Awakening ‘Forgetful Spaces’
On Saturday, March 14th 2015, artist Kirk Palmer and sociologist Yoshitaka Mouri met with Art Action UK to discuss the impact of nuclear power in Japan, and to consider the ways in which we form both individual and collective memories following nuclear disasters.
The discussion event took place at White Conduit Projects in London and was part of an exhibition and series of events entitled Those Who Go East. Curated by Art Action UK, Those Who Go East commemorated the earthquake and tsunami in East Japan in March 2011 and the on-going nuclear meltdown. Those Who Go East featured artists who live and work in East Japan as well as artists who have been there to make work in the areas affected by nuclear radiation. It explored the ways in which artistic practices might reflect, inform and influence our social and political responses to nuclear catastrophes.
The following article brings together themes and ideas discussed during the event. It considers the social impact of the nuclear meltdown in East Japan, and how artistic responses reflect on and influence the creation of individual and collective memories.
On March 11th 2011 an earthquake and tsunami hit East Japan and damaged 3 of the 6 nuclear reactors in Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing the largest nuclear meltdown since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The power plant had been commissioned in 1971 and was built and operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
In a New York Times article reflecting on the events of 3/11, Robert Jay Lifton, author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima and lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, stated:
‘There was resistance [to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant], much of it from Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. But there was also a pattern of denial, cover-up and cozy bureaucratic collusion between industry and government.’[i]
This pattern of denial has extended to include the nuclear meltdown in 2011. And as time passes, there is an increasing sense of collective amnesia regarding the risks of nuclear energy production.
In Japan, the expression huuka is used to refer to the waning media coverage of the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. Huuka originally has geological meaning; literally translated, it means ‘weathering’ or natural erosion. When used to describe a social consciousness however, it indicates the gradual slippage of memory. The expression huuka signifies a deep sense of loss, rather than simply a memory lapse.
Huuka is less apparent during the month of March as media reports focus on the commemorative actions and events taking place in Japan and globally. However, despite the fact that Fukushima is still a no-go zone and the plant continues to leak nuclear waste into the ocean, the issues surrounding the nuclear meltdown are covered as if they are in the past.
Dr. Yoshitaka Mouri is a sociologist and critic from Tokyo University of the Arts who has been researching the role of art and music within activism, with a particular focus on the protests following the nuclear meltdown. He explains; ‘It’s not as though the memory has been eroded naturally, but it’s more as if there is a kind of ‘will’ or ‘conspiracy’ to want to forget.’
But there are two kinds of huuka. One can mean a wilful forgetting; knowingly allowing memories to be weathered; and the other can refer to an erasure of memory that is needed to survive. The latter perhaps relates to those directly affected by the disaster, who, despite a deep sense of loss, have to focus on immediate, day-to-day needs. But the former is also of social concern, because this surrendering of memory can have a negative psychological impact and, when experienced on such a large social scale, it can have on-going repercussions.
‘It feels as though society in Japan is suffering from a psychological illness of wanting to forget. People don’t talk about it or discuss it, but anxiety is always there’ Mouri reflects, ‘it is particularly acute for young families and people bringing up children.’
Nevertheless, many people who live in cities further afield may not feel this anxiety. The government create a sense that everything is ‘okay’, and although protests against nuclear energy production continue, the media rarely covers them.
Mouri explains that in Tokyo, two worlds coexist side by side without touching each other. One world is concerned with the nuclear meltdown and the other carries on obliviously. ‘They are almost like parallel worlds’ states Mouri. But it is possible to bridge the gap between these worlds, and for Mouri and many other artists, writers and musicians, creative cultural projects can do this more affectively than traditional activist protests.
Kirk Palmer is a British artist whose works reflect on the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. His work explores the question of what places still hold of past events and past traumas, and his recent exhibition at The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation- Remembering Absence- featured moving image works and photography created in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Yakushima. His recent photographic series Precious Fragments features images that ‘attempt to rekindle’ something of these places. The images have a mysterious quality; they appear to ‘reside between an ambiguous historical time,’ no longer anchored in the present moment.
Palmer emphasises that his works are individual attempts to reflect on the atomic bombings. His works form spaces that facilitate a process of contemplation and Palmer carefully avoids telling viewers what to think. ‘The works are quite open in a sense that people can bring their own knowledge, thoughts and feelings about those events to the works,’ he explains. These works allow people to step out of their day-to-day routines and re-engage with their own memories. The nuclear bombings created levels of radiation in the environment that were deemed unsafe for a few weeks. Nevertheless, the impact on the physical and mental health of the survivors continues to this day. By asking us to contemplate these repercussions, the work provides a ‘bridge’ between the two worlds Mouri speaks of- the oblivious world of everyday habit and the world that acknowledges the invisible impacts of nuclear catastrophes.
Palmer’s interest in themes of memory and trauma began when he was a student at the Royal College of Art, where he was awarded a scholarship to go to Japan for three months. This was summer 2005, which marked the 60th anniversary of the nuclear bombings. During this time, Palmer lived on the outskirts of Kyoto, with views across the city delta. These images of the landscape called to mind the aftermath panoramas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Shigeo Hayashi.
Palmer started to read about the atomic bombings in more detail and quickly learned that Kyoto had originally been a target for the bombs. Faced with such a huge and sensitive subject, he tentatively created Murmur, a film featuring bamboo groves in Kyoto and Hiroshima, which he describes as an ‘oblique representation’ of his contemplation of the bombings. This marked the start of a ten-year journey of learning about and reflecting on these events.
