This article examines the Atom Suit Project carried out by Japanese artist Kenji Yanobe in the Chornobyl zone in 1997. Employing an ecocritical theoretical lens, I focus on the relationship between the artwork and the place of its stage—a site of a nuclear disaster—in order to better understand art’s agency in the face of the ecological emergencies caused by the nuclear industry’s impact on the planet’s environment locally and globally. In brief, the main claim of the article is this: if the Chornobyl disaster endangered the basic biological need of staying alive, the Atom Suit Project surpassed trivializing survival as an art theme and instead enacted it as an aspect of the disaster’s reality. In the main body of the article, I support this claim by detailing the project’s survival strategies ranging from radiation shielding, body mobility, and the danger detection system to evoking hope and interfering with the politics of nuclear denial. The article’s concluding section discusses the Atom Suit Project’s potential to survive into the deep future.

On March 20, 1995, the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo dispersed sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. The attack killed thirteen people, injured over five thousand, and terrified millions.1 Japanese artist Kenji Yanobe, then residing in Europe, did not suffer direct physical harm. Instead, he experienced a self-imposed threat. In an email interview, Yanobe explained me that he felt as if he “might have done something similar,”2 that the cult’s madness reverberated with his own sense of detachment from reality at that time.3 Like most Aum Shinrikyo supporters, the artist belonged to the generation born in the 1960s—the vanguard of the otaku, whose collective imagination was captivated with apocalyptic fantasies rooted in the manga and anime subculture.4 But unlike Aum Shinrikyo’s attempt to initiate Harumagedon (Armageddon) through a terrorist attack on the populated metropolis in Japan, Yanobe channeled his apocalyptic anxiety into an art project staged at a desolate site of a nuclear disaster—the Chornobyl zone in Ukraine.5 While the cult aimed to destroy, the artist chose to create.

The April 26, 1986, reactor explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear plant echoed worldwide. It triggered mass panic, burdened economies, led to the shutdown of nuclear programs, and even played a role in the geopolitical shift. The disaster’s most immediate and devastating impact, however, fell on the local community. The severe radioactive contamination necessitated the total evacuation of the area around the plant. The restricted zone engulfed Prypiat, a city where plant employees lived, and about one hundred other settlements nearby. Over time, the Chornobyl zone turned into a deserted island, a precinct for mutated wildlife taking over the bleak ruins of late-Soviet civilization.6

Yanobe visited the place in 1997, one of the years that the Aum Shinrikyo’s founder Shoko Asahara had proposed as a date for Harumagedon.7 The artist arrived right after the Summer Solstice on June 22 and wandered around the irradiated landscape for the next eight days, until June 29. Assisted by the American photographer Russell Liebman, he staged a series of photographs capturing Chornobyl’s iconic landmarks. Unlike other artists who visited the zone before and after him, Yanobe did not take retreat behind a camera lens. Instead, he boldly confronted the mechanical eye while clad in an extravagant posthuman protective gear—the Atom Suit, as he called it.8

Atom Suit Project: Reactor, Chernobyl (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

Atom Suit Project: Reactor, Chernobyl (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

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The suit envelops the artist’s body from head to toe. Its strikingly bright yellow surface contrasts sharply with the black framing of horns on the helmet, pads on the shoulders, gloves on the hands, and boots on the feet. Radiation detection devices bulge from the genital area, torso, and head. A metal panel with a display and a loudspeaker adorn the suit’s chest. When radiation is detected, numbers appear on the display, and the speaker produces an audible alert.

The Atom Suit continues the thread of Yanobe’s earlier works—the complex robotized machines and suits designed to protect their hosts from environmental hazards. Scholars often refer to these artworks as “survival vehicles,” “survival devices,” or “survival gear.” Because the artist created them for gallery exhibitions, their preoccupation with survival was understood merely as an art theme, a play of “near autistic imagination” that either distracts from the world’s challenges or indulges in an apocalyptic delusion. This attitude also carries over to the Atom Suit Project. Even though it was staged not in a gallery but at a nuclear disaster site, scholars still consider the project’s inclinations toward survival as imaginary or symbolic.9

