Revealing the Radioactive Contamination after Fukushima in Japanese Photography
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This article will examine the works of three prolific Japanese artists — Masamichi Kagaya, Shimpei Takeda, and Yoi Kawakubo — who use analog photography or camera-less techniques to make visible the radioactive contamination released into the atmosphere after the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011. Even though a large number of images capturing ruins and deserted places from amateurs or photojournalists were published in the mass media following the triple disaster, no attempt was made to reveal the radioactive contamination, which is, by nature, invisible to the naked eye. Unveiling its presence through art photography demonstrates other aspects of the nuclear accident by directing our attention from the technocratic and material aspects of the catastrophe to its human and social consequences. By revealing the trace of the radioactive contamination on photosensitive materials, the three artists offer powerful documentation of the nuclear disaster and testimony for future generations.
Fukushima and Its Invisible Consequences
On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. (local time), the Pacific coast of the Tōhoku region in Japan was shaken by an earthquake of magnitude 9 on the Richter scale. The violence of the tremor led to the formation of a tsunami whose waves reached fifteen meters high (with peaks up to thirty-nine meters recorded in Miyako City) and ravaged some six hundred kilometers of coastline. The earthquake and the tsunami caused enormous devastation and human and material losses began to add up. But Japan would face a third, more insidious and long-term catastrophe: the nuclear accident.
While the country was already shaken, faced with the incredible power of the earthquake and the tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, located on the east coast of Honshū Island, was being weakened by the extraordinary tidal wave. The emergency cooling system in the core of reactors 1, 2, and 3 broke down and they then melted (figure 1). In the following days, the fusion of the reactors resulted in several explosions and fires in the reactor buildings, causing a massive release of radionuclides into the atmosphere and the evacuation of some 160,000 people living within a radius of thirty kilometers of the power plant (Pons 2013, Sabouret 2011, Vaulerin 2013).
On March 14, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, in a televised appearance, told the nation that the country was now going through “the most serious crisis in its history since the postwar period” (Sabouret 2011, 46). The Fukushima nuclear accident was categorized at level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) — the highest level, comparable to that of Chernobyl in 1986 — in particular for the significant volume of radioactivity registered in the atmosphere (IAEA 2011, Pons 2013).
The consequences of the earthquake and the tsunami were immediate, but the successive accidents that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi plant became the perfect illustration of the “never-ending catastrophe” (Ferrier 2014, Asanuma-Brice 2017), one whose effects remained unseen and would extend for generations to come. Beyond the visible ruins caused by the earthquake and the tsunami lay an invisible enemy: the radioactive pollution.
Composed of fine particles carried by the wind, dropped into the ocean, and scattered over the earth, radiation eludes the human senses. Perceptible only with Geiger counters, radioactive contamination becomes difficult to represent in visual culture, even though its effects are at the very origin of a whole nuclear imaginary. We are facing a new meaning of visibility, one in which what threatens us cannot itself be seen; the radioactive particles remain invisible, incommensurable, and incalculable (Nancy 2012). They are abstract entities; only their economic, political, ecological, and medical impacts might be perceived (Perrin 2014).
Media Coverage of the Nuclear Disaster and the Emergence of ‘Post-Fukushima Art’
Although the coverage of events during and after the triple disaster was predominant in the mass media in and outside of Japan, no image or attempt to expose radioactive contamination present in the atmosphere was published during the first few weeks. Indeed, the many images captured by photojournalists and amateurs at the various ravaged places of the Tōhoku region published in the Japanese and foreign media focused on the visible destruction and the physical reconstruction. They recorded the devastation wrought by the earthquake, the destructive power of the tsunami, and the smoky reactors of the Fukushima plant.
These innumerable images have certainly provided visual proof of the catastrophic scope of those events, but they could not show the real and long-term consequences of the nuclear disaster — namely, radioactive contamination. Although the mass media have published maps of radiation spreading and graphics of the radioactive level in various locations, making radioactive contamination itself visible is still particularly difficult. It takes time and technique for radioactive particles to print on a photosensitive medium and to reveal their presence. Also, as radioactivity levels fluctuate over time, the resulting photographs would for the media become irrelevant and obsolete. Hence, it seems that they ruled out any desire to make visible the radioactive pollution released during the accident and its real consequences on nature and humans, leaving all the informative value to captions accompanying their images. As a result, what radioactivity actually looks like was lacking in visual culture, even though images could contribute to a more tangible understanding of its nature in the face of inaccessible or incomprehensible scientific discourse.
