March 11, 2012

The Spirit in the Air: Remembering the Tohoku Earthquake One Year Later

From Lisa J. Sutcliffe, assistant curator of photography.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, which measured 9.0 on the Richter scale and triggered the massive tsunami that hurtled toward the northeast coast of Japan, devastating everything in its path.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Untitled from Kesengawa, 2002–10, and Kesen-cho 2011.6.14 from Rikuzentakata; © Naoya Hatekeyama

Tokyo-based photographer Naoya Hatakeyama made this pair of pictures of trees in his hometown, Rikuzentakata, in northeastern Japan before and after the devastating tsunami of March 11, 2011. The tree on the left has been strung with gohei, paper streamers on wooden wands used in Shinto rituals; the battered trunk on the right, having withstood the raging waters that felled the majority of trees in town, bears a cautionary rope in their place. Hatakeyama has explained that the gohei are said to “breathe and contain the spirit in the air.” Originally meant to purify the tree, these offerings convey spiritual significance in a manner that reminds me of the cultural significance of art. Photography, with its unique ability to depict the world as we see it, not only records historic events like the tsunami so that they can be remembered, but also encourages and expresses diverse personal reactions to them, from mournful documentation to symbolic, and even joyful, recovery.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, which measured 9.0 on the Richter scale and triggered the massive tsunami that hurtled toward the northeast coast of Japan, devastating everything in its path. The quake struck just 89 miles off the coast of Sendai, fatefully close to the nuclear reactor at Fukushima — ultimately causing a disastrous Level 7 meltdown. The chain of events begun that day not only threatened the underlying infrastructure of the country, but also undermined the national sense of stability, reminding many of the terrible history of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I was in Kyoto on the day of the earthquake, and felt the tremors nearly 400 miles from the epicenter. I was with a group of curators on a trip sponsored by the Japan Foundation; we were visiting museums across the country and had left Tokyo just the day before. The harsh reality of the situation did not fully reach us until that evening when we finally returned to the hotel and witnessed a crowd of people clustered around a television that was replaying, again and again, the terrifying footage of the tsunami as it swept across the land. As text messages and emails started to pour in from friends and family members, we watched the horrifying televised updates as the nuclear concerns began to surface, and offered support to our guides as they waited to hear from family living in the north. Over the next few days in Kyoto, a city full of temples, people streamed through the streets to pray, monks chanted through a haze of incense, and donation boxes overflowed. The resilience and stoicism of the Japanese people in the face of this tragedy were extraordinary. It wasn’t until we were evacuated on a flight out of Osaka nearly a week later that I was finally able to process all of the anxiety and sorrow I had felt in Japan. As soon as I landed in San Francisco, I finally began to cry.

In November 2011 I returned to Tokyo and met many photographers making work in response to the aftermath of March 11. In this post, hopefully the first in a series, I would like to share their varied approaches and offer a space to consider and reflect upon their respectful and often poetic work. This outpouring of insightful photography reminds me that art can transform our understanding of even the most tragic of circumstances.

This is not the first time that a terrible event has prompted artistic creativity in Japan. The tradition of Japanese avant-garde photography began in earnest in the 1960s, in response to the aftermath of the atomic bombs, the American occupation, and the policy of enforced democracy. Shomei Tomatsu, often called the father of postwar Japanese photography, documented the effects of the bombing in Nagasaki in a personal and graphic style. His photographs of a watch stopped at the moment of impact and a bottle whose surface, melted by the bomb, unsettlingly resembles disfigured skin are two of the most powerful and iconic visual records of those days. Tomatsu’s black-and-white pictures, sometimes abstract and even shocking, reflect the conflicting emotions following the violence of the atomic bombs. His highly personal approach signaled an interest in examining the detritus and scars of an event for symbolic clues to its greater meaning and inaugurated a vital tradition of photography in Japan that continues today.

