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(COMPOSITE), Motoyuki Shitamichi, Masahiro Hasunuma, Chaco Kato, Lieko Shiga, Masaharu Sato, Natsumi Seo & Haruka Komori, Kyun-chome, Curated by Emily Wakeling Compassionate Grounds: Ten Years on in Tohoku

Dates: 7 – 29 May 2021

Ten years on from the devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis on the Tohoku coast in Japan, this project is a curated display of screen-based artworks by Japanese and Japanese-Australian artists responding to survivors’ irreversible losses over the past decade. The works, whether responding from afar or directly capturing Tōhoku’s transformed landscapes, focus on the concept of recovery for its displaced communities.

The Tōhoku landscape, an area devastated exactly ten years ago by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and subsequently transformed through reconstruction works, has been the subject of a growing number of Japanese artists’ video practices.

On 11 March 2011, 2:46 pm, 31 coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures were shocked by a 9.1 magnitude earthquake and then lost under a massive ocean surge—up to 40 metres high in areas—with buildings, cars and people swept out to sea. Survivors mourn an approximate 18,000 victims, but the disaster (often referred to as 3.11) also caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of households, accelerating Japan’s already existing trend to regional depopulation.

Curated as a continuation of research in Japanese contemporary art, conducted from afar, Compassionate Grounds: Ten Years on in Tōhoku is an exhibition of screen-based works by several artists who, observing from a distance or working directly with survivors, focus on landscape as an expression for the social traumas still reverberating among the region’s survivors. Construction sites, debris, guarded barriers and higher seawalls appear as tangible expressions of the ongoing, less-visible impacts the disaster and state-funded ‘recovery’ projects have had on people and their communities. From two Australian art spaces, it observes the 10th anniversary of the disasters and their ongoing impact.

Rikuzentakata in southern Iwate Prefecture was one of the hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami. Masahiro Hasunuma captures the post-earthquake landscape of Rikunzentakata (Takata for short) via delicate hand-drawn animations inspired by his interactions with locals and their relationship to sites in the town. His short, impressionistic animations take something as overwhelming as a major disaster and processes it through small and beautiful phenomena: in Rikuzentakata animation 2019, a ginger cat follows a group of school children in front of the former school building, with snow beginning to fall as it did on the evening of March 11th. ‘The former [pre-tsunami] cityscape of Rikuzentakata is no longer there’, Hasunuma wrote at the time of his 2019 residency, ‘nor is the new cityscape that awaits construction’. The construction project adds 10-12 metres of ‘tsunami-proof’ high ground to the former shopping area—seen in the bare hills in Hasunuma’s images. Many of Tōhoku’s tsunami-hit towns are undergoing similar defensive re-groundings, but Takata’s is by far the largest.

Takata is also the subject of several films by long-time collaborators Natsumi Seo and Haruka Komori, whose Double layered town / Making a song to replace our positions 2020 follows four visitors in their 20s who listen to the stories of townspeople who lived through the disaster. They walk around areas under construction—ocean views obstructed by the new and much higher seawall (tripled in height all along the once tree-lined coast); streets looking over scaffolding and hills of new earth, and the constant sound of heavy machinery. In people’s cramped temporary living spaces the visitors listen to intimate stories of loss and trauma. A conversation at the end of Double-layered town reveals that the young people are yet to decide what to do with the stories they have heard. Like unwitting denshōsha (custodians of oral histories), a term used primarily for the keepers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombing survivor stories, they now feel a heavy obligation to honour the survivors’ accounts.

From hundreds of kilometres away, Motoyuki Shitamichi’s Tsunami boulders 2015 connects 3.11 to a longer history. When Shitamichi read that a 60-metre fishing vessel, washed ashore in Kesennuma by the 2011 tsunami, had become a focus of prayers and flowers, he began to compare the boat’s role to the sacred rocks of Ishigaki, Okinawa. The Ishigaki East Coast Tsunami Rocks, enormous immovable monoliths as they appear, were actually pushed onto the land by centuries-old tsunami activity and subsequently became sites of Shinto worship. After 3.11, Kesennuma’s survivors debated removing or keeping the damaged boat in place as an ongoing, functioning memorial. Shitamichi’s videos centre the social role of disaster debris both past and present.

Looking on from even further afield in Australia, Japan-born artist Chaco Kato responds to the 2011 disasters with a site-specific installation utilising thread and UV light. In the artist’s words, her ongoing interest in manually created line work, which in itself becomes a spatial plain, or a metaphorical landscape, demonstrate thought patterns and patterns of human movement inspired by the aftermath of the 2011 disasters.

Artist duo Kyun-chome feature sites of displacement for 3.11 survivors in The story of making lies 2015, a video that focuses on the former homes and neighbourhoods of those evacuated soon after the tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. When the work was made, four years on from evacuations, its subjects were still in temporary housing. When Kyun-chome offered computer classes and lessons in image-editing software for the older evacuees from Tomioka, Namie, Katsurao and Hirono, it became an opportunity for them to share memories of their towns before the barricades were there. The activity becomes an opportunity to hear how people feel about the loss of their homes and an uncertain future. In areas including Namie and Iitate, towns that experienced some of the highest exposures to radiation, only 4-5% of residents have returned to their neighbourhoods. Some participants despair about the future: ‘My area is supposed to keep out for 30 years. No matter how hard I try I can’t go back’, says one elderly subject. ‘I want to go back with everyone, but it’s difficult….’ says another.

The late Masaharu Sato was living in Fukushima’s neighbouring prefecture of Ibaraki when the 2011 disasters hit. Calling 2014 is an uncanny collection of static scenes, resulting from Sato’s filming and then meticulous tracing of each frame of raw video footage with a digital pen, creating a fictional world in which the ‘real’ footage is still very present. In each of these scenes, a telephone or mobile rings out. Some locations, like a decaying bus on the banks of the Tone River, look long-abandoned except for the ringing mobile on one of the seats. A karaoke room, on the other hand, looks as though people will momentarily return. Nevertheless, the phones remain unanswered.

Photographer Lieko Shiga, who has lived in Tohoku since 2008, creates a compelling monologue in Human Spring 2020, her first foray into video. Just before daybreak, a young male figure emerges from the darkness of the black screen. The voice-over tells of her experience staying in temporary accommodation. Her neighbour experiences a type of mania with the arrival of spring, beginning a winding narrative that talks of spring both as a phenomenon with special significance to northeastern culture, as well as a concept that ruptures the worlds between living and dead. The figure on screen is slowly revealed with the break of day, always keeping an unrelenting, energised pace as he strides through a distinct coastal Tōhoku landscape—the ocean and land unambiguously separated by the high seawall.

‘[Photography] has served to overcome the inevitable fading of memories over time,’ is a line of narrated dialogue from Human spring, and through their works, Shiga, along with all artists included above, address and record the massive social impact of major loss. They do so on what could be described as ‘compassionate grounds’: a term commonly heard in pandemic times when discussing certain cases of extra liberties for individual citizens, but in this case also an artistic representation of the painful relationship many disaster survivors still have with their lost or now unrecognisable lands and homes.

Emily Wakeling, March 2021

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, plus support from Bus Projects and Metro Arts.