Art by Lieko Shiga and Kota Takeuchi
On the sleepy coast of Miyagi in northeast Japan, the tsunami struck, and Lieko Shiga saw people die in front of her. She wonders how they suffered in that water, and how they died.
The deaths didn’t end there. Sickness, senility, suicide. The aftershocks of that terror rippled for a decade throughout Shiga’s life.
Reverberations linger in her exhibit for the Tokyo Contemporary Art Award, Japan’s prestigious prize for mid-career artists. Two adjacent rooms pour into each other. In the first, multiple projectors cast a short film on the dark wall: bloody, crashing waves, and a small procession of shadowed figures walking on a dark, seaside road.
I see a woman, face blanched in coarse light, reading a monotone speech reminiscent of a eulogy. She describes the aftermath of the tsunami with factual rigor. She speaks of the labor and energy that the people of Tohoku, or Japan’s northern regions, produced for the Tokyo metropolis. She speaks of the failures of the government’s ambitious rebuilding plans that, ultimately, only put money in the pockets of corporate contractors.
She speaks of a hopeless man who committed suicide, years after the earthquake struck.
Her speech leaks into the adjoining room. I wander in and find the wall covered in eerie, blue collages of photographs blown up to theater-scale: piles of construction equipment and the instruments of industry, retrieved from the tidal basin by a private citizen who sunk his own manpower and time into hauling them hundreds of kilometers into the mountains. Red paint sprawls across the collage like arteries, depicting the highways that connect Tohoku southwards to Tokyo. Small series of photographs are affixed at various points on the map, micro still-image films with stories of human-scale suffering. In the center of the room, a functioning crane arm picks up a heavy sandbag and then lets it plunge to the floor, once, then five minutes later, again. Sections of the wall are covered in tiny print, descriptions of stories overlooked by the Japanese media, like a failed casino project near the Sendai airport.
Shiga likens photography to performance: she uses her subjects as actors to stage a show. In the same way, her exhibit toes the line between the informational and the dramatic. An actress reads a script that Shiga produced. Shadowy photographs line the walls of subjects so isolated they may as well be underwater. And yet the two rooms overflow with facts and raw information. The actress’s dialogue and the stories on the walls do not editorialize. I was struck by how much information there was to explore. The exhibit felt architectural, different sections serving different functions. It is an ambitious, daunting reflection on Tohoku’s 2011 disaster that challenges a visitor to open their eyes and their ears.
“For a long time, Tohoku has supplied countless resources to Tokyo—electricity, laborers, natural resources. Things get taken out and brought to the capital,” Shiga says. “I wanted to create the opposite motion. By reversing that flow, I’m turning it into a cycle.”
I felt myself become a part of this cycle of energy. The actress speaks slowly so I have to be patient in order to hear her. Four-by-six-inch photos with captions are like islands in an ocean of jumbled machinery so I have to look closely in order to notice them. And the sandbag plunges once every five minutes so that I have to linger to witness this dramatic rumble. Shiga demands effort from the audience, creating a call-and-response. My energy starts to shift towards understanding and engaging with the disaster faced by Tohoku. The beginning of a cycle where my Tokyo-bound body generates energy oriented north.
Shiga moved to Miyagi prefecture in 2008. After residing in Sendai during a residency, she was captivated by what she describes as Tohoku’s “emotional landscape”: agrarian, folkloric roots in a setting of overwhelming natural beauty. Having studied photography in London, Shiga focused on the medium, capturing life in her new town of Kitakama. Her distorted, startling photographs document, explore, and critique the destruction and rebuilding of Tohoku.
But it wasn’t her photographs that led her to receive one of Japan’s most distinguished art awards. Award selection committee member and program director of Tokyo Arts and Space Yuki Kondo says the committee recognized Shiga’s efforts for the way she forges a way of life with her work. “And not just for herself, but for the community,” Kondo says. Shiga runs an “open studio” in Misato, Miyagi, where anyone is free to come and stay as long as they like. Sometimes she holds online workshops or specific events, but once a week, her doors are open to anyone, for any reason.
