual arts, is involved in creating a broad, creative platform encompassing amateurs and professionals aimed at awakening people's inner energy through expression, examples of which range from participatory music with members of the public to the formation of orchestras.

As well as organising lectures on radiation, Project Fukushima is providing an outlet for the implementation of and participation in creative ideas aimed at redressing the current negative situation, such as promoting innovative ways of avoiding direct contact with radioactive material on the ground. Radioactive material is similar to pollen in that it adheres to grass and ground, so covering the ground with fabric works to avoid direct contact with grounded radioactive material. Artists asked the public to donate clothes that they then sewed into "a giant blanket" and used at outdoor concerts that they organised.

A dilemma

With government leadership in turmoil and seemingly incapable of expressing a policy that bridges the gap between those wishing to abandon nuclear energy and those wishing to promote it, new alternative groups composed mainly of artists like those mentioned above have come into existence. These groups have clear objectives, the ability to act, and specialist skills, and are brimming with humanistic passion.

In the same way that in the aftermath of 9/11 more than a few artists were greatly shocked and unable to respond immediately, there is a sense of bewilderment within the visual art scene in that people want to do something but are not sure what to do. Things have at last reached the stage where people appreciate the importance of first re-establishing their everyday routines, and there are signs that they are beginning to resume normal activity. In Japan, most art museums are run by public authorities and the budgeting system based on public funds is uniform and inconducive to flexible response. In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, it is anticipated that the cultural budget will be pared down and the difference allocated to the reconstruction budget. Coming on the back of an extended economic slump, the disaster will likely lead to even more testing times for the administration and collection activities of art museums.

As for cooperative systems maintained by multiple museums, there has been only one initiative that aims at physical restoration that is actually embarking on investigation and restoration work in relation to the destruction of and damage to artworks and it was developed by a single newspaper company.

The power of nature has spurned humanism. Furthermore, we have made a huge misjudgement in terms of placing our trust in nuclear energy. Artist Yasumasa Morimura has said, "A part of me is overwhelmed by the desire to make art even in a time of crisis." Among the main issues that need to be addressed in the future are whether in a time of crisis we can restore the desire to create to the same extent as the desire to live, and if so how we should go about supporting this.     

Born in Kanagawa, Yukie Kamiya is Chief Curator at the Hiroshima MoCA. Kamiya was previously associate curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York. She has curated internationally including monographic exhibitions such as Simon Starling: Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), Tsuyoshi Ozawa, and Cai Guo Qiang at the Hiroshima MoCA, and co-curated Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves at ZKM, Karlsruhe, Under Construction at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, and others. She supervised the screening programme "Vital Signals: Japanese and American Video Art from 1960s and 70s." She has contributed to periodicals and newspapers and her writing is published in Creamier (Phaidon, 2010). She serves as a visiting lecturer at Waseda University, Tokyo, and AAA's Academic Advisor.



Yukie KAMIYA, 神谷幸江

Thu, 1 Sep 2011

Relevant content

Off the Shelf | A Seminar on Post-1945 Japanese Art
Ideas | Collection Spotlight

Off the Shelf | A Seminar on Post-1945 Japanese Art

Reiko Tomii situates 1960s Japanese art in the broader history of modern and contemporary art

Shortlist | Japan
Shortlist | Japan
Ideas | Collection Spotlight

Shortlist | Japan

Recommended readings on Japanese contemporary art

Alternative Art Spaces in Japan
Ideas | Conversations

Alternative Art Spaces in Japan

Andrew Maerkle interviews Arts Initiative Tokyo programmer Roger McDonald about the history and sustainability of alternative art spaces in Japan

tgt home
Tomorrow Girls Troop: A Fourth-Wave Feminist Art Collective
Ideas | Essays

Tomorrow Girls Troop: A Fourth-Wave Feminist Art Collective

Reflections on activism, gender equality, and visual representation in Japan from an emerging feminist art collective