While acknowledging the doubts regarding the Atom Suit’s effectiveness in an environment where long-term human habitation is impossible, this article takes Yanobe’s survival endeavor seriously. If the Chornobyl disaster endangered the basic biological need of staying alive, the Atom Suit Project, I argue, surpassed trivializing survival as an art theme and instead enacted it as an aspect of the disaster’s reality. The suit’s skin shielded the artist from internal contamination. The suit’s body mobility enabled rapid movement and relocation from highly contaminated to safer areas. The radiation detection system provided an extra ability to sense danger beyond the human senses, and the viewer-oriented functioning of the suit as an indexical sign of danger extended the project’s protection beyond the personal safety of a suit’s wearer to a collective warning for those who encounter the performance. On this collective level of perception, the project’s use of optimistic imagery fosters a sense of hope as a crucial survival resource. And its interference with the politics of nuclear denial contributes to preventing future disasters. Finally, the project’s resemblance to a religious cult enhances its own chances to survive and pass its strategies into a deep future.

Let us imagine what happened when Yanobe, wearing the Atom Suit, crossed over the border of the Chornobyl zone, passing beyond the red-and-white stop sign set against the backdrop of a serene blue sky, as one of his photographs shows. What did he sense? In Prypiat, urban life had ceased to exist a decade before. The city lay barren, devoid of inhabitants and transportation. The artist observed the desolate cityscape and heard its quiet ambiance. He was not alone, however. Below the threshold of his sensory perception, a potent force was piercing his body—the force of ionizing radiation.

Neither passive nor neutral but penetrative and harmful, radiation emanates from the decay of radionuclides—unstable atoms that, in their quest for stability, emit particles and rays. When this emission penetrates a biological body, it damages DNA responsible for an organism’s life program, opening a door for mutations and diseases. While radiation is always present in “natural” forms, such as cosmic rays, nuclear reactors (particularly when they malfunction) generate a dangerous radioactive surplus in both the annual and cumulative dose, negatively affecting public health.

At the time of Yanobe’s visit to the Chornobyl zone, the most perilous radionuclide still present in the environment was cesium-137. This element not only dominated the Chornobyl fallout, but with a half-life of 30.17 years, it produced high and constant radioactive emissions. Cesium decays by “low-range” beta particles into barium-137 m, which (with a short half-life of about 153 seconds) immediately emits high-power gamma rays that can easily pierce the human body. Consequently, the concentrated presence of cesium-137 in the environment leads to an increased radiation dose for anyone approaching the area. Further morbidity arises when the radionuclides enter the human body. Since an organism confuses cesium for potassium, muscle and bones readily absorb the dangerous element. After this occurs, beta particles, which would not normally penetrate the barrier of human skin, begin to harm the organism’s inner tissues directly.10

The map of the cesium-137 deposition in Europe published the year following Yanobe’s visit shows that the radionuclide concentration in the soil around the Chornobyl plant (where the artist took pictures) produced a radioactive emission of over 18,500 kBq/m2.11 This number starkly contrasts with the average cesium deposition in European soil before the Chornobyl disaster, which was only 2.2 kBq/m2 for latitudes 50–60° N (the Chornobyl plant is located at 51°23'21” N).12 Moreover, the radioactive contamination in the zone is not homogeneous: specific areas, known as “hot spots,” produce incredibly high levels of radioactivity. According to a report published a year before Yanobe’s visit, the level of radioactivity from cesium-137 in those “hot” areas could have reached up to 370,000 kBq/m2, twenty times higher than the average level even around the plant and a hundred thousand times more than the average in pre-Chornobyl Europe.13

By merely arriving at the zone, Yanobe exposed himself to radiation, but by taking pictures at the “hot spots,” such as the graveyard of contaminated military vehicles or the “red” forest (after dying due to radiation, its pine trees turned red), he amplified that exposure considerably. It would be justified, then, following Renny Pritikin’s proposal, to label the Atom Suit Project as “one of the great artistic leaps of the century” and to line up Yanobe with performance artists such as Ron Athey, Chris Burden, Yves Klein, and Adrian Piper, who all suffered injuries for the sake of art.14 Given the risk taken by the artist, the Atom Suit Project indeed stands as an example of genuine commitment to art, even in the face of invisible danger. By no means did the project aim to harm the artist, however. On the contrary, it attempted to ensure his safety.