Shomei Tomatsu, Time Stopped at 11:02, 1945, Nagasaki, 1961, and Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation, and Fire, Nagasaki, 1961; © Shomei Tomatsu

In March I had been planning to meet Naoya Hatakeyama to conduct research for an upcoming exhibition. I wrote to him immediately following the earthquake and received the following email: “My home town was attacked by the tsunami and I have not known if my mother and my sisters are safe. I will probably be silent for a while …” This catastrophic day touched Hatakeyama very personally: he lost his mother, and his hometown, Rikuzentakata, was destroyed. Over the course of the next few months he made numerous photographs of the destruction and began to come to terms with the disaster. His photographs are remarkably clear and unsentimental, recording the land as it changed: first littered with destroyed buildings and detritus, then gradually cleared until virtually nothing remains of a once vibrant village but a flat, empty tract of land. It is unsettling how heartbreakingly sad and yet simultaneously beautiful these pictures are.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Rikuzentakata, July 2004 © Naoya Hatakeyama

Naoya Hatakeyama, Rikuzentakata, April 2011 © Naoya Hatakeyama

Under the circumstances, our department delayed discussion of Hatakeyama’s upcoming exhibition here at SFMOMA. In November I visited his exhibition Natural Stories at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. The show included a room dedicated to the photographs taken in his hometown in the days and weeks following the tsunami. In the same gallery, a slide show of his family snapshots depicted his treasured memories of the area from before the earthquake, casting the shadow of the tragedy across his personal history. By focusing on one town and its inhabitants, and including personal photographs of joyful moments before the event, Hatakeyama emphasizes that it wasn’t just lives and buildings that were lost, but the invisible ties that bind a community and a shared cultural history. The town cannot be rebuilt in its current location, and so the future of its residents — like that of many others on the northeast coast of Japan — remains uncertain.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Untitled from Kesengawa, 2002–10; © Naoya Hatakeyama

Naoya Hatakeyama,  Yonesaki-cho 2011.5.1 from Rikuzentakata, and Takata-cho 2011.5.1 from Rikuzentakata; © Naoya Hatakeyama

In Tokyo, a city shaken by the proximity of the event, this gallery was continually full of people who carefully observed the pictures with silent reverence. When I visited the show with Hatakeyama, a steady stream of strangers, and even acquaintances from his hometown and friends from elementary school, came up to thank him for his pictures and share their experiences. But Hatakeyama is not alone in photographing the aftermath of the earthquake; there has been a diverse array of photographic responses to the events of March 11, 2011, from artists across Japan.

Rinko Kawauchi, nominated this year for the prestigious Deutsche Börse prize for photography, is well known for her intimate and poetic books Aila (2004), Cui Cui (2005), Utatane (2010), and most recently, Illuminance (2011). Her work is simultaneously abstract and specific, addressing moments that call attention to the fragility and wonder of life. Her lush color pictures present fragments of ordinary, everyday experiences that stand for universal themes. These common subjects are also evident in pictures she made last April, following the earthquake, when she traveled north from Tokyo.

Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled, 2011; © Rinko Kawauchi

In one town, she discovered a pair of domesticated pigeons: one white, one black. She began to follow the birds, making pictures of them flying around the wreckage, and soon noticed that they would return again and again to the same spot. It appeared that, having escaped the wall of water, they had come back only to find their home and caretakers washed away. This sad and solemn dance of two birds above a field of debris simultaneously shows how much was lost, and demonstrates that there are still moments of beauty to be found in the rubble. When I met with her, Kawauchi described these birds to me as representative of Adam and Eve, symbolizing life and a new beginning.

Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled, 2011; © Rinko Kawauchi

Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled, 2011; © Rinko Kawauchi

An artist known for her magical and imaginative books Lilly (2005) and Canary (2007), Lieko Shiga was living in Kitagama, a small farming village roughly 50 miles from Fukushima, when the earthquake struck. She was working as the town’s photographer, documenting local history and making pictures inspired by her experiences. The village was devastated by the tsunami; more than 50 of its 400 residents were killed, and Shiga’s house, studio, and years’ worth of photographs were destroyed. Her pictures taken in the aftermath are dark and ominous; the mood evokes a sense of how terrifying and confusing life in the town must have been in the days following the tsunami.