Film still from Murmur (2006) © Kirk Palmer
The following year, Palmer returned to Japan to make Hiroshima. He wanted to explore the process of ‘reaching’ the atomic bombings from a distance of 60-70 years and as someone from a different part of the world, even though from the outset he acknowledged that this was ultimately impossible. Central to this work is a desire to facilitate empathy, initially within himself, but by extension the viewer.
Film still 3 from Hiroshima (2007) © Kirk Palmer
The sense of huuka is very much part of Hiroshima. Palmer explains; ‘I had a historic image of Hiroshima but hadn’t stopped to think of what it was actually like. So it was quite a shock to find such a beautiful city, and outside of certain designated areas, very little to remind you of what happened. But strangely that absence put me more in mind of it.’ Palmer describes this as a ‘conspicuous absence’, and he wanted to film these ‘forgetful spaces’. For this reason he avoided filming memorials or using direct images of the bombings. Direct imagery is important and significant, but Palmer’s works refrain from using imagery that risks being confrontational. However, the very title ‘Hiroshima’ alludes to a history that brings with it a set of images that varies with each viewer. The conspicuous absence of direct imagery within the artwork is an intentional strategy because it creates a counterpoint within the mind of the viewer, rather than in the artwork. In this way, the stark absence of the tragedy within the artworks extends contemplative time rather than provoking a knee-jerk reaction.
Artists are increasingly addressing the issue of huuka; on 11th March this year- a group of artists including artist collective Chim Pom and Ai Wei Wei collaborated within a prohibited area of high radiation in East Japan to create twelve artworks under the title Don’t Follow The Wind. Described as an ‘inaccessible exhibition’, the twelve projects can only be viewed when the area becomes safe to live in again; ‘which may be beyond our lifetime’[ii]. These works become part of a kind of time capsule, a visual reminder that will surface in the future and recall the latent dangers and anxieties of the nuclear meltdown. And they also serve as a social critique, highlighting the lack of knowledge and of transparency surrounding the nuclear clean-up.
Following the disaster, TEPCO installed a 24/7 live camera on the Daiichi power plant, to give a sense of transparency, a sense of openness. However, this illusion is obsolete, as it has recently emerged that a huge amount of radioactive water has been released into the sea. Mouri explains ‘There is a widespread perception that within the [government/ TEPCO] power structure that there are things that are hidden.’
New York-based Japanese writer and translator Sabu Kohso provides a strongly oppositional, even anarchic, voice within current discourses on nuclear energy production. Kohso explores the wider impact of nuclear energy use, understanding it as a weapon of state control and capitalism. In an article entitled Turbulence of Radiation and Revolution, Kohso states 'All conduct of the Japanese government in the wake of 3/11 has proven that the state would choose continuation of capitalist operation and its own sovereignty over the well-being of the people. It has been constantly blurring information about present risks of radiation and critical conditions of the power plants' [iii]
Day-to-day anxiety regarding radiation is suppressed using misleading data and over-confident rhetoric, but this does not dispel the issue. Kohso writes 'Radiation is gradually and steadily permeating every corner of the social space via metropolitan functions such as circulation, exchangem and transportation at the same time as it is being carried around by all atmospheric activities, including wind, rain and oceanic currents.' [iv]
The global issues surrounding our dependency on nuclear power production, and the pervasive capitalist systems that determine energy politics are, for many of us, overwhelming and paralysing. Can art communicate in a way that can have a social impact? If so, how? This is a huge question for the artists and writers who address micro-political themes surrounding nuclear energy, as well as artists whose work acts as a social critique.
For Kirk Palmer, his work is an initial step on a shared journey; an exploration of memory and trauma that enables increased understanding of these events. ‘I’m representing the space that allows people to make their own observations and enter into the work in a similar way to me,’ he explains. ‘It’s an empathetic process. It’s important that lessons are learned [from the bombings], but part of that process is first of all feeling something and then setting about understanding it as well as you can.' These processes of feeling and understanding are necessary steps to allow for changes within the wider social consciousness.
As Dr. Yoshitaka Mouri points out, cultural practices can form a ‘bridge’; a communicative passage that facilitates a flow of ideas and knowledge between different individuals and groups of people. Whilst not immediately political, they can influence the way we understand and respond to political issues. Cultural practices can create shared spaces that not only bring people together, but allow for a kind of social engagement that generates a sense of freedom and emancipation. The wider social impact of these cultural practices cannot be measured in concrete terms, but instead they perpetuate the creation of new social zeitgeists that demand new and responsive political reforms.
Kirk Palmer: Palmer studied at the Royal College of Art in London. In 2006 he won the The Conran Foundation Award and has since been shortlisted for awards including the London Artists' Film and Video Awards (2007) and the Salon Video Art Prize (2010). His recent solo exhibition at The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation was entitled Remembering Absence and his work has been featured as part of the current Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition at Tate Modern.
Dr. Yoshitaka Mouri: Mouri is a sociologist at Tokyo University of the Arts. His research explores contemporary art and urban space and cultural and social movements. His publications include Culture=Politics: Cultural and Political Movement in the Age of Globalization, Popular Music and Capitalism, and Philosophy in the Streets.
[i] Robert Jay Lifton, Fukushima and Hiroshima, APRIL 15, 2011, The New York Times
[ii] ‘Don’t Follow the Wind’; www.dontfollowthewind.info
[iii] Sabu Kohso, Radiation and Revolution, Borderlands E-Journal special issue: Commons Class Struggle and The World
[iv] Sabu Kohso, Radiation and Revolution, Borderlands E-Journal special issue: Commons Class Struggle and The World