Shiga says that by opening up her life as an artist, her work becomes “activated” and begins to interact with and influence the outside world. “A lot of kids come to visit nowadays,” she says. “Their ideas become sources for my work. We talk together, make things together, ram into new problems together.”
The praxis element of the studio comes alive in her exhibit. I found myself wandering between the two rooms. Circling back to reexamine a photograph that a line of text suddenly reminded me of. The overall presentation is intense, geared to cause shock and discomfort. The crashing waves, flickering lights, crashing sandbag, and looming heaps of dead trucks overwhelmed me. I almost slipped out of the exhibit before all the information and stories and histories had a chance to take hold.
But I lingered just long enough, and found myself wanting to engage more with the aftermath of Tohoku’s bitter disaster.
Shiga was one of two artists to receive the 2021–2023 Tokyo Contemporary Art Award, along with Kota Takeuchi. Takeuchi resides in Fukushima, another region affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami—specifically the nuclear power plant meltdown that followed. The award supports the winning artists financially and artistically during the course of three years of activity. Winners go overseas to conduct research, develop their practice, and network. At the culmination of the three years, the winners have their show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, developed closely alongside a curator.
The joint Shiga-Takeuchi exhibit is titled “Waiting for the Wind,” curated by Tatsuhiro Ishikawa. Kondo and Ishikawa say that it was a coincidence that both artists focused so heavily on Tohoku. Takeuchi has produced a series of works that fuse photography, performance, and historical research centering around Fukushima prefecture. He sketched the tombs of local coal miners; he replicated photos of a historian researching stone memorials of historic events in Fukushima; he spent time working as a security guard at the nuclear exclusion zone, where he created a typeface font out of low-shutter-speed photographs of a guard drawing letters with a glowing red traffic baton.
But beyond both artists’ interest and residence in Tohoku, an equally potent similarity lies in the way their artistic practices create an unusual exhibition form. They operate from positions of ideological clarity and aggression, trying to invoke reaction and response from the audience. Shiga takes her open studio approach into the exhibit and creates a space that demands active response from the visitor. In contrast, Takeuchi acts more like a researcher. His exhibit is almost like one you might find in a history or natural history museum, unveiling a previously hidden historical event with artistically-rendered documents and simulations. The subject matter: Japan’s World War II–era massive balloon-bomb program.
In an effort to intimidate and instill fear in American citizens and politicians, Japan released nine thousand balloon bombs to cross the Pacific. Most of them failed to do that, and the few hundred that did mainly landed in the American West’s vast, empty fields. Some caused property damage, and only one resulted in fatalities. Takeuchi used Google Maps and American military archives to identify the landing sites of balloon bombs. He went on to visit the locations and photograph them, sketch topographical maps, gather the declassified military archives, and make a documentary on the history of balloon bombs from the perspective of a bat.
The exhibit atmosphere is, in many ways, the opposite of Shiga’s. The room is bright and silent. Orderly sketches and documents cover the walls in a regular grid. Takeuchi pieced together three hundred landscape photographs of bomb landing sites into a thirty-foot-diameter recreation of a balloon bomb. The balloon structure fills up much of the room, so the space feels intimate, like a classroom. Detailed signage describes each work and the extensive history behind it. The mood is calm, intriguing in a mild way. The Japanese government deliberately covered up the history of balloon bombs, so most visitors have never even heard of them before. The sublime vastness of America’s looming plains and valleys dwarf the magnitude of the damage. Unlike the materials in Shiga’s exhibit, which required a number of collaborators to build and stage, Takeuchi created all of the works with his own two hands.
Quirks prevent the exhibit from becoming dry. Takeuchi includes tongue-in-cheek photographs of himself pointing a finger-gun at balloon-bomb landing sites. The documentary camera shakes and flutters like a bat spiraling around in the daylight, narrating the history of balloon bombs in robotic, discomforting Japanese. The result is nothing short of uncanny: the strangeness of this covered-up, lost history and the destruction that could have been; the blind, soft, yet violent balloons.
It’s a history exhibit built by an artist. “It’s an educational exhibit, using written materials and evidence in a visual presentation,” Takeuchi says. “But on the other hand, I’m also using art to express the things that you can’t see when you only look at the visual evidence.”
