The photo shows an unshaven Russian glaring into the distance from behind prison bars. It’s a striking shot, so it is hardly surprising that when it was printed on a 4×6-meter banner and unfurled at an entrance to the 20-km exclusion zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the police officers on duty were somewhat perplexed.
“They came out and asked us what we were doing,” explained Alex Plutser-Sarno, a member of the infamous Russian art group Voina, which has been holding similar “actions” around the world for the last few months.
The man in the so-called “Voina Wanted” photo is the group’s leader, Oleg Vorotnikov, who was arrested in Russia in late 2010 after one of the group’s more provocative artistic forays — the overturning of an empty police car. Vorotnikov was eventually released on bail after British graffiti artist Banksy donated $20,000 to the group, but he remains on international wanted lists — and hence the “Voina Wanted” actions that have been held throughout Europe, the United States and now Japan.
“We came away from Fukushima without getting arrested, without having our banner confiscated and we got some good footage,” Plutser-Sarno said, with evident satisfaction. “This is so different to what happened in Spain.”
The footage of the Fukushima stunt is currently included in “Turning Around,” an unusual exhibition that opened over the weekend at Watari-um, Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, near Tokyo’s Aoyama district. Plutser-Sarno was in Japan for a fortnight to conduct the banner “actions” (they were also held at Yasukuni Shrine, the Supreme Court and elsewhere) and to attend the exhibition opening, at which he spoke with The Japan Times.
“The idea is to test the police reaction in various countries,” Plutser-Sarno said. “Police all over the world immediately recognize this as a wanted poster, but because it is so out of context, it takes them a while to work out if we are doing anything illegal.”
“Turning Around” is unusual because it has been curated by Chim↑Pom, the Japanese artist group that is itself known for its “artistic” brushes with the law. Last year, they added images of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to Taro Okamoto’s “Myth of Tomorrow,” a well-known mural at Shibuya Station, and when they were subsequently threatened with charges of “bill-posting,” they conducted a new performance in which they etched an image of the peace sign on the back of one of their members before photographing him in front of Shibuya Police Station.
Chim↑Pom leader Ryuta Ushiro explained that 2011 seemed to be a watershed year. “Not only was there the quake and nuclear crisis in Japan, but there were the revolutions in the Middle East, Kim Jung Il died, Gadaffi died, Bin Laden died, there were the Occupy Wall Street protests and the anti-austerity protests in Europe” he said.
The exhibition, he continued, is an attempt to showcase the many artists around the world who are responding to this upheaval with works of art, often made in public, that convey a sense of resistance towards authority, usually with a generous dose of ironic humor.
“In Russia there is Voina, in Britain there is Banksy, in France there is the photographer JR and in Japan there are people like us,” Ushiro said. “All of our work is different as it has developed in response to the circumstances of our own countries, but there is a common sensibility.”
“Turning Around” includes work by all those artists, except Banksy, as well as some by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, which is known for having instigated the Occupy Wall Street movement, and others by Japanese artists such as Kota Takeuchi, who is thought to be the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear-power-plant worker who caused a kerfuffle last year when he appeared on one of the facility’s live Web-cameras and pointed ominously at the viewer.
The most prominent of the exhibits at the new exhibition is a giant photograph of one of Voina’s most celebrated stunts: a 65-meter-long phallus painted on the asphalt surface of a drawbridge located directly in front of the St. Petersburg offices of the Federal Security Service.
Plutser-Sarno, who on Saturday was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with slogan, “The street is my gallery,” explained that the drawbridge, when raised, presented a “giant f-ck-you” to the Russian security apparatus, which Voina accuses of corruption and arbitrary application of the law.
When Plutser-Sarno was showing videos of this 2010 stunt at a gallery talk on Saturday night, the images were greeted with peals of laughter from Tokyo’s young, art-savvy crowd. “People say Chim↑Pom is bad, but we are nothing compared to these guys,” enthused Ushiro after the event.
Of course the question on everyone’s minds was how, if at all, the experience of working with some of the “baddest” artists in the world was going to influence the work of Chim↑Pom and other Japanese artists.
“We learned the importance of self-preservation,” Ushiro said with a laugh. One of his fellow group members, Motomu Inaoka, recounted the experience of accompanying Plutser-Sarno to Yasukuni Shrine to photograph the “Wanted” banner there.
“The police asked for the memory stick for his camera, but Alex had already hidden the real one in his sock, so he was able to hand over an empty one,” Inaoka said. “After that, I was busy answering questions from the police and the next thing I knew, Alex had disappeared. Later on he called us and we were like, ‘Where are you?’ “
One young artist, Yutaro Midorikawa, who accompanied Plutser-Sarno in Fukushima, commented that the Russian appeared to be most enlivened immediately after their run-in with the police.
“He really seemed to feed off the interaction,” Midorikawa noted. “It was as though for him the actual confrontation was the creative act.”
Artist Kota Takeuchi, meanwhile, said that Pluster-Sarno’s tales of arrests and beatings by the Russian authorities made him realize just how different Japanese society is.
“Alex suggested that Japan is a peaceful society — a statement that got a lot of laughs during the talk — but I found that comment interesting,” Takeuchi said. “I really sense that it’s like we Japanese are lolling about in a warm bath, too accustomed to our present comfort levels to be able to change anything.”
Takeuchi suggested that “Turning Around” will be successful because it isn’t just about Voina — that is to say, it isn’t simply about confronting authority. His own work, he continued, is about movement from a person directly involved with the nuclear crisis (the finger-pointing worker) to the viewer at home — as though to awaken the public to their own culpability in the catastrophe.
He then mentioned one of the new works that Chim↑Pom has made for the show — a giant glass arrow cut from one of the museum’s internal windows and then set up so that it appears to have been speared into the gallery floor.
“That work is all about the trajectory of Japanese society, the Japanese mood, which had always pointed upwards, but has now reversed course and is crashing downwards,” he said.
Takeuchi said he thought that the interesting thing about the exhibition was that it captured all these opposing dynamics in society — people-power going up, authoritarian power coming down, power bouncing back and forth between the members of society, giddy rises and then precipitous falls in the mood of the people. His description cast the exhibition as a kind of giant pinball machine, with the participants like pinball balls, bouncing here and there off one other, and no doubt building momentum for when they are released once again into society.
“Turning Around” at the Watari-um, Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, runs till July 8. For more information, visit www.watarium.co.jp.