The gritty truths behind the image

Despite their surface calm, Noritoshi Hirakawa's photos reveal dark realities

by Danielle Demetriou

A rising full moon against a twilight sky and a shimmer of pink on the surface of the sea. So far, so postcard. But this is no regular Japanese beauty spot. Just visible in the distance is a clutch of white chimneys jutting into the sky, offering a sinister clue to the location of the seemingly serene photograph: one of the country’s most controversial nuclear power stations.

The world of Noritoshi Hirakawa is a place where things are never quite as they seem. In his quest to uncover “unchangeable truths,” the New York-based artist has long relished tackling subjects that society is more comfortable shying away from. From the attraction of suicide to voyeuristic peeking through the barriers of Japan’s class system, Hirakawa has probed an array of social issues in exhibitions at the Venice Biennale and in Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt, Ghent and Antwerp.

Two different issues, however, are taking center stage in two separate shows the artist is currently staging in Tokyo: the dangers of nuclear power and relationships in Japanese families. At “Silence in the Night,” a joint show with Hiroshi Sunairi and Arto Lindsay at Wako Works of Art in Shinjuku, Hirakawa showcases “In Reminiscence of the Sea,” a row of simple landscape photographs that at first sight appear to capture the scenic beauty of the Japanese countryside. Beneath the facade of sunsets and moonshine, however, a grittier reality prevails; the photographs were taken at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant overlooking the Sea of Enshu on the central Pacific coast of Japan. The town has long been fractured by political debate over the presence of a nuclear plant in the heart of the community. Its sensitive location along the Fossa Magna fault line, where seismologists have long warned of the potential for an earthquake of epic proportions, adds to tensions. On a second white wall, one solitary picture hangs alone. In this shot — the only picture featuring a human form — the artist links the plant directly to the community: A pregnant woman lies languorously on a tatami-mat floor, her swollen belly clearly in focus as her husband sits to the side.

“I visited Hamaoka for two years,” Hirakawa explains, speaking in slow, measured tones over a cup of tea. “This woman was six months pregnant and lives with her husband in a house right next to the nuclear plant.

“People do not seem to recognize the dangers of radioactivity. People do not connect the nuclear bombs that were dropped in Japan with these nuclear plants. People do not seem to think about how crazy it is that this plant was built right in the middle of the town.”

The nuclear issue is timely. Security tensions with North Korea have been simmering heatedly in recent weeks, with a flurry of Japanese military missile tests, confusion surrounding the health of Kim Jong Il and the arrival of the U.S. nuclear warship in its new home in Japan. Briefly slipping into Wikipedia mode, Hirakawa fires a steady stream of statistics: “55 nuclear power plants in Japan”, “200,000 nuclear workers in Japan”, “10 percent of Japan’s GDP from nuclear power.” He continues: “These are all peaceful images. But if you know the whole story, it completely changes your perception. That is one of the functions of art. Many people take pictures of children with one eye or deformed limbs. But the real problem is invisible.”

T he issues are more obvious at Nanzuka Underground, where a concurrent solo exhibition of Hirakawa’s work, “A Sense of Accomplishment,” has an entirely different theme. There the artist looks at young women in Shibuya and the nature of their relationships with their parents. “Shibuya is a city of escape,” says Hirakawa. “As many as 300,000 people come to Shibuya every day from all over Japan and many are young women. It is a place of entertainment, with love hotels, clubs, shops, bars.

“But in reality, Shibuya is a place for people who have nowhere to go. They are all looking for some kind of true connection without lies.”

In Hirakawa’s eyes, the darkest lies are those that exist within a family. Stopped by the artist on the streets of Shibuya, 10 women agreed to have their — as well as their parents’ — portraits taken. In simple black-and-white triptychs, the subjects lie on the ground, but the photographs have been turned on their sides, creating the illusion of the people hovering off the ground. The effect obliterates any understanding of their conventional roles as mother, father or daughter. In a move that is more poignant than erotic, most of the women have placed their hands in their underwear as they stare defiantly into the lens.

In an adjoining room, five solo portraits of young women unaccompanied by shots of their parents form the second part of the exhibition, “A Daughter’s Proposal.” These works are of women whose parents refused to take part in the project.

“Families in Japan are falling apart because of lies. Ties are weakening between family members and people are unable to be honest,” says Hirakawa. “There is a culture of pretending that everything is OK, that women do not have sex before marriage. This is a fiction and an anachronism.

“These women were prepared to be completely honest. They are young women who did not want to live a lie to their parents.”

From the realities of living on the doorstep of a nuclear power station to testing the boundaries of relations between lost girls on the streets of Shibuya and their parents, there is one resonant cord throughout Hirakawa’s work — the quest for undeniable truths.

“The framework of society is based on fictions and this makes people lie,” says the photographer. “It is always easier to believe the lies. But it is these lies that are loosening the bonds of society.”

“Silence in the Light,” is at Wako Works of Art till Oct. 11. “Joan Jonas: Drawings and Videos” (see sidebar) is also showing at Wako till Oct. 11; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (closed Sun. and Mon.). For more information call (03) 3373-2860 or visit www.wako-art.jp “A Sense of Accomplishment” is at Nanzuka Underground till Oct. 12; open 1-8 p.m. (closed Mon. and Tues.). For more information call (03) 3400-0075 or visit www.nug.jp.