In this media whirlwind, a new artistic trend started to emerge: “post-Fukushima art.” It began almost a month after the nuclear accident with the first wave of artistic reactions with a protesting or activist message. Some artists immediately responded to the nuclear accident with performances, videos, or installations critical of the management of the events they deemed “disastrous.” Among these few protesting artworks, the most controversial may be the video by Chim↑Pom, Real Times (2011), which shows the artist group illegally in the forbidden zone, facing the Fukushima power station and brandishing the Japanese flag to form the nuclear symbol (figure 2), or it may be the video (2011) attributed to the artist Kota Takeuchi in which he points an accusing finger at a security camera at the nuclear plant.
As a result of these so-called immediate artistic responses, other Japanese artists began to react to the nuclear disaster with less controversial tendencies. Some of them tried to represent the consequences of the triple catastrophe with a more spiritual and metaphorical aim, using a traditional aesthetic, such as the 500 Arhats series (2012), produced by the well-known artist Takashi Murakami; others tended toward exposure of the effects of the nuclear accident. For example, some Japanese artists, such as Masamichi Kagaya, Shimpei Takeda, and Yoi Kawakubo, have attempted to make visible the imprint of radioactive contamination on photosensitive film to inform, testify, and/or document the disaster. Making visible its consequences, especially the trace of irradiation, comes from a desire to complete the iconography of the nuclear accident by providing an informative or reflexive dimension that had been set aside by the mass media.
Revealing the Radioactive Contamination through Art Photography
Even before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, some scientists and even artists used photography to reveal the presence of radioactive particles. In fact, with the discovery of radioactivity, we can cite the first experiments of the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, in 1895, on the detection of X-rays — in mathematics, “X” signifying the unknown — followed by those of the French physicist Henri Becquerel, one year later, on uranium salts and radioactivity. These discoveries were made possible by the photographic process. Indeed, photographic plates were the first detectors of radioactivity. They have the ability to detect X-rays, gamma rays, and beta particles because they emit their own light, which is printed on photosensitive film. Then, a few artists, such as Sigmar Polke, Elin O’Hara Slavick, Julian Charrière, Hélène Lucien, and Marc Pallain, using analog photography, tried to reproduce this kind of experiment to reveal the radioactivity present in the atmosphere after a nuclear event.
Following the Fukushima disaster, Masamichi Kagaya, Shimpei Takeda, and Yoi Kawakubo were among the first artists to deal directly with radioactivity in the contaminated areas and to make it visible — intentionally by Kagaya and Takeda and accidentally for Kawakubo. By imprinting it on the photosensitive medium with various techniques, the three artists obtained different aesthetics and results, but all of them showed the presence of radioactivity. To this date, they are among the most representative artists in the display of post-Fukushima radioactive contamination and their works have been exhibited internationally.
In the aftermath of the nuclear accident, the Japanese photographer Masamichi Kagaya conducted substantial research on radioactivity released into the atmosphere by the damaged reactors of the Fukushima plant and the consequences for humans, fauna, and flora. Considering the information collected as too abstract and inaccessible, consisting as it did mainly of numbers and curves, Kagaya was determined to make visible the radioactive contamination, to observe it concretely, and to facilitate its understanding with a nonscientific public (Kagaya 2015). To do this, in 2012 the artist met the emeritus professor of biology (Tokyo University) Satoshi Mori, who had already made images of objects irradiated using the autoradiography technique. Kagaya and Mori then begin a collaboration, culminating in the series Autoradiograph (figures 3 and 4.)
For the series, Masamichi Kagaya received special permission from the towns of Namie and Futaba to go to the exclusion zone, where the radioactivity level was dangerously high. He retrieved artifacts, plants and the bodies of small animals, which he brought to Professor Mori at his laboratory at the university. Then Kagaya measured the level of radiation of a retrieved object using a Geiger counter, put the contaminated sample on an imaging plate, and locked it in a black box. After a certain period, depending on the level of radioactivity recorded, the photographer got back the imaging plate and scanned it with a machine called BAS (Bio-imaging Analyzer Systems). The positive autoradiography appeared on a digital screen, which was then printed. The distribution of the radioactive substances present in the sample is highlighted: The white dots represent the radioactive particles (the external contamination) and the grayish aura corresponds to the internal contamination (figures 3 and 4).
Currently comprising more than one hundred and forty images in 2-D and, more recently, some in 3-D, the series enables us to study the evolution of the radioactive contamination and its absorption by the various organisms by making it visible (Davre 2019). Kagaya and Mori are continuing Autoradiograph to raise awareness of risk management in nuclear power plants and the ongoing issues from the Fukushima disaster by showing its consequences on our environment, so that Fukushima becomes a lesson for all (Davre 2019).
Like Masamichi Kagaya, the artist Shimpei Takeda found any information about the consequences conveyed by the media difficult to access (Ellsworth and Kruse 2012). Takeda was looking for a way to visualize radioactive particles in the air or soil. He turned to photography, drawing on the technique of the French physicist Henri Becquerel with the discovery of radioactivity (Pringle 2014). Takeda uses the photogram (or radiogram) technique for his series Trace (2011–), which is a camera-less method: that is, a photographic image is obtained without using a camera. To do this, Takeda exposes black-and-white film to samples of contaminated soil collected in several historical sites in the Kanto and Tōhoku regions, places the whole in a light-tight box, and develops the film weeks or even months later (figure 5).
