Field Note 1: Sapporo

Photograph by Takashi Noguchi
Photograph by Takashi Noguchi, Air radiation 0.94μSv.

Sapporo is a modern city on the Japanese north Island of Hokkaido founded in the Meiji period of Japan's modernization (1886-1912). The Japanese developed Hokkaido to gain access to its coal as well as to strategically defend the country against Russia. The indigenous population are the Ainu, who finally received official recognition in 2008. The Island’s main city of Sapporo is built on a grid like New York, and is easy to navigate. The climate is hot in summer and below freezing in the winter. Hokkaido has one nuclear power station at Tomari, which has been switched off since the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant meltdown in March 2011. At the Horonobe Underground Research Centre there are explorations into the potential for underground storage of nuclear waste. In March 2011 the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeast coast of Japan and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The earthquake tremors were felt in Sapporo but it did not cause any damage.  Hokkaido is now home to 1,725 evacuees from the Fukushima Prefecture, approximately half of these evacuees are temporarily housed in Sapporo. There is a Radiation Monitor in the city centre in Odori Park.

In 2014 the Sapporo International Arts Festival will welcome people to the city and encourage a debate. The Mayor of Sapporo’s introduction to the festival website declares:

“The global economic crisis and the triple earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster that struck Japan in March 2011 prompted many of us to reflect on our lives and realize we’re at a major turning point that will bring changes to civilization. With this in mind, we residents of Sapporo should be proud of our city, which is seen by many as Japan’s most attractive city, and work to pass a better environment on to future generations. In order to achieve this, we must create new industries and new cultures with our fertile imaginations, through exchanges with people in Japan and elsewhere.”  Fumio Ueda, Chairman, Creative City Sapporo International Art Festival Executive Committee, Mayor of Sapporo.

As Tokyo prepares for the 2020 Olympics, Japan is trying to recover from its status as a ‘nuclear nation’, following the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the melt down of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, a disastrous series of events collectively named by the date 3.11. Sapporo and Hokkaido face national and regional decisions about whether to switch on the nuclear plant again, where to store waste, how to support evacuees, how to develop sustainable energy, and where to site the debris from Fukushima? The cultural aftershocks of Fukushima are still being felt, or avoided for they are sensitive and complex issues. My experiences of being in Japan resonate with Joseph Masco’s cultural analysis of nuclear banality and the uncanny, in that the effects of a radioactive disaster are both normally unthinkable and haunting, they change the way in which we see and experience the world around us. It’s hard to navigate a balanced path without falling victim to fear, or developing protective blindspots. For these reasons and many more Sapporo is a perfect place to come and rethink the notion of nuclear culture.

Last weekend there was a market stall in Sapproro selling produce from Fukushima. Earlier this year in London I met Fujii Hikaru and watched his film about Project Fukushima!, now being discussed at the Aichi Triennale. The actual town of Fukushima has not been badly affected by radiation, and the community is trying to rebuild its identity and commerce, selling produce complete with radiation certificates to prove its safety. The Fukushima Art Biennale was also held again in 2012. But other residential and farming areas are seriously contaminated, and the management of radioactive water at the power plant is still not under control. So it's really important to make distinctions between the different aspects of the disaster and the different locations of the Fukushima Prefecture, town and powerplant.

Also - Fujii Hikaru is showing his new film ‘Asahiza’ at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival next week.

In many ways contemporary art has already solved the crisis of representation, avoiding the tropes of horror and utopia (the archaic constructs of religion and nuclear modernity), and subverting them within the mainstream media. Today artists are using conceptual and social frameworks to rethink and live through several phases of nuclear crisis. As a Japanese curator tells me – we are not ‘post’ anything (not post-Fukushima, post-cold war or even post-modern). I'm reminded of Liam Sprod's presentation at the Nuclear Culture Film Roundtable considering how the nuclear disaster is unfolding slowly over time, from its invention through the cold war and into the 21st Century, and how we are all suspended within the nuclear age. The problem with a lot of Cold War literary theory is it historicizes the nuclear age within the 20th Century. But with nuclear accidents come a new generation of analysis, theory and practice engaging with the contemporary world; one that is based on cold war logic, but has it’s own distinct forms and characteristics.

