From October 6, 2018, to January 20, 2019, the exhibition Catastrophe and the Power of Art was on view at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. The exhibition, curated by Kondo Kenichi, was notable for the choice of topic and the display of relevant pieces created by international artists. Moreover, it coincided with the fifteenth anniversary of the museum. Museum director Nanjo Fumio explained that while the tenth anniversary was dedicated to universal themes such as “happiness” and “love,” catastrophe became central for the fifteenth anniversary “given the disasters and tragedies that seem to be a constant presence today.”1
The showcased works were thoughtful in so many ways that my first response was to wish that I could have mentioned the exhibition in my own book on the arts of the atomic age.2 But the book was about to be distributed, so it was too late. As an afterthought, however, and acknowledging that several other exhibitions with nuclear accidents as their topic have been touring in the past year in the West, I realized that the arts have not kept silent or forgotten about the Great East Japan Earthquake—or “3.11”—and the subsequent nuclear accident at Fukushima’s power plant. The choice itself—to focus on catastrophe seven years after the disaster, and to make it a central topic for an anniversary exhibition—is telling.
At first, I intended to write a simple review of the exhibition, but while finishing my first version, protests began at the Whitney Museum of American Art against a trustee, Warren B. Kanders, whose company Safariland produces military and law enforcement supplies such as tear gas, believed to have been used on hundreds of migrants at the United States/Mexican border. Not long before, protests were held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that resulted in the Guggenheim cutting ties with a family of patrons, the Sacklers, whose company Purdue Pharma produces OxyContin, a powerful and addictive opioid drug.3 These protests against powerful and influential but unethical entities brought a feeling of déjà vu, and I decided to extend my exhibition review into a short essay on the “power of the arts.”
Incidentally, at the same time, I was reading Kobayashi Takiji’s Kani kōsen (The Crab Cannery Ship, 1929).4 Based on a true story, the novel relates the uprising of a fishing crew against their horrific onboard working and living conditions, which were worsened by a dictatorial manager and the complicity of the military. Kobayashi is also remembered for his tragic death in 1933 at the age of twenty-nine, while being tortured at the hands of the police because of his communist militancy. Although he wrote his novel in a different historical context with a different agenda, the novel is an implacable metaphor for the reversal of power and, therefore, is still relevant today. Kondo’s exhibition also relates to power through the artists’ politically committed work—a category in which Kobayashi’s novel also belongs.
Thus, from power plants to the power of the arts, are we witnessing a reversal of power in which art’s saving force is revived or given more emphasis after Fukushima? Is it only a momentary revival? Or is culture insignificant in the face of global political and economic interests? The exhibition Catastrophe and the Power of Art offers a path toward the answer.
CATASTROPHE AND THE POWER OF THE ART: NUCLEAR DISASTERS
Several years after 3.11, art has not remained silent. As would be expected, Catastrophe and the Power of Art included several pieces relating to the nuclear accident at Fukushima. In the installation Black color timer (2016–17), Hirakawa Kōta displayed what looks like minimalist black circles on the white wall of the museum. But if one looks closer, the circles are portraits of the nuclear plant workers hired to do cleanup after the accident, painted on radio-controlled clocks in nuances of black. The clocks are a reminder of the radiation dose, the standard timing for radiation exposure regulating the work of plant workers, and they also relate to “Color Timers,” in the Japanese TV show Ultra Series.5 In the series, the glowing light seen at the center of the chest of each “Ultraman” indicates the limited time in which this space alien can stay on earth to help humans fight against monstrous aliens—hence the connection with personal dosimeters that monitor the radiation exposure of plant workers. The piece is also a reminder that the cleanup at the plant is still going on, and that it will take time to recover from this accident—if such a thing is possible at all.
Another piece relating directly to Fukushima is Thomas Demand’s photograph Control Room (2011), in which he uses his signature restaging of events, but here reproduces the pictures taken by a worker of the control room of the stricken Fukushima power plant. The images show the room with parts of the ceiling falling down. This ceiling originally looked like thin white metal grids covering neon lights, but these grids became slightly bigger in Demand’s work, as if white canvases were falling down at the core of a technological disaster [Image 1].