In the most recent edition of Aperture, Kyoto-based critic and curator Mariko Takeuchi writes about Shiga’s experience, her photographs of the town’s recovery, and her newfound project: washing and archiving residents’ family photographs that were found in the wreckage. This public service may yet yield some new way of seeing the catastrophe, and will serve as a testament to the lives that were lost or changed irreparably.

Lieko Shiga, Found photographs were washed and dried in the community center, 2011; © Lieko Shiga

In the days following the tsunami, Hirano Aichi handed out disposable cameras to children and families living in shelters in the Tohoku region. He gave them the instructions: “Please take photos of things you see with your eyes, things you want to record, remember, people near you, your loved ones, things you want to convey … please do so freely. And please enjoy the process if you can, even if it’s just a little bit.” By urging the participants to enjoy the process, Aichi reveals his interest not only in recording the realities of life after the disaster, but in offering people a chance to distract themselves (even if it’s just a little bit) with photography.

The first group of pictures, taken between March 31 and April 3, 2011, records the everyday lives of people struggling to remake their world. As the project has continued, the pictures document a slow and challenging return to everyday life. Aichi was rewarded by the discovery that the snapshots often show evidence of pleasure and wonder: many of the young photographers delighted in photographing their friends at play and even the few toys that survived the disaster. Each roll of film is meant to be viewed in its entirety, so that you can follow the photographer through the course of an hour or day. Currently a web-based project, the complete series can be viewed at the Rolls Tohoku website. By asking locals to re-engage with the ritual of taking snapshots, often associated with times of great joy, Aichi illustrates the startling power of photography to encourage renewal.

Hirano Aichi, Rolls Tohoku, 2011; Courtesy Hirano Aichi

Hirano Aichi, Rolls Tohoku, 2011; Courtesy Hirano Aichi

In November I visited Kürenboh Chohouin Buddhist Temple Gallery in Tokyo, run by Buddhist monk Akiyoshi S. Taniguchi. The small, sublime space reopened last fall to exhibit the work of Toshiya Murakoshi. Born and raised in Fukushima, Murakoshi has spent many years photographing its landscape. The area was once known for its abundant agriculture and bustling fishing industry, and Murakoshi’s black-and-white panoramic pictures, taken before March 11, depict farmland and pastoral scenes — places now evacuated and likely to remain empty for years to come. Taniguchi explained that he wanted to show this work because it highlights how much has been lost, at a time when the future of Japanese energy policy and the fate of its farming culture are at a crossroads. How Murakoshi will continue his project is just one of the many questions — from the minor to the crucial — that linger after the catastrophe.

Toshiya Murakoshi, Fukushima, 2006; © Toshiya Murakoshi

The abundance of artistic voices recording and reflecting upon the events of March 11, 2011, signifies the strong desire to remember all that was lost that day. Naoya Hatakeyama’s exhibition opens here at SFMOMA on July 28; it is one of several exhibitions and books forthcoming around the world this year that will examine and reconsider the earthquake and its aftermath.

Lisa J. Sutcliffe is assistant curator of photography at SFMOMA.


Comments (2)

  • Beautifully written, Dear Lisa,
    Naoya, Rinko and Lieko…..what incredible courage, commitment and talent they have declared to these works!
    Many thanks for this, Lisa. You are a most wonderful writer. sending very best regards, Rose

  • Really excellent essay, thank you. It’s so heartening to know more about the lovely and strong ways that Japanese artists/photographers are using art/photography to respond to the situation.

    I’m a SF-based US photographer/artist working on a project titled “Honoring Japan’s ‘sense of place'”. It’s partly about what was lost, and what still remains, in relation to inherent aspects of Japanese physical, social and artistic culture, in regards to the tsunami. The project though has a wider lens than being about the tsunami. I went to Japan for five weeks last Fall, and was so inspired. I really wish I had known more about the artists/exhibitions you mentioned and seen them while I was there.

    Do you know of many artists/photographers that are not Japanese like myself, that are making work about Japan – maybe in relation to the tsunami or not?

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