Whereas a photogram needs about six minutes of exposure, that of the radiogram requires several weeks to a few months to obtain an imprint varying from dark gray to black, according to the radiation level recorded. The result looks like a sparkling, star-strewn sky at night, but what we see is, in fact, a constellation of radioactive particles imprinted on the photosensitive film. The goal is to document both physically and scientifically the effects of the nuclear disaster in various locations and to warn future generations about its presence (Takeda 2013). These images testify to the contamination of the Japanese soil at a given moment and prove its existence in a way easier to understand for current and future viewers (figure 6).
Using contaminated soil to imprint a photosensitive film as a camera-less technique has been used by other artists, as well. In June 2013, Yoi Kawakubo started visiting the restricted zone of Fukushima as a part of his one-year artist residency at Tokyo Wonder Site (now Tokyo Arts and Space). Kawakubo photographed the changing landscape of the evacuation zone and buried the film in situ. Three months later, he retrieved the film and developed it. He noticed that the images had an “unusual” and “irregular” low contrast, as if the film were exposed to a weak light before it was developed, which could be caused by nuclear radiation. In fact, the film reacted to the radioactive particles (which emit light) present in the soil and was directly printed by it.
Following his intuition, in September 2013 Kawakubo began Polaroids tests to measure the time of exposure of silver halide film and simultaneously started to bury 8x10 silver halide film in holders, without shooting beforehand, in places where the radiation level was high —one in the Ottozawa neighborhood of Ōkuma City and two in Futaba town. In spring 2014, he retrieved the film and printed it in an enlarged format. The different colors resulting from this photographic experiment were unexpected, according to the artist.
Yoi Kawabuko entitled his series “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the skies (2014–), using the words quoted by the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project in producing the first atomic bomb. While witnessing the explosion of the Trinity test, on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer recalled the verse from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu holy text: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the skies, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.” Through this series, Kawakubo seeks to raise awareness “of the dangers of playing God for the sake of a more ‘efficient’ mode of energy that may change the course of human history.”
After a nuclear event, being able to visualize radioactive particles seems important to understand how they spread into the atmosphere and over time affect or contaminate bodies, objects, and nature. The results of these techniques testify to the presence of radioactive contamination at a specific time and a specific place. Even though it appears that revealing it on a photosensitive film makes it possible to engage the public in an important dialogue on the use of nuclear energy, which concerns not just Japan, but every other country as well, only part of the iceberg is uncovered by these artists. The invisible impacts of the nuclear disaster are multiple and immeasurable, and have ramifications on every level, such as environmentally, politically, and sociologically.
The Japanese art critic Noi Sawaragi (2015, 84) draws an interesting link between “art” and “irradiation” by involving the term exposure and the transformative effect on the person who is in contact with neither art nor radiation: “If there’s a synergy between observing art and radiation,” he writes, “it’s about ‘exposure’ in the broad sense of the word. The invisible action emitted by the target (artwork or radioactive material) changes the observer’s body, sometimes immediately, sometimes slowly. In extreme cases people can become mentally ill (with art) or get cancer and die (with radiation). However, even if one is showered by the same art or the same radiation (dose), each individual is affected very differently. The way in which people react differently to radiation exposure is called ‘sensibility’, and in this sense, there’s synergy with art.”
In this context, art photography appears to be an alternative to the various dominant national discourses and their images are chosen to serve them concerning the nuclear catastrophe. The works of Kagaya, Takeda, and Kawakubo integrate a social dimension and enable viewers, in this case at the time of the indescribable disaster, to transform their vision on the Fukushima accident and on nuclear power in general. Their photographs become witnesses to the event, the trace of its consequence, and the voice of its victims. In this sense, exposing the public to this kind of photography would be important for its reflection of the nuclear catastrophe, its ability to touch the sensibility of the spectators, and to bring about social change.
Amandine Davre is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History and a lecturer on Japanese art history at the University of Montreal. Her doctoral project studies the representation of radioactivity in post-Fukushima Japanese photography. In March 2017, she curated an exhibition at the Visual Voice Gallery (Montreal) entitled HŌSHANŌ: Art and Life in a Post-Fukushima World.
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Yoi Kawakubo thought it could be caused by the different wavelengths (X-rays and beta and gamma rays). He then “talked with an expert in photography at the developing laboratories (Chromart, a film developer lab based in Roppongi, now closed). The expert commented that X-ray marks caused by airport X-ray scans used to be green or green-yellow, and suggested the possibility of different wavelengths causing different colors in different types of emulsion.” From an interview on May 17, 2019.