Transforming the Water Cycle

Niwa Yoshinori ‘Transforming Puddle A to Puddle B’ 500m Gallery, Sapporo, 2012.
Niwa Yoshinori ‘Transforming Puddle A to Puddle B’ 500m Gallery, Sapporo, 2012.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 has serious problems with containing radioactive water, and preventing it from entering the biosphere. Artist Niwa Yoshinori has made another gentler intervention in transforming the water cycle.

At the power plant, it seems that the vast amount of water pumped into the melting reactor cores has raised ground water levels; now water is flowing off the land through the contaminated site, over the safety barrier and into the Pacific Ocean. 400 tonnes of water used daily to cool the reactors is stored in pale blue tanks spreading out behind the site, and some of these are leaking too. The latest proposal is to create a frozen underground ice wall to attempt to contain water on the site, a cryogenic radiation container to interrupt the flow of the water cycle.

In the light of this unfolding story, Niwa Yoshinori’s performance ‘Transforming Puddle A to Puddle B’ 2012, (2 channel video installation, 11mins) is particularly resonant. The film of the performance is on display at the 500m Gallery in Sapporo as part of an exhibition about traveling and traveling art.

In the performance, Niwa kneels by a busy road and leans his face down towards the tarmac, using his mouth to suck up dirty water from a puddle he then spits the liquid into a plastic container, and continues until the puddle is drained and the container is nearly full. The artist then travels to a rather overgrown and quieter location and pours the water onto a pavement to create a new puddle.  The physical labour involved is an act of endurance, penance even. The contact between body and road repulses passers by the 500m Gallery. Drinking water from the street is unhygienic in any city, an activity of animals, the desparate or insane. But here the artist is calm and considered, and his performance is filmed by an accomplice. Perhaps it is the planned rationalism of the act that is so uncomfortable for the viewer?

Contact between body and the potential contamination of the environment has added poignancy in post-Fukushima Japan. It’s important to read the accompanying text to know that Yoshinori’s puddle is transported from a street in Shinjuku, the commercial center of Tokyo, to the town of Narahamachi, which was once designated as a restricted area within the 20km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. The residents of Narahamachi were forced to evacuate, but even after the alert was removed in the summer 2012, few have returned. There are still fears of radiation combined with a devastated infrastructure, leaving the streets empty, gathering grass and weeds.

Yishinori takes uncontaminated water from Tokyo to the affected area of Narahamachi. This is a reversal of the general method of clean-up. The artwork takes on a cleansing act by diluting the site in contrast to the government plan to redistribute contaminated debris across the islands of Japan.

If the artist wanted to make an explicit political point, he might have taken radioactive water from the contamination zone to create a puddle at the door of TEPCO in Tokyo. Instead, we are confronted with a more personal, intimate act: one that inserts his body within the hydro-cycle, heightening awareness through a simple but powerful gesture.

The artwork makes a slight intervention in the water cycle – the flow of water from rain, running down mountains, gathering in streams and rivers that flow to the sea where it evaporates forming clouds which are blown towards the land. When the clouds hit the land, moisture condenses and droplets of rain fall back to earth.  Here, Yishinori performs the dependency of human life on the hydro-cycle: A process of consumption and excretion, where water is used to hydrate and cool the body, before being released, warm, back into the biosphere.

The film is in two parts that create a continuous flow. The first channel shows the artist collecting the water, the second follows him on the journey to the final resting place for the puddle. Each film is a loop where each part of the water cycle is trapped in its own micro-climate. In busy Tokyo a pedestrian stops to give the artist a bottle of clean drinking water, but the process of collecting the puddle continues. It is only when the puddle is dry, that the second film releases the water into the quiet streets of Narahamachi.

This symmetry is mapped in the continuity of the water cycle: what goes up must come down. But at the Fukushima Power Plant, the water cycle has gained a new momentum, flowing through molten reactor cores before mixing with the Pacific Ocean. The water has been activated in a new way, not simply warmed by the human body, it now vibrates with energy as it continues is hydrological journey as part of the life-cycle of the earth.