Anne Nishimura Morse and Anne E. Havinga, with contributions by Michio Hayashi, Marilyn Ivy, and Tomoko Nagakura, In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11 (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2015) 208 pp. ISBN: 978-0-87846-827-0
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The 2015 exhibition In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 5, 2015 - July 12, 2015) and accompanying catalog present a diverse array of photographs that reflect on the catastrophic events of March 11, 2011. That day, the Great East Japan Earthquake (Tōhoku-chihō Taiheiyō Oki Jishin 東北地方太平洋沖地震 ) struck off the coast of Tōhoku, a region in northeast Japan. The earthquake precipitated a tsunami, which, in turn, led to failures at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. This triple disaster, later dubbed “3/11,” caused widespread devastation. Homes and infrastructure were destroyed, the environment and agriculture were contaminated by radiation, and over 18,000 victims perished. The effects of 3/11 continue to reverberate throughout Japan and the cleanup is still ongoing. The disaster received extensive international media coverage but In the Wake is the first international exhibition to examine the photographic response to 3/11. The exhibition features seventeen artists and was organized by Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) curators Anne Havinga, Senior Curator of Photographs, and Anne Nishimura Morse, Curator of Japanese Art. The catalog includes a prologue and essay co-authored by the curators, artist statements, essays by Michio Hayashi and Marilyn Ivy, and artist biographies compiled by MFA research fellow for Japanese art Tomoko Nagakura. The exhibition aims to contrast media coverage of the disaster by presenting more contemplative images that show not only the structural damage caused by 3/11 but also the “spiritual traces of the communities that have been destroyed” (12). It also hopes to ensure that 3/11 remains in the collective memory. As MFA Director Malcolm Rogers writes in the catalog foreword, the photographs are “by turns poignant, searing, disturbing and often strangely beautiful” (7). Both catalog and exhibition prompt the viewer to contemplate the past, present, and future of Japan.
The first section of the exhibition is devoted to the earthquake and tsunami. On the first wall, across from the introductory text, weathered family photographs are installed in a subtle wave formation. The Lost & Found Project, a group of volunteers led by photographer Munemasa Takahashi, recovered these photographs in the town of Yamamoto-chō. The figures pictured employ familiar snapshot tropes, such as posing at the dinner table, on vacation or in front of cars. However, their images are partially, and in some instances almost entirely, obscured by water damage. This grouping of photographs shows physical traces of the damage suffered, but also reminds the viewer of the vibrant lives lived in Tōhoku before 3/11.
A series of brightly-colored photographs by Lieko Shiga draws the visitor into the first gallery. The lines traced in the sand in Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore) 46 evoke the ripple effect of 3/11 (Fig. 1). But the connection to 3/11 is not as readily apparent in the phantasmagoric portrayals of community members, taken before the disaster, in Kitakama, a village of Tōhoku. In their essay “Reflections in the Wake of 3/11,” Morse and Havinga suggest that Shiga’s photographs are an “elegy to a community that has been dislocated” and a reminder that societal relationships were also lost (152). In Kōzō Miyoshi’s and Kitajima Keizō’s post-3/11 photographs of dilapidated homes, twisted train tracks, and marooned boats are noticeably absent, as entire towns had to be abandoned (Fig. 2 and 3).
The second section of the exhibition is dedicated to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Following the tsunami, residents were evacuated from Fukushima and news media had to remain clear of the area due to leaked nuclear contaminants. Many of the photographers grappled with how to illustrate the invisible danger of radiation. In his series Trace (2012), Shimpei Takeda, placed contaminated soil on photographic paper that was sensitive to radiation. Over time, the traces of radiation in the soil rendered bright spots on the paper and the final images look like constellations against a black sky (Fig. 4). As Hayashi writes in “Reframing the Tragedy: Lessons from Post-3/11 Japan,” Takeda’s images are aesthetically beautiful and unsettling. The empty street pictured in Yishay Garbasz’s “Futaba, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone” (2013) is also eerily calm (Fig. 5). In the gallery, an ambient beeping echoes overhead. The sound, as recorded from the artist’s radiation-detection device, serves as an effective reminder of the ongoing invisible nuclear threat.
Several works in the exhibition and all of the catalog essays reference Japan’s complicated relationship with atomic energy. Included in a display case, Kikuji Kawada’s seminal fold-out book, Chizu (The Map), 1965 was made in direct response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Nobuyoshi Araki was in his Tokyo studio at the time of the 3/11 earthquake and in reaction to the disaster he used scissors to scratch some of his negatives. The resulting black lines across his image of a pedestrian street symbolize the black rain of 1945 (Fig. 6). A small dark-lit annex gallery at the end of the exhibition houses a series of daguerreotypes by Takashi Arai. One photograph pictures a shattered watch from the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and another shows an overturned ship in Fukushima, drawing a metaphoric line between 1945 and 2011 (Fig. 7).