Cesium-137 penetrates the human body when ingested or inhaled. Therefore, protecting the respiratory and digestive systems is crucial to avoid contamination. Removing radioactive materials and staying clean provide necessary conditions for survival. To understand how the Atom Suit addresses this primary task, consider what is on its surface—its posthuman “skin.”15 Made from vinyl resin, it enables easy cleaning, allowing continuous use of the suit. According to Yanobe, radiation inspection stations in the Chornobyl zone regularly detected radioactive materials on him.16 The routine washdown performed by the zone’s workers at these stations, however, eliminated the danger on the spot and restored the suit’s functionality. The artist also wore a gas mask for protection from radioactive dust in the air. Overall, the Atom Suit worked as a radiation shield, guarding the artist’s organism against internal contamination.

Some of Yanobe’s photographs denote this shielding function of the suit metaphorically by direct juxtaposition with other shield-like structures in the Chornobyl zone. Consider, for instance, the picture taken in front of the reactor’s containment building. At the forefront, we see Yanobe standing on a round concrete slab between ceramic sculptures that imitate plants merged into a melted and mutated surrealist image. A red sea of living flowers unfolds at the artist’s feet. This celebration of nature, however, contrasts with a grim industrial background. Here the reactor’s containment building, a brutalist concrete structure erected after the 1986 explosion to conceal the nuclear fuel remains, looms over the barbed wire fence. Its burial function combined with its dull appearance inspired the name “Sarcophagus” in reference to stone coffins used in funerary rites of ancient civilizations.17 While the Sarcophagus works as an inner shield, protecting the environment from the nuclear waste trapped inside it, the Atom Suit provides an outer shield, protecting the artist’s body from the fragments of the radionuclides dispersed in the environment. Juxtaposed in the photograph, the suit and the Sarcophagus mirror the shielding function of each other: the Atom Suit reveals itself as a reverse Sarcophagus, and the Sarcophagus reveals itself as a reversed Atom Suit. In other words, the Sarcophagus becomes a metaphor for the suit, while the suit becomes a metaphor for the Sarcophagus.

Contaminated Atom Suit (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art collection; courtesy the artist; photograph by Seiji Toyonaga.

Contaminated Atom Suit (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art collection; courtesy the artist; photograph by Seiji Toyonaga.

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Although the radiation shielding was pertinent in both cases, it never achieved totality. As shields, both the Sarcophagus and the Atom Suit stayed porous. The former was erected on the fly and, over time, began to disintegrate.18 Multiple cracks appeared in its concrete walls, letting water and air ventilate radioactive materials into the zone’s ecosystem. Being a much higher-quality example of artistry without cracks, the suit, however, could not provide complete radiation insulation either. The skin and the helmet could protect the artist only from internal contamination while they remained useless against the gamma rays. Still, as we shall see in the next section of the article, from the standpoint of survival, the sacrifice of the Atom Suit’s impregnability was justified.

To inscribe the Atom Suit into the art historical canon, Kiyoshi Kusumi has aligned it with other famous performing garments of the past, including Elvis Presley’s gold lamé suit and Joseph Beuys’s felt one.19 The iconographic genealogy of the piece can be traced back even earlier to Salvador Dali’s intervention at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, during which the artist attempted to deliver a lecture while wearing a diving suit with a metal helmet on his head. These analogies are striking. Yet, in order to assess the Atom Suit’s survival capabilities, we need to shift our focus away from the art history timeline and turn to the story of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster.

In the summer of 1986, during the decontamination efforts aiming to return the plant’s remaining reactors online as soon as possible, the Soviet authorities made a cruel and unethical decision. They deployed the military personnel on the nuclear plant’s roof with a suicidal mission to clean off the highly radioactive debris. Although soldiers involved in this operation were nicknamed “biorobots,” they had nothing to do with robotic technology.20 The only devices they used were shovels and DIY protective suits.

At a glance, it might seem that with their dark and unrefined outlook and even cyberpunk aesthetics, the suits of the biorobots stand in sharp contrast to Yanobe’s. Still, in their functional core, they are similar. The biorobots utilized the Soviet L-1 military rubberized clothing for chemical protection including gloves, boots, glasses, and respirators. All these elements find their counterparts in the Atom Suit. Even the lead plates tied up, in a manner of medieval armor, to the front and the back of the biorobots’ torsos resemble the Atom Suit’s chest panel with a display and a loudspeaker.