Finally, two particularly interesting works relating to the politics surrounding the exclusive use of nuclear applications and uranium ore are Shiva Ahmadi’s watercolor paintings The Mesh and The Wall (both 2017), which represent power plants but in a style resembling ancient Persian and Indian miniatures. The control of resources and technology by Western powers (or rather, powers of the Global North) and the corruption that ensues in the Middle East are clearly depicted. In The Mesh, a wall separates a golden throne from the people, while in The Wall it is a power plant and its cooling towers that are separated from the people by a wall, signifying a transfer from traditional to new sources of power.
Ahmadi’s use of red ink suggests violence and bloodshed with some characters’ limbs being represented only by red stains, while drops of red ink resembling blood are dripped across the works. Her message holds true for the African continent, too—a region rich in uranium ore: Niger’s ore, for example, is mined by the French corporation Areva (now renamed Orano), and the British-Australian company Rio Tinto mines in Namibia. The entire continent has only one power plant, the Koeberg nuclear power station in Cape Town, South Africa. Moreover, conflicts often develop where minerals and resources are extracted. Conflicts and rebellions were reported against Areva’s mining activities in Niger since the 1990s, and in 2010, a branch of Al-Quaeda Niger kidnapped seven foreign workers at the same mine (some of whom were released in 2013) [Image 2].
A parallel with Ahmadi’s work can be made with another thoughtful installation, Mona Hatoum’s Misbah (2006–7). “Misbah” in Arabic means “lantern”; hanging from the ceiling of a dark room, a motorized lantern riddled with holes in the forms of soldiers and explosions endlessly spins, projecting not shadows but lights in the shape of images of war (soldiers and explosions) to get us out of the Plato’s cave. The piece has a playful character to it, like a child’s magic projector, but with the patterns of war, and as such, it also suggests global conflicts [Image 3].
Artworks can be messages, they can express worries and act as a way to remember, they can be metaphors about the interaction between art and science, and they can express politically committed messages. This becomes clear throughout the exhibition, as Catastrophe and the Power of Art also included other types of catastrophes and messages.
CATASTROPHE AT LARGE
In the exhibition, the word “catastrophe” was understood in the widest sense, from personal accidents to large-scale natural and human-made catastrophes. Thanks to this openness, the artworks covered a wide range of crises including refugees, wars, femicide, and HIV/AIDS. The exhibition was thus remarkable for the rich diversity of artists, nationalities, and traumas it addressed.
Yōko Ono, for example, invited the public to write on a boat and on the walls of her installation Add Color Painting (Refugee Boat) (1960/2016–18). The work is part of a series started in 1960, Add Color Painting, in which visitors can reinvest the white cube with the colors of their thoughts and wishes via pen and pencil. The work was initially exhibited in Greece, the country where Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe first arrive before transiting to other European countries. Ono’s anti-war activism during the Vietnam conflict was also included, in a work she began with her husband, John Lennon. War is Over (1969/2018) is comprised of several large white posters that were displayed in different locations around the world, bearing the message “WAR IS OVER! IF YOU WANT IT.”
The refugee crisis was also represented through the work of Ai Weiwei. The Chinese artist took refuge in Germany in 2015 and experienced not only exile but also the flow of migrants who have come to Europe and especially to Germany. Odyssey (2016/2019) is a gigantic black-and-white mural resembling epic narrative works of ancient Greece in which the artist narrated the hardships of their lives, such as experiencing wars in the homeland, fleeing by boat across the sea, and being secluded in tents in refugee camps.