Takeuchi carefully considered the history’s myriad connections to the modern day. In twenty-first-century war, there is less fighting in the trenches—instead, governments send drones to remotely detonate and destroy. The balloon bombs, which don’t even have cameras, illustrate the perspective of the politicians and policy-makers behind the scenes. In other words, those that simply decide to destroy, and never witness the consequences. “The pain and suffering is far, far away from the ones waging war,” Takeuchi says. “Those people aren’t soldiers, but the government that supports the war and all of us. War continues on the basis of us being unable to see and feel it.”
He was also thinking about the way social media can be used to hurl violence from a safe distance, allowing the bombers to blind themselves to the damage they cause. “The balloons represent the media,” Takeuchi says. “They are these big, soft objects that spread information and ideas around. But in actuality, when you attach weapons to them, they can detonate.”
This handcrafted exploration of history contrasts with and complements Shiga’s bloodstained, information-dense plea. Both exhibits are rife with factual information. And both invoke participation and effort from the audience. A side-room installation by Takeuchi shows a film of a ruined, historic Fukushima theater getting demolished after the earthquake. But the film is projected onto a metal backdrop that reflects the seated viewers on-screen, making them appear as if they’re sitting in the ruins. I watched as a bulldozer plowed over my legs and repeatedly crushed its ripper down over my head. Takeuchi is very deliberate in not allowing his audience to be solely spectators.
“We select artists whose philosophy is evident in their work,” Kondo says of the contemporary art award. “They need to have clarity in their expressions—strong articulations.” The artists and curators did not overlook the fact that the award is funded with taxpayer dollars, and that the exhibit is free to the public. They chose to produce political material, to share little-known factual information with the public. In some ways, this is a surprising decision in Japan, where talk of politics is generally frowned upon, including in art. Just a few years ago, an exhibit in Aichi prefecture about censored artwork was shut down due to complaints about its depiction of Korean “comfort women,” or women who were forced into prostitution for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
To an American, the exhibits shed light on the experience of disaster, especially in an age of climate crisis that brings natural disaster closer to each and every one of us. Shiga’s work resounds with years of pain and suffering, and demonstrates how the oppressive forces of state and capital can cause just as much damage in rebuilding as the original event. Takeuchi forces us to explore the sources of our history, imagine destruction that we dodged by force of landscape, and question our relegation of destruction to agents as blind as bats.
But disaster art has been a core component of Japanese culture since ancient times. Popular postcards depicting the horrors of destruction after the Tokyo earthquake of 1923 circulated around the country. As Kondo puts it, “there’s no ‘new’ perspective on disaster in Japan.”
From a Japanese perspective, rather than offering an original perspective on or depicting a new aspect of disaster, the uniqueness of Shiga and Takeuchi comes from the way they fuse facts and poetry to invoke audience participation. “There are some societal problems that are too complex, too difficult to solve with political action,” Takeuchi says. “When there is something that we unite and face as a group, and even that doesn’t solve it, all that’s left to do is to cry out in the form of poetry, to raise embittered voices with art.”
“It’s not just about resistance or speaking out [about injustice],” Shiga says. “I want a response from the audience and from myself—I want to change by the time the exhibit ends. That’s what the open studio is for too.”
It took Shiga a decade to process the trauma of what she experienced on March 11, twelve years ago.
“There’s no saying, ‘do your best!’ to the victims of disaster,” she says. “But you have to do whatever you can, think whatever you can that lets you personally accept what happened.”
“I’m included in the layers of death—I’ll also die someday,” Shiga adds in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone. That, in a sense, implicates me and all the other exhibit visitors in the chain of destruction wrought by the 2011 tsunami. I visited the exhibit, got to know Shiga and Takeuchi, who knew all those who died and suffered in the earthquake and its aftermath. I am now complicit; I now have a responsibility to Tohoku and its people.
“Just come to the exhibit,” Shiga says, “and think about it a little.”
Fall / Winter 2023
Eric Margolis is a writer and translator from Japanese working in Tokyo and Nagoya. His writing and translations have been published in the New York Times, Japan Times, Foreign Policy, Vox, Slate, the New Republic, Metropolis Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, and more. You can follow his work on Twitter @ericdmargolis.