In May 2011, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry promoted the idea of “Cool Japan,” presenting Japanese culture as a product amid the confusing circumstances after the Great East Japan Earthquake. As Japan continues to suffer a declining population and weak economy, it was a government attempt to create a branding strategy for recovery.

Most people didn’t take much notice of the “cool” policy, but Art Tower Mito curator Mizuki Takahashi was infuriated by it, seeing the makeover policy as out of touch with reality, oblivious to the fact that Japan could not easily return to the economic strength of past decades. Amid the heat of the nation’s nuclear radiation situation, she saw the construction of a “Cool Japan” as an ironic effort.

Takahashi began a dialogue with artist Tadasu Takamine as part of an effort to have visitors reflect on the strong impact the March 11 disasters had, and is still having, on Japanese society. The location of Art Tower Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture, which is close to Fukushima, as well as Mito’s proximity to the site of two previous nuclear accidents in Tokaimura (in 1997 and 1999), gives a chilling context for thinking about the downside of nuclear energy.

While researching the show, Takamine uncovered photos of the burned landscape of Mito after World War II and recorded extensive conversations with local shopkeepers on the topic of nuclear radiation in food.

According to Takahashi, this exhibition probes for a more fundamental definition of happiness, a joy that is found in the possibilities opened by critical thinking. The Japan Times discussed this idea and the development of “Cool Japan” with the artist.

Can you explain the flow of this exhibition, starting with the colorful wall that opens the show?

The first wall of the exhibit (The Cool Japan Room) shows people losing track of time in a shopping mall. On a practical level this is a time-based show: Here is the curtain that means act one. Enter a door in the wall to find hell in The Lost Lawsuit Room. Next comes The Hyogo Room. Then The Gaman Room appears like heaven but the voice saying, “Gaman shi nasai” (“Be tolerant”), is incredibly annoying. And on to The Room of Free Expression dealing with social media immediately after 3.11, and then The Japan Syndrome Room.

I created an interruption in between each room so the viewer has a fresh feeling the moment they enter.

Tell us about your process of working with other people to design this exhibit?

The works in this show are not the product of creative “self-expression.” I asked other people to make sculptures of community members who are fighting against nuclear energy. I can’t paint, nor do I want to. I often leave aspects of the artwork up to others. And in a sense, “imagination” is not important to the issues I am addressing here.

How did The Nuclear Family Room come into fruition?

The original prototype for this exhibition was to think deeply about what has happened in Japan since (the end of World War II in) 1945. Along the way, we decided to focus on nuclear tests. All of the rooms up to The Japan Syndrome Room tell the story of how Japanese people are feeling now.

At The Nuclear Family Room, however, the viewpoint suddenly changes to a more broad perspective showing that Japan is really under a nuclear umbrella. So I decided to list all the nuclear tests (worldwide) from 1945-2011 next to a single person’s life story. I searched for someone who was born in 1945, and whose life could follow chronological events — from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Fukushima.

When did you decide to show photos of your own life instead?

As I was searching for someone to place in this timeline, I realized the nature of nuclear testing contains so much violence that I couldn’t use anyone else’s life story. (It would be too ambiguous.) It had to be photos from my own family history.

This work made me think about what one person can do while standing in the midst of a society that is moving in the wrong direction.

In my past works I took America or Korea as a subject, consciously going out to fight all by myself. This time I am working more like an art activist, trying to see if art can function more like a demonstration.

Is this why you included footage from antinuclear demonstrations in the final room?

In some ways The Transit Room summarizes all the rest. When that many people (around 100,000 officially; 200,000 unofficially) gather in front of the Diet building shouting “No Nukes!,” the energy is so intense that I felt like society might really change. I felt I could use that free-for-all fight in the last room to avoid leaving the viewer with an easy solution in their mind at the end.

Curator Takahashi described that room as a mirror reflecting the viewer’s own world view. Some visitors feel despair, others are spurred to action and some feel nothing can be done.

For this exhibition I chose to focus on emotion and not deal too much with information. I see a battle over information, but it is not really about looking up things on the Web and feeling safe.

I am emotionally driven to action. Art utilizes emotion to address these issues that may seem to be all about information. I really hate trivial control of information.

Do you suggest a return to emotions in a society that is overfilled with information?

Yes. It is a consciousness we all have in our bodies to feel danger. Like an animal can sense a threat directly in their body. There is more to be felt from the heart. I want this exhibit to encourage listening to voices of the heart.

In planning this exhibition you envisioned that it would span from 1945 to 2040, what would you like people to take away from this show for the future?

People may think more deeply about this in the future. Also the affects of radiation might become more serious, so this show might later be considered tepid. Ideally, I hope people will see this show and stop all things nuclear, but I know that is impossible.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope people will reconsider their lifestyles and realize that they are connected to other realities in the world.

“Tadasu Takamine’s Cool Japan” at Art Tower Mito runs till Feb. 17; open 9:30 a.m.- 6:30 p.m. ¥800. Closed Mon. and Tue. if Mon. is a holiday. There will be an artist’s talk at the gallery on Feb. 16 from 2-3 p.m. www.arttowermito.or.jp/gallery_en/gallery01.html.

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