What can art do? What role can it play when the whole world seems suddenly unstable, unsure?
At first, the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami that followed sent the Japanese art world into a kind of stunned silence. And that was understandable. As artist Tadanori Yokoo told me in July, “I couldn’t work for about a week after the quake. I was too busy checking on friends and the news.”
After that initial period of shock, however, many artists, and others who make up the “art industry,” went through what appeared to be a bout of self-doubt. The question I heard time and time again was “What can art do?”
Many answers emerged: Art can be sold at charity auctions; art can help relieve children through workshops in tsunami-affected areas; art can be put on temporary housing in the form of soothing murals. And so on.
Yes, art can do those things. And, admirably, art did do all these things — or rather artists, curators and other organizers did. In fact, they did so many things that it would take several pages of this newspaper to document them all.
But, I couldn’t help thinking that there was another answer to this question that people were overlooking.
What can art do? What can art do in a time of crisis?
Art can do what it always does, which is open our eyes to aspects of life we don’t know, focus our attention on social issues, evoke pleasant — or unpleasant — feelings we might not be able to explain. Art can help us get through periods of emotional stress.
Of course, no two viewers will react exactly the same way to a work of art. Some might have found respite from the stress of 2011 through the kind of escapist historical journey that was provided by the Suntory Museum of Art’s excellent exhibition of 16th-century “Namban” Christian missionary-related art, which was held in autumn. It was an immensely enjoyable show, but I wouldn’t call it a highlight of the year. For me, the most powerful artworks of the year — the artworks that helped me work through the various emotions and thoughts I was experiencing — were those that dealt with the events of and after March 11.
After getting through the initial shock of the quake and tsunami, Yokoo told me that he got back into his usual routine of making paintings day in, day out. A large selection of those paintings was included in the Yokohama Triennale, which was held from Aug. 6 till Nov. 6. The paintings were of darkened streets — a motif that Yokoo guessed people would associate with the experience of energy-saving measures that we all endured this year. That’s what I saw in them, and that’s why they reverberated with me as a viewer. It turned out that Yokoo had been making such works for several months before March 11, but he didn’t see that as a problem. “I can’t control what people see in the art and I wouldn’t want to,” he said.
Another artist who made a new work for the Triennale was Yoko Ono, who created a glass labyrinth to express the idea of being able to see where you want to go, but not knowing how to get there. I found it a moving metaphor for the year.
Artist group Chim↑Pom’s two exhibitions at Tokyo gallery Mujinto Production, “Real Times” and “Survival Dance,” were both good. The video work “KI-AI 100” (“100 Consecutive Cheers”), included in the first show, was particularly strong. Shot in the city of Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, it shows a group of youths huddled in a circle among the wreckage of their hometown taking turns to shout out “kiai” (“cheers”) for whatever happened to come to their minds: “Let’s rebuild this place!” “Buy the spinach!” “Thirty microsieverts!” “I want a girlfriend!” “Soma sucks!” In a few cathartic minutes, the work seems to capture the contradictory feelings that those in the tsunami-affected areas are now experiencing.
That same show included documentation of the group’s controversial “Myth of Tomorrow” project, for which they surreptitiously added a panel depicting the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plants to the Taro Okamoto mural of the atomic bombs exploding over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that hangs in Shibuya Station.
Although it brought a hail of criticism, the project was entirely in step with something that the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, had done just weeks earlier. The stated goal of the MOMAT Taro Okamoto retrospective, “Okamoto Taro: The 100th Anniversary of His Birth,” which ran from March 8 through May 8 this year, was to point out that Okamoto’s life was “a series of confrontations with conventional values,” where one of those “values” was the belief in the safety of nuclear power. Chim↑Pom’s action did precisely the same thing, only far more subtly and (thanks to the media) with a much larger audience.
Incidentally, kudos to MOMAT for that Okamoto retrospective. It would have been a highlight of any year, but this year it also provided a timely reminder of how even destruction can be a powerful inspiration for creativity. (Okamoto’s career as an artist was greatly influenced by his experience as a soldier in World War II.)
Another “artwork” that was arresting in the same way as Chim↑Pom’s was a video that emerged on YouTube. A still-unidentified Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant worker can be seen pointing an accusatory finger at one of Tepco’s live Web cameras at the plant. The mystery “finger-pointer” eventually explained his actions in an anonymous blog post, saying he was protesting against working conditions at the plant. He also went to the trouble of stating that he was influenced by American performance artist Vito Acconci (who also made a video of a “pointing man”) — a fact that suggests that he is either a day laborer with diverse interests or an artist with diverse working habits. The video was a carefully planned, skillfully executed and visually arresting piece of self-expression that affords diverse interpretation, and if that doesn’t qualify it as art, then I don’t know what would.
Some art works have always involved audience participation, and the post-March 11 reappraisal of the importance of community bonds provided artists with a broad “canvas.” Tsubasa Kato’s “The Light Houses” project, held in Iwaki City on the Fukushima coastline in November, was a sight to behold. As the evening sun cast an orange hue over houses and buildings whose first floors were ripped apart from the tsunami, Kato brought together a group of around 300 locals to heave on ropes that raised a three-story wooden lighthouse. The deeply symbolic structure, raised through a massive communal effort, seemed to shine the light of hope into the future.
Also, there were several exhibitions this year that, like MOMAT’s Okamoto retrospective, were not originally planned in response to the March 11 quake, but proved particularly well-suited to this turbulent year. The Mori Art Museum’s ongoing “Metabolism” showcases attempts by young architects to re-imagine their country in the aftermath of World War II. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective for Naoya Hatakeyama allowed that photographer to add sobering documents of his own hometown of Rikuzentakata, which was devastated by the tsunami.
Of course, not all artists are as quick off the mark as Chim↑Pom or as closely connected to the March 11 disaster as Hatakeyama. Just like the memories of 2011 will stay with all of us, so too will they stay with this nation’s artists, and over the years, those memories are likely to find expression in many new works. As someone who finds solace in art, I believe that is something to look forward to.
Finally, I should briefly mention two other positive developments from this year that were entirely unrelated to the quake. In March, the government signed into law a national indemnity system for artworks, thus making it easier for museums to borrow pieces from overseas as their insurance costs are greatly reduced. And, in February, Tokyo’s famously disparate commercial galleries came a little bit closer together when four of them, including Wako Works of Art, moved into the Piramide Building in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.