The spectacular landscapes left by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami have been used as source material by photographers to an extraordinary degree. Yes, using the words “spectacular” and “landscape” here may seem indecent, but this is one of many difficult issues that arise when photography and human suffering meet. Another problem is that “good” work, however you want to define it, may have resulted from questionable motives, and vice versa.
One thing’s for sure, in contrast to the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, where only a handful of photographers created work that was intended for a gallery environment, the devastation from this more recent and more deadly event has been documented and worked on by many more people in a greater variety of ways.
Two exhibitions commemorating 3/11, one at the Meguro Museum of Art in Tokyo, and another at the Japan Society in New York, take different approaches to photography and disaster. The museum in Meguro is temporarily hosting “Documentary of the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and History of Tsunami Disaster,” which is normally a permanent exhibit at the Rias Ark Museum in Miyage Prefecture. This museum is run jointly by Kesennuma and Minami Sanrikucho, two of the areas hit hardest five years ago.
The Japan Society “In the Wake” exhibition, co-curated with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the inaugural event of the new director of the gallery Yukie Kamiya, features work by some of the best photographic artists working today and an installation of family photos retrieved in the “Lost and Found” project (lostandfound311.jp/en), in which hundreds of thousands of personal photos have been collected by volunteers and Self Defense Forces personnel in the disaster area. Cleaned up and digitized, many of the photos were returned to their original owners; the remainder form an archive that, it is hoped, will provide a visceral and intimate way to connect with what happened.
As well as commemorating the disaster, the Japan Society exhibition is also about individual visions and the virtuosity with which artists have been able to realize them. By contrast, the Rias Ark photographs are not titled and there is no attribution to individual photographers. Though it is not absent, photographic or artistic quality is not an overriding concern. The former exhibition will be visited by predominantly non-Japanese visitors and Japanese ex-pats, the latter, by dint of having no foreign language support, is primarily directed at domestic visitors.
The exhibition in New York shows a range of work; including snapshots, formal still lifes, daguerrotypes, meticulous large-format landscapes and photograms. The Rias Ark images are mainly of just two types: landscapes and close-ups of recovered everyday objects that are rusted or caked with mud. The recovered artifacts have been tagged and are all shown with the same dim, tungsten lighting. Besides this photographic documentation, there are two displays of local history. One has cottage-industry tools such as fishing lures and spears and claws for gathering shellfish, the other has prints and photographs that record the 1896 Sanriku earthquake and tsunami. Some of these prints are fairly rough and artless: one shows a murder of crows pecking at the eyeballs of corpses.
Apart from these sidebars, a crucial point with the Rias Ark exhibition is that it is relentless. The photography has been produced collectively, and while there is some conscious stylistic variation, by and large, the landscapes and the images of people’s belongings are two typologies. That is to say, a strong message of the Rias Ark images can be derived from considering them as two series, and, rather than dwelling on how each individual image might express a photographer’s creative skill, it is the mass of documentation that communicates the scale of the destruction and personal loss. One vast landscape of debris is visually startling and uncomfortably impressive, looking at a hundred is grim, depressing, awful.
Extensive text accompanies most of the images, which comes in the form of personal testimonies or short texts on “keywords.” Some English translation has been organized by Rias Ark, but unfortunately aren’t displayed at the exhibition in Meguro. These texts made me well up with tears. They don’t plead; they don’t go on about prayers, hope and unity. They speak lucidly and carefully about right and responsibilities, the gap between the mythologies of bravery and suffering that have developed around victimhood, and the experience and observations of survivors themselves. There is a discussion of details and procedures, the necessity to establish a reasonable and sustainable standard of living, and not be distracted by events aimed at temporary catharsis.
For “In the Wake,” this last point may be an issue, especially since it takes place abroad, but it is not the purpose of the exhibition. As gallery director Kamiya puts it: “The works on view transcend time and place to tell a universal story of survival and rebirth.”
The new director is keen to broaden and question the meaning of “Japaneseness,” and her promotion of individual and distinct practices takes into account an important change in Japanese society since 3/11: a collective view should not be taken for granted. “In the Wake” makes as many different points as there are artists, some of whom also lost loved ones in the tsunami, but overall it says that when we are dead and gone, art is a vessel through which our diverse perceptions, intelligence and humanity can live on.
Rias Ark’s images at the Meguro Museum, on the other hand, draws attention to the local and specific. It challenges the process of memorialization as a way of seeming respectful and sympathetic and reminds us that clarity of thought, not pity, will solve the area’s ongoing problems.
“Documentary of the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and History of Tsunami Disaster” at the Meguro Museum of Art, Tokyo, runs until March 2; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Closed Mon. mmat.jp. “In The Wake: Japanese Photographers respond to 3/11” at the Japan Society, New York, runs until June 12, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. until 9 p.m., Sat., Sun. until 5 p.m.) $12. Closed Mon. bit.ly/japansoc311