In the series Seven Lives and a Dream (1980–91), Sheba Chhachhi covered several feminist protests in the 1980s and ’90s in India. Through her photographs, she documented two central mothers-turned-activists of the anti-dowry movement as they mourned the murders/deaths of their daughters. If a dowry is not paid to the family-in-law by the bride’s family, the bride is often forced to commit suicide or is killed by the husband or his family and the crime is subsequently disregarded by the police. The murder of one activist’s daughter, for example, was reported as the result of a kitchen accident. While there have been¢› advances since then, large dowries continue to be requested [Image 4].6
Another subtle and powerful work is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Beginning) (1994). The piece is a beaded curtain, made of green, clear, and silver beads arranged in a particular pattern, and installed between two rooms that the visitor must decide whether to walk through or not. Gonzalez-Torres died from AIDS in 1996, and such curtains can be found in many gay bars across the US (though not exclusively there). The piece, along with “Untitled” (Chemo) (1991) and “Untitled” (Blood) (1992), examine the AIDS crisis from personal to widespread tragedy.
Catastrophe and the Power of Art gives a space for reflecting on, remembering, or acting against human tragedies at large global or smaller local levels, and at different times and in different places. Just like the fishermen in Kobayashi’s novel and Kobayashi himself, some artists do not keep silent. But is this capacity to speak up a “power” of the arts?
THE ARTS AND THE “INSIGNIFICANTS”
Among the exhibition catalog’s entries, Ai Weiwei’s caught my attention. The entry reminded me of a previous work (not included in the exhibition) in which he had tried to counter the Chinese government’s attempt at concealing the extent of the disaster caused by the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008.7 But most importantly, the entry shows that some large-scale catastrophes are prone to be forgotten or planned to become so (by authorities). Ai Weiwei’s blog was taken down after he disclosed a list of the names of some of the people who had died in the earthquake. The list of the dead he and his team compiled contained more than five thousand names of students who had been attending classes. Death tolls and tragedies should not be a matter of negotiation between the powerful and the “powerless,” but, in fact, these are endlessly negotiated, more or less directly. Therefore, whether an artist’s aim is militancy or acting against oblivion, art gives light to the people deemed “insignificant” by those in power.
Thinking about past earthquakes also brought to mind a novel by Haruki Murakami. In 1995, after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe, he wrote Kami no kodomo-tachi wa mina odoru (usually translated as “After the Quake,” but meaning “All the children of God dance” or “All God’s Children Can Dance”) (2000), which also pondered tragedy and “insignificant” lives. The novel has an epigraph of two quotations, one of which was taken from the film Pierrot le Fou (1965) by Jean-Luc Godard. In the film, a female character reacts to a news broadcast about the Vietnam conflict, announcing the death of more than one hundred Vietcong fighters. For her, this news is useless because the death toll is reported but nothing is said about the people who had died. As she explains, the Vietcong dead remain anonymous: “They say 115 guerillas, yet it doesn’t mean anything, because we don’t know anything about these men, who they are, whether they love a woman, or have children, if they prefer the cinema to the theatre. We know nothing. They just say . . . 115 dead.”8
Ai Weiwei’s activism strikes me as an attempt to bring victims out of anonymity. And Murakami’s novel also goes against the lack of meaning in death tolls—a lack of emotional, human scale. Yet every life is significant. Murakami’s novel narrates moments of the lives of several people after the earthquake who appear, at first, unimportant: a man whose wife leaves him; a woman working in a mini-market who transfers feelings of abandonment related to her father onto on older customer—together, they imagine the way they will die. There is the story of a Japanese doctor traveling from the US to Thailand after a bitter divorce, who hopes her ex-husband died in Kobe during the quake because of the resentment she feels toward him.
Thus, here are the “insignificant” lives, swept away by disasters. They are common people: daughters, fathers, refugees, brides, soldiers, homosexuals, schoolchildren, and fishermen. They all have a story to tell. In Kobayashi’s TheCrab Cannery Ship, the coldness and greed of the manager of the crabbing vessel, who refuses to rescue a nearby sinking boat because it would reduce his own ship’s production rate, results in the death of the entire crew of the other boat—about a hundred people. Meanwhile, the mistreatment of the fishermen extends to the factory hands, the young male children employed to can the fished crabs, some of whom are raped by the fishermen. The novel works to give a voice to the “voiceless,” even if it was at the cost of the author’s life.