On the international stage, Koki Tanaka is representing Japan at the Venice Biennale this year. Tanaka's films express a gentle solidarity, practicing how to do things together, a new way of being. The statements by the artist and curator on the Japan Foundation website clearly articulate the significance of these works in the context of 3.11. The artist picks up on subtle changes in social behaviour as seen through the lens of the disaster, he describes seeing people in Tokyo using the subway stairs rather than the escalators, perhaps to respectfully save electricity. The films include the playful humour of trying to collectively cut hair, and the solemn procession of people descending a fire-escape staircase. These everyday gestures can be seen as practice for, or responses to, the need to undertake actions together. Tokyo based artists collective Chim↑Pom are the new generation of artists engaging with nuclear culture. They have overcome the historicising cultural blindspots to make interventions and artworks touring internationally (more on them later).

This week I’ve had long conversations with artists who have visited Fukushima and are rethinking their practice in response. Documentary photographer Takashi Noguchi is trying to visually capture the invisible radiation present in the scenes documented in his photographs. Along with the pictures, he has taken soil and leaves which he places in a dark-bag with the roll of film for 1 month, the radioactive particles make multi-coloured waves, spots and traces across the image. The photograph of the lake and swans shown here was taken more than 60km away from the powerplant, and the radiation level in the air was 0.94μSv. This is a normal background radiation reading, although the bright green effects of the soil could tell another story on the ground. The effects evoke Akira Kurosawa visualisation of radiation through coloured smoke in his film ‘Dreams’ (1990). Prophetically, in the dream ‘Mount Fuji in Red’ there is a total meltdown of a nuclear power plant releasing radiation into the air, each radioactive element is a different colour. The film demonstrates the depth of psychic disturbance caused by fear of radiation. There is a long history of the relationship between photographic and radioactive exposure. In 1896 Henri Becquerel first discovered radiation through a similar technique. Bequerel placed a glass of uranium salts on a piece of photographic paper wrapped in black paper, and after a few days the uranium cast a shadow across the paper. In the 20th Century analogue film and photography was used to record, measure and analyse America’s Trinity test of an atmoic explosion in 1945. The event was also used to develop new film and photographic stock and techniques. Takashi's radiation visualization exhibition 'Stigma' opens in Sapporo this week.

Several Japanese artists and film makers have returned from their adopted countries around the world to touch base with their homeland and families. They are making new bodies of work informed by their experience. Shimpei Takeda is taking a very methodical approach to autoradiography, exposing photographic paper to contaminated soil samples to create exquisite analogue prints. Along with his images of crystals, Takeda’s work explores different facets of geological time. He discusses his work in an interview with FOP in New York.

A Sapporo artist tells me about her trip to the Fukushima Prefecture in January. She explains the complexity the overlapping problems of infrastructural collapse and radioactive contamination alongside areas where the tsunami destroyed everything. She is unable to comprehend the radioactive zones, there is quite simply no language, no register, to make sense of what she has seen. This is not just unthinkable but unspeakable. But she tells me about the many important community based projects artists are facilitating in the area, and about the 'House of Politician's' built by artist Kaihatsu Yoshiaki (2012) at Minamisoma on the edge of the radiation evacuation zone. The house is both practical and symbolic. It exists as a proposition and as a space for contemplation, a memorial and a space for action. I'm reminded that the nuclear complex has always been outside democratic processes. I'm not fully informed about the Japanese political situation, but in Britain there has never been a democratic vote on nuclear weapons or nuclear power, there is no major political representation for an anti-nuclear case. It is a timely moment for the 'House of the Politician’s' to call for political engagement with the area, and to highlight our nuclear disenfranchisement. This is not a singularly Japanese problem.

Alonside public artworks, socially engaged projects, studio based practices, documentary film and photography considering nuclear effects and affect, curators and art institutions have also responded in interesting ways. Two exhibitions at Art Mito Tower have dealt directly with the disaster. The group exhibition ‘Artists and the Disaster, Documentation in Progress’  brought together many of the socially engaged projects artists have developed in response to the crisis. Whilst the solo exhibition by Tadasu Takamine  took a longer term view of the impact of nuclear weapons and energy on Japanese identity.

I came to Japan to investigate the different ways in which the disaster has impacted on artist’s practice, but I wasn’t prepared for the way in which nuclearity has affected the consciousness of the people, both historically from the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and contemporaneously. In the Otolith Group's film 'The Radiant' a Japanese reporter describes Japan as a nuclear experiment. But it wasn’t until I got here that I came to understand that the country can also be seen as part of the continuing US nuclear energy programme. This goes some way to explaining why Japan has more than 50 American designed nuclear power stations, an extraordinary number for the size of the population.