Most commercial art galleries in Tokyo — or anywhere in the world, for that matter — would be happy to get 100 visitors through the door in a day. Artist collective Chim↑Pom’s most recent exhibition, “Real Times,” which was held over six days in May at Mujin-to Production in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, averaged five times that figure.
On the show’s last day, 900 people turned up — more than 100 per hour crammed into a space less than 50 sq. meters in area. Gallery staff had to stand outside on the curb making sure the crowds didn’t spill onto the street.
Attendance figures aren’t necessarily good indicators of quality. They are, however, accurate reflections of interest -and the success of “Real Times” shows that there is considerable interest in art that deals directly with the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, and the ensuing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
This month, the prolific Chim↑Pom are holding their second solo exhibition at Mujin-to Production since March 11, and this one also focuses on those same issues.
Chim↑Pom is best known for art that shocks — such as when they wrote “pika” (“flash”) using a sky-writing plane above Hiroshima’s Atomic Dome back in 2008 — but it could equally be said that their work is better characterized by clever multiple layering of meaning.
“I believe the art lies in the concept,” Ellie, the only woman in the six-person group, told The Japan Times prior to the opening last weekend of the new show, which is called “Survival Dance.” Ellie went on to explain the ideas behind some of the new works.
One entire wall is covered by what appear at first to be drawings in ash, or ceramic tiles pulled from a kiln — scorched black with flames.
“The motifs are all logos of products and things we found at Don Quijote,” Ellie said, referring to the discount supermarket chain. “We took photos there, then traced the motifs onto plaster boards in rope. Then we scorched the boards with flames.”
The conceptual twist lies in the nature of the flame that was used.
“We found out about a man who had kept a flame continuously burning since it was ignited by the atom bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945,” Ellie said. “It’s now kept as part of a monument in Kyushu. So we borrowed the flame and used it to burn the boards.”
And so the significance of what you’re faced with gradually becomes clear. Chim↑Pom has subjected symbols of present-day Tokyo to the flame of nuclear destruction. (“How to survive if such a future will arrive?,” the exhibition press release reads.)
For another work, Chim↑Pom went to Fukushima and found one of the many children’s sandpits there that have been closed due to concerns over radiation build-up.
“There were warning ropes around the sandpit,” Ellie said. But the artists went in and created a sand sculpture of a young child decked out in gas mask and radiation suit playing in the dirt. A photograph titled “Destiny Child” documents the sculpture.
A third new work is an update of one of the group’s early pieces, the controversial “Super Rat” from 2006.
“The idea with the original work was that some rats have developed immunity to poisons and so on — they’ve become tougher to survive in a harsher world,” said Ellie, describing the work for which rats were caught in Shibuya, stuffed and then (in a slightly gut-wrenching conceptual twist) dyed yellow and red to resemble Pikachu, the all-powerful character from the popular game franchise Pokemon.
“We’ve all had to become tougher to survive since March 11 — and so this new work is a homage to those who know how to live strongly: rats,” she said.
In the new work included in “Survival Dance,” rats are shown feasting on the plastic spaghetti food displays you might see outside cheap Italian restaurants. (When asked about complaints from animal-welfare groups in the past, Chim↑Pom member Ryuta Ushiro has said he hopes such criticism is directed not at their art but at the social problem underlying it: namely, that “hundreds of rats are killed every day.”)
Ellie said that she feels that she, too, has become stronger as a result of March 11. She was proud that Chim↑Pom was one of the first to respond artistically to March 11 with their “Real Times” show.
The most prominent work in that exhibition was called “LEVEL 7 feat. Myth of Tomorrow,” although in the Japanese media it was better known as the “Taro Okamoto graffiti” work.
A few weeks before that exhibition, depictions of the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors had been mysteriously added to the lower-right corner of renowned 20th-century artist Taro Okamoto’s 1969 mural, “Myth of Tomorrow,” which hangs at Tokyo’s Shibuya Station. Okamoto had intended the mural — a depiction of the nuclear explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as a reminder of the destructive force of nuclear weapons and radiation.
Just before the “Real Times” show opened, Chim↑Pom revealed that they had been behind the addition, and “Real Times” included a video of the artists hanging the artwork.
Ellie explained that the police referred Chim↑Pom’s actions to the prosecutor’s office for consideration of filing charges (for bill-posting), but that no decision had yet been made.
“It didn’t feel like we actually did that,” Ellie recalled. “It felt like we just made an obvious addition. It was like Taro had left that corner of the mural open for that very purpose.” The artists were careful to make their addition in a way that would not damage the mural itself.
Ellie continued that since March 11, she and her fellow members have been strongly conscious that their actions — the way they responded to all that has happened — would be the subject of close scrutiny by future generations.
“When I read biographies and things about how people acted during historic moments, it gives me courage and wisdom,” Ellie said. “I think people will react in the same way to what we have done.”
“Survival Dance” at Mujin-to Production runs till Oct. 15. A second Chim↑Pom exhibition, “K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” is being held at The Container in Daikanyama till Dec.19. For more information, visit www.mujin– to.com.