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Japanese Tsunami 2011

From Hiroshima to Fukushima: the big picture on Japan’s tsunami tragedy

In the Wake, a photographic exhibition in New York, is a sensitive three-part exploration of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2016, 8:16am

The sophistication of “In The Wake”, a sensitive, mournful photographic exhibition focusing on the 2011 tsunami that devastated part of Japan’s northeast, lies more in what it doesn’t show than what it does.

One would expect a selection of photojournalistic works documenting the event, and its aftermath. But Anne Nishimura Morse and Anne Havinga, curators of the New York show, cast their net much wider to include artistic responses to the disaster, historical context, and geographical information.

The result is a broad, lyrical thesis on the effects of the earthquake, tsunami, and the explosion of the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant, which devastated Japan five years ago this month.

Visitors can certainly see stark, disturbing images of the destruction of the region, but that’s not the whole story. The exhibition locates the disaster, which was in part nuclear, in the context of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and filters it through the prism of wider notions like capitalism and ecology.

Existential reflections, some of which are only connected to the event by a deathly elegance, also play a part. The general impression is that of a vast memento mori dedicated to the event.

“In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11” – a poetic title that implies both a past event and a period of mourning – runs at the Japan Society Gallery until June 12. It’s a second showing for the exhibition, which was organised by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, where it first showed in 2015.

Bostonian curator Morse says that the show has a mobile philosophy; the story of March 11, 2011 is far from finished, so the exhibition must evolve to encompass, and provoke, new interpretations and viewpoints. “3/11 is all-pervasive, and it continues to have an effect. We want to present the exhibition in a different environment, to see how that affects the viewer,” Morse says.

Benefiting from a very precise curatorial vision, the exhibition unfolds in three precise sections.

The first part of the show, titled “The Art of Photographic Documentation after 3/11”, is reflective, rather than dramatic, with the photographers calmly depicting the broken houses and beached ships of the aftermath. It’s desolate, of course, as there are no people in the pictures, but not as surreal as you might expect – this really happened, the photographs tell us, it was not a bad dream.

Kozo Miyoshi’s work depicts a partially destroyed cemetery in Hiyorigaoka, and a big ship straddling a small road. Keizo Kitajima offers perfectly composed pictures of dilapidated houses, Jeff Wall-like photographs placed in a terrible universe of destruction. Kitajima plans to produce four shows or books relating to the event each year.

The presence of Tomoko Yoneda’s Hiroshima Peace Day, in “Image and Experiment: Towards a Visual Language for 3/11” directly links the nuclear aspect of the event to the bombings, locating it in a timeline of atomic disaster.

Opposite are some large-scale pictures of wild mushrooms by Takashi Homma. The mushrooms were photographed in the forests of Fukushima before the tragedy.

“After the earthquake, radioactive material was detected in them, and people were prohibited from harvesting and eating them,” says Homma. “Even though they have been affected by radiation, these mushrooms still live on in the forest.”

Two rooms in the centre of the show hold fascinating treasures. Munemasa Takahashi’s “Lost & Found” project collects family photographs from the debris and cleans them. A thousand or so such pictures poignantly cover a curved wall of the gallery. The images are damaged, although faces can sometimes be seen, begging the question, are the subjects alive, or are they dead?

More than 750,000 photographs have so far been collected, and over 20,000 have been reclaimed by their owners.

Creation awaits us after destruction. In this way, I felt that the scene before me was also a beginning
Rinko Kawauchi

Looking radiantly futuristic, in spite of using a 170-year-old technique, Takashi Arai’s Daguerreotypes bring a radioactive aura to objects and survivors. Daguerreotypes were used in the 1840s, and came to Japan in the 1850s. The process involves exposing silver-plated copper sheets to light, and then revealing an image in slight relief by using chemical processes. The family in Arai’s A Mother and Daughter Evacuated from Iitate Village emit a glow worthy of a science-fiction film.

The exhibition ends with “Framing Tohoku in Myth and Memory”, a room devoted to the culture of Tohoku, highlighting its reputation of being a mythic, enchanted area.

Photographer Lieko Shiga married a man in the region, and took photos of the rural area in the years before the earthquake. Shots like 2009’s Portrait of a Pine Tree, which shows an elderly couple carrying a giant tree root, highlight humans engaging with the natural forces that would later attempt to destroy them.

All of the photographers in the exhibition say there were personally moved by the events, and felt that the destruction nature unleashed had changed their world view forever. For some, March 11 has become a defining motivating factor for their work.

“Creation awaits us after destruction,” says photographer Rinko Kawauchi, who visited Tohoku’s coastline soon after the disaster. “In this way, I felt that the scene before me was also a beginning.”