Clearly, the arts have the power to give a voice. The torments of the fishermen are remembered each time Kobayashi’s book is read. Victims, even when they have not always followed an artistic path, reach to the arts. Recently, a sketch by Nelson Mandela of his Robben Island cell door recently sold at auction for $112,575.9
But the arts do more than give a voice and facilitate remembering. They also disturb the imbalance of power between the powerless and the powerful. If the arts had no power, why would the respective national authorities interfere to curb Kobayashi’s or Ai Weiwei’s artistic production? If the arts had no power, why would those in power repress them via brute violence or insidious censorship? In the twenty-first century, artworks are still being censored in the least expected places. In 2019, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz’s feminist video Consumer Art (1973), in which she suggestively eats a banana, was censored at the National Museum in Poland, and then temporarily reinstalled following some protests covered by the media beyond national borders. Not long before that, Igarashi Megumi was jailed for designing a kayak after a 3-D scan of her vulva and selling the data of her scanned vulva for 3-D printers in order to crowdfund her project. Her aim was to pinpoint how Japanese society focuses on male genitalia (including some larger-than-life sculptures being shown in festivals) and disregards women’s sexual desires. In the US, a mural portraying Michael Brown, a teenager killed in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, with the message “Sagging pants is not probable cause” was removed from an iron gate covering a vacant storefront in Trenton, New Jersey, after concerns were expressed by, of all people, the police.
Sometimes, however, censorship isn’t as clear-cut. Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) caused much controversy when it was exhibited in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. A white female artist depicting the corpse of Emmett Till, a teenager who had been lynched in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting with her, was caught between two points of view: that of the artist, and that of protesters, who saw the piece as an appropriation of African American suffering to generate money and spectacle—or “Black Death Spectacle,” as African America artist Parker Bright puts it. As a mother, Schutz explained feeling connected to the sorrow Till’s mother must have felt.10
In fact, it is precisely because the arts have a particular status in societies that art propaganda exists. This we know already. And this explains why, in the nuclear age, nuclear corporations like the British-Australian Rio Tinto, the French Areva, and several American corporations have become involved with the arts. In 2015, Rio Tinto announced a $1.8 million partnership with the Art Gallery of Western Australia to promote Aboriginal artists, all the while ignoring artists from Namibia where the corporation mines uranium ore using unfair trade practices.11 Areva was a patron of the Guimet Museum of Asian Arts in Paris but mines uranium ore in Niger using similar unfair practices.12 In addition, both companies are denounced by NGO groups for the impact of their mining activities on workers, their families, and the environment. These interferences are not new. During the Cold War, General Electric used the popular arts and produced comics such as Adventures Inside the Atom (1948), while Walt Disney made Our Friend, The Atom (1957), co-produced by the US Navy and General Dynamics.13
The arts can thus be double-edged swords, but disregarding their power would be a mistake. Ai Weiwei’s dissident artworks, Ono and Lennon’s anti-war artworks, Chhachhi’s anti-femicide artworks, any work against collective or governmental amnesia—these works have a power worthy of attention. In TheCrab Cannery Ship and After the Quake, along with the anonymous victims of war, earthquakes, and nuclear traumas—civilian or military—the “insignificants,” or “les Misérables” as Victor Hugo called them, can find a voice. Whether or not these artworks directly benefit the afflicted communities can and must be debated. Moreover, the very functioning of the museum and the power structures within the art world itself must be scrutinized in view of the 2019 protests at the Whitney Museum of American Art discussed here. In spite of this, the arts’ capacity to value the lives that are seen as insignificant by those in power, together with their capacity to reverse imbalances of power, are of importance. In fact, that this is still being discussed today, in the form of an exhibition on catastrophe, is telling. Such a topic was already a concern in postwar times, as witnessed in the work of László Moholy-Nagy, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Theodor Adorno, for example, and their take on the debate between “art for art’s sake” and politically committed artworks.14 The arts’ power has been discussed and will continue to be discussed again in the future, in artists’ manifestos, essays, and exhibitions. Thus, about power, about control over people and over nature, about judicial power, about corporate power and power plants, the arts have not kept silent. Such is their power.