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Activist art reaches out

Young Japanese artists are not afraid to confront the big issues facing their society – and also ours, Corinna Lotz discovers.

Central St Martin School of Art’s central foyer looked very strange on March 17 – was it a scene from pollution-ridden downtown Beijing or Tokyo?


Foundation year art students had donned surgical masks to mark the fifth anniversary of the  nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima, and (by implication) the millions affected by contamination around the planet. It was part of a fundraiser for Art Action UK, a collective of artists, curators, gallerists and writers who are exploring ways of supporting those affected by natural and manmade disasters.

Art Action UK began in response to the earthquake and tsunami which severely damaged the Fukushima prefecture in the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

In the cavernous Granary Building, Anastasia Solay, wearing a hand-crafted cloud-dress, sat on a tree stump to sing her haunting poem, Listen to Silence – Do you listen to the trees/that sing in the silence? She was surrounded by artworks reflecting the social and political concerns of students from around the world – Brazil, Italy, Switzerland, the far East and the UK.

Inspired by Jessica Holtaway, a PhD student from Goldsmith’s College, who gave a talk on art and social change, a group of students decorated a paper scroll with quotations from books and their own thoughts. She presented a film about Liberate Tate’s occupation of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in protest against BP sponsorship. In this choreographed direct action, art and politics became a symbiotic performance.


On the walls, Natalia Maia Laurindo Brito De Melo tracked the history of hate politics in a photographic installation. Fellow Brazilian, Pedro Paulo De Sinquera Soares Costa, presented a gallery of hollowed-out characters, whose features were made up of barcodes in a comment on the commodification of human personality. Others, including established artists, contributed postcards to help raise funds to allow artist duo KyunChome from Japan to present their work in London.


Kyun-Chome consists of Eri Homma and Nabuchi, who are part of a new generation of Japanese artists who are reflecting on the tragic effects of the Fukushima Daichi disaster. Japan’s government has appeared indifferent to the plight of the many thousands of evacuated inhabitants.  And the earthquake took place under conditions of economic and social stagnation, especially severe after the 2008 global financial crash. Some 40% of Japanese youth are currently unemployed and mental illness and suicide rates are huge.  Last year’s census confirmed a one million drop in the population since 2010.

In the Fukushima disaster the immediate casualty rate was low compared to Chernobyl, but it is thought that well over 1,000 people have died since due to the shock of being forced to move and never return to the area. The longer term health effects are still unknown. There is continuing massive dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the disaster and distrust of official statistics. Experts question the efficacy of a 1.5 kilometre ice-wall activated in March by the Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Thousands of workers have been involved in an over $15 billion clean-up operation – called “josen” or decontamination. But the notion of decontamination is a fallacy. “What’s happening is more like transcontamination”, as Peter Wynn Kirby has written. – radioactive debris is simply collected and transferred from one part of Fukushima to another in a macabre game of “pass the parcel”.

And it is this charade-like activity which Kyun-Chome chose to depict ironically in their 2013 “New Japan Paradise”.  Recent winners of the Okamoto Taro Memorial Award for Contemporary Art, they have emerged from under the wing of the Chim-Pom collective, which last year worked with Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei to create a virtual exhibition inside the Fukushima exclusion zone.

New Japan Paradise (2013) is a ghostly colour negative, in which sacks of contaminated nuclear waste are marked with the round red symbol of Japan’s national flag.  Kyun-Chome’s image draws attention to how the sacks – which weigh a ton when full – are simply stacked by roadsides and driveways – and that there is no workable plan for their disposal.

Kyun-Chome will present four new videos at Deptford X’s project space. Two, of them, Time of the Sea and The Story of Making Lies engage directly with the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Much of Time of the Sea is filmed underwater. The soft sound of breathing, the hazy light and fronds of sea kelp wafting in the water make the ritual collection of leaves into a poetic sequence.

 In The Story of Making Lies, the artists guide former inhabitants of the deserted evacuated zone around the plant via Photoshop so they can symbolically erase the barriers that prevent them from returning. The residents, many of them elderly, are keen to learn – their comments are understated but harrowing nonetheless. They know they can never go home again.


Their most moving offerings are Connected to Something and Rhythm of Survival – which confront the Japanese suicide pandemic.  An elegiac sequence shows the artists following a rope through Jukai, the majestic Sea of Trees below Mount Fuji. Dressed in bright red, the young woman plays a game of hide and seek with unseen companions, calling out again and again, “Are you ready”. In Rhythm of Survival, the rope which someone had used to hang themselves is taken down off a tree. Instead of being hidden away, the rope is recycled to create energy and life, function transformed in a ritual of redemption, where young and old are invited to jump to its swinging rhythm.

Until recently Japanese artists have been respected for their subtle craft perfectionism. But a new generation has emerged who are treading boldly to address extreme situations. They do so, as curator-artist Kaori Homma has remarked, with a youthful light-footedness. “The poetic and humorous aspects of human experiences they bring forward are not to make light of the situation, but highlight the graveness of the issues and confront viewers with their own precarious existence in the world,” she says.

They are not afraid to confront the false narratives of those in power and create an alternative view of things. They don’t simply point to the disasters, the pain and destruction. They express a desire to come to grips with the real state of things, using humour, irony and their own direct participation, inviting others not only to observe but to join in.

4 April 2016

Ain’t Got Time to Die, runs 13-21 May, Deptford X Project space, 9 Brookmill Road, London SE8 4HL. Opening night 12 May, Screening event on 19 April. Date of artists’ talk to be announced.

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