Although one of the exhibition’s stated aims is to contrast photographic responses to 3/11 with media coverage, there is only one example of the latter included in the show. Nevertheless, it is among the most striking pieces. The video, shot from a helicopter by Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippōn hōsō kyōkai NHK International, Inc.) shows a black tide surging over gridded farmland, industrial buildings, and homes. The waters carry automobiles, debris, and inexplicable pockets of fire. Figures are seen abandoning their cars on gridlocked highways. In the MFA’s gallery, crowds gathered in front of the screen. Perhaps the footage feeds a morbid curiosity to see the danger unfold in real time. Or it may also be that visitors are hypnotized by this display of nature’s brute and indiscriminate strength. Like many of the photographs in the show, the footage both frightens and visually stimulates.
The catalog essays provide historical context for the 3/11 photographs. In “Reflections in the Wake of 3/11,” co-authors Morse and Havinga provide a brief history of disaster photography in Japan, tracing it from the mid-nineteenth century to post-World War II, to today. The American ban on the circulation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki images was lifted in 1952 and generations since have continued to respond to the atomic bombs. The curators point out that many historical and contemporary disaster photographs do not include people because it is thought to be inappropriate to show individual human suffering. Perhaps this explains the more metaphoric portrayals of suffering in the exhibited photographs. Ivy’s essay, “The End of the Line: Tōkohu in the Photographic Imagination,” offers a history of photography in Tōhuku. This region was often marginalized, considered the backwater of Japan, but in the post-World War II era, many photographers revered it because it was considered the last holdout of traditional Japanese peasant culture.
Hayashi’s essay “Reframing the Tragedy: Lessons from Post-3/11 Japan” is more theoretical than the other essays. Though it reads as somewhat contrived, it is perhaps the most thought-provoking essay in the catalog. Hayashi discusses the concept of varying degrees of distance—“spatial, temporal, or psychological”—from 3/11 (166). He writes that following such disasters the question arises as to who has the right to speak about trauma and who can picture it. A hierarchy is often established that regards the voices of survivors and those who lost loved ones as the “most authentic” (166). Hayashi suggests that instead of a geographical epicenter, there are multiple social centers and responses from individuals with further distance should be valued as well. The In the Wake artists stand at various degrees of distance from the events. While some lost family members or are from the most effected regions, others were in Tokyo or abroad when 3/11 struck. Hayashi further aims to debunk the media’s portrayal of a unified national response to 3/11. Instead of aiming to present a complete picture or understanding of 3/11, In the Wake presents a myriad of individual and nuanced responses
In the catalog and on the exhibition walls, the artists are given ample space to exercise their voices. The exhibition labels contain both artist and museum statements, and the catalog includes longer versions of the artist statements. The artists’ words are often personal and sometimes poetic and seem to compliment rather than explain their photographs. Notions of shattered time, past and present, invisibility, memory, and nuclear anxiety are recurring themes in many of the statements. In Arai’s statement, for example, he refers to photographs that “transfer memory” as “micro-monuments” (107). He continues: “A monument is an object whose surface has been marked by traces of contact with a certain event, and which arouses new emotions and recollections in each individual who comes in contact with it. The encounter is, necessarily, a personal experience and cannot be collectively summarized with a single meaning or interpretation” (107). Extending this, all of the photographs in the show can be considered micro-monuments that reflect not only individualized responses of the artists but also of the viewers.
In The Wake is an astutely-written catalog and thought-provoking exhibition. The exhibition is also undeniably beautiful, and while it could be critiqued for aestheticizing the tragedy, the curators can be credited for acknowledging this strange and “profound beauty” and for challenging prescribed notions of how a disaster should be portrayed (15). The exhibition’s claim of contrasting the photographic responses with media coverage could have been strengthened with the inclusion of a larger selection of media images, especially for viewers who do not have them in their mind’s eyes. But the exhibition succeeds in raising international awareness of the reverberating psychical and psychological effects of 3/11. It reminds the reviewer of the potential threats of nuclear power and reawakens collective memory of the communities and lives lost. The curators consider In the Wake the first generation of responses to 3/11 and the show stands out for the ample space given to the artists’ diverse and individualized reactions. For both the artists and the viewers, the photographs seem to serve as mourning and memory work.
Tessa Hite is a PhD student in the History of Photography at Boston University. She is also the editorial assistant and researcher for the Magnum Foundation Legacy biography series.