Aichi Triennale’s best works deal with disaster

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, a lot of art here has dealt with disaster. Not all the pieces in the second installment of the Aichi Triennale are on this theme — but the best ones are.

The event launched in 2010 with three aims: to display cutting-edge visual art with an international perspective; to celebrate the charm of host city Nagoya; and to incorporate non-visual media — opera, dance and music — into the format. In addition to venues in Nagoya, the event will also be held at locations in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, for the first time.

The role that art should play in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in March 2011 has been an ongoing topic of discussion in the art community. Artistic director Taro Igarashi has thus gone with the theme: “Awakening — Where are we Standing? — Earth, Memory and Resurrection.” Given that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in part brought about the “postwar” designation for everything from economic revival to art history, it’s not far off to assert that the “Made in Japan” nuclear crisis has also signaled an end to a period of history — postwar until March 11, 2011.

Two massive installations cap the ends of the main exhibition as prospective frames of reference: Shinjiro Okamoto’s “Rolling Cherry Blossoms: The Big Bomb for Tokyo” (2006) and Katsuhiro Miyamoto’s “The Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant Shrine” (2012).

Okamoto’s massive piece spreads out over an entire room and depicts the 1945 U.S. firebombing of Tokyo. It is littered with a slew of far-flung visual and verbal cues that include bombers; the death-fugue poem by Paul Celan titled “Black Milk”; and an archaeology of war ruins and references to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Laid out on the ground is a postwar timeline that begins with the realization of the full horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the flash explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It then jumps forward to the Iraq war, from where an arrow points to an approaching apocalypse.

An enormous mural comprising the backdrop of the timeline depicts Japanese creation myths, such as that of the sun goddess Amaterasu. These are tied into wartime tales such as that of the “nine war gods,” Japanese soldiers who lost their lives in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The same work also features pop-culture references such as the wartime comic “Boken Dankichi,” in which the main character ventures to the South Seas and becomes king of an island. The mural’s deluge of allusions, which combine fact and fiction, engage and disconcert while suggesting the facitiousness and destructive potential of telling essentialist tales of gods and heroes.

With “The Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant Shrine” (2012), architect Miyamoto imagines the No. 1 nuclear plant via a 1:200-scale model in which the stricken reactors have been turned into shrines or mausoleums — aquatic tombs housing radioactive waste and melted fuel rods. Irimoya-style gabled roofs cover the No. 2, 3 and 4 reactors, while a hōgyō-style hipped roof covers the No. 1 building. The size of each would, in reality, be about the equivalent to the size of the Great Buddha Hall of Todaiji Temple in Nara. By capping the reactors with such traditional and symbolic structures, Miyamoto memorializes the buildings and consigns the event to history. In a related work, the architect has created a full-scale model of a reactor within the cavernous gallery of main venue Aichi Arts Center to bring home the enormity of the nuclear crisis.

Dutch artist Aernout Mik’s “Cardboard Walls” (2013) is a video installation with a different point of view in that it focuses specifically on disaster evacuees through a theatrical reconstruction of actual events. Scenes are projected onto white monitors and show a generic reconstruction of the Big Palette Fukushima conference building, which served as a disaster-refugee center, and highlights the hardships of evacuation. The refugees are housed within cardboard cubicles that only contain whatever possessions they were able to grab when they fled. The small shelters don’t have roofs or privacy. Blue-jacketed Tepco employees move through the crowded cardboard slum bowing and getting on their hands and knees in order to apologize. One old man gestures for them to get out, waving his finger as he scolds them. The blue-coated delegation then move off and find someone new to apologize to. At one point, the Tepco employees go to sleep in one of the cardboard enclosures and this allows the viewer to vicariously live the life of the victim through the victimizer. This is done through the surrounding projection screens. However, the viewer — and the Tepco official — gets to move on from this situation. Their duties are done, their inaudible apologies delivered and the scenes are silent. It is pathetic, painful and moving.

Much of what is on display is somber and reflective. For some optimism, though, find what Kenji Yanobe calls his “embarrassingly positive” contribution. Known for producing post-apocalyptic nuclear-themed works that focus on Chernobyl, Yanobe’s “Wedding of the Sun” (2013) is an architectural installation that featured a couple getting married on the opening day of the triennale. Pledging their everlasting love to each other, they were enveloped in light and wed. However, the light is how Yanobe represents nuclear power in the piece, indicating “the wrong faith.”

Aichi Triennale is billed as Japan’s largest. There are more than 100 artists and artistic teams involved in the exhibitions and performances. While themes vary, it’s the disaster-related pieces that are the ones to see here. We are not even three years away from the events of March 11, 2011, but it’s good to see that the arts community is thoroughly addressing the ramifications.

Aichi Triennale runs at the Aichi Arts Center and several venues in Nagoya and Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, through Oct. 27. Ticket prices vary. For more information, call 052-971-6111 or visit www.aichitriennale.jp.