Moreover, as with Yanobe’s Atom Suit, the biorobots’ suits provided only limited protection to their wearers. Of course, increasing the amount of lead was possible, but that would only decrease protection. Given the intensity of the radioactive field on the plant’s roof, the biorobots’ survival relied not only on the diffraction of harmful rays but on the minimization of exposure to them. During the two-minute shifts, they had to pick up piles of debris, shovel them to the exploded reactor’s jaw, and return inside the stairway. The number of operations in such a limited time demanded a high speed of execution. The radiation doses the biorobots received depended on that speed, which, in turn, depended on the suits’ body mobility.

Yellow Suit (1991) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe, Takahashi Ryutaro Collection; courtesy the artist; photograph by Keiichi Hadama.

Yellow Suit (1991) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe, Takahashi Ryutaro Collection; courtesy the artist; photograph by Keiichi Hadama.

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In his early experiments with radiation shielding, Yanobe tended to pay less attention to this important survival property of his creations. The 1991 sculpture titled the Yellow Suit may serve as an example. It comprises two bulbous outfits of steel and lead—a larger one for the artist and a smaller one for his dog. Although lead protects from radiation, getting into such a suit means imprisoning oneself inside a full metal shell. Due to its enormous weight, the suit’s movement remains restricted to the size of the yoke that supports it, counterbalancing with an oxygen-producing device. One can breathe inside the Yellow Suit but cannot walk away wearing it.

In contrast, the Atom Suit deployed in Chornobyl embodies a revolutionary step toward improved body mobility. The flexibility of its skin allows rapid maneuvers necessary to navigate the radioactive zone effectively and to relocate oneself from highly contaminated areas into safer places. In the photographs, Yanobe’s body is animated. He jumps from the Soviet battle machines abandoned at the metal graveyard. He climbs to the roof of the ruined condo, exposing a far-flung line of the horizon. He gets into a bumper car in the amusement park within the ocean of the soft green-blue-yellow tones of the Chornobyl summer. All this would have been impossible if the artist had worn a suit of lead and steel, arresting his movements. By sacrificing impregnability in exchange for increased body mobility, the Atom Suit gained an enhanced radiation protection capability, enabling his quick relocation from highly contaminated to safer places.

Atom Suit Project: Chernobyl Roof, Chernobyl (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

Atom Suit Project: Chernobyl Roof, Chernobyl (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

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Upon closer examination, one can see that the Atom Suit features seven transparent convex bulbs that, by protruding from its surface, resemble human sexual organs. The bulb between the legs in the genital area takes on a phallic shape, while the bilateral pair on the torso corresponds to breasts. Elizabeth Brown, who identified a comparable sexualization in Yanobe’s earlier works, evokes Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) to link that tendency “to the notion of gender as masquerade and to sexual display as a social ritual.”21 In line with such a reading, these artworks imply that gender roles are interchangeable, akin to wearable suits.

Atom Suit Project: Tanks, Chernobyl (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art collection; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

Atom Suit Project: Tanks, Chernobyl (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art collection; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

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While this interpretation may be fitting for artworks in a gallery setting, the context of the nuclear disaster invites us to reconsider the Atom Suit’s resemblance to the human reproductive system in relation to its survival functionality. Indeed, the suit not only defines gender as a social construct but generates a mechanism reminiscent of sexual or, speaking broadly, sensorial experiences. Beyond being mere embellishments, the Atom Suit’s bulbs contain Geiger counters to detect radiation. They consist of tubes filled with an inert gas sensitive to the presence of ionizing radiation. When a radioactive particle or ray comes into contact with the gas molecules, an electric charge occurs, signaling a radioactive event. The impulse then travels through wires to a panel on the chest that translates it into numerical digits shown on a digital display and into an alarming sound output from a loudspeaker. Indeed, this mechanism works similarly to biological senses, in which receptors transmit signals to the brain in response to environmental stimuli. Thus, in light of this analogy, the suit becomes a sensing prosthesis that supplements the artist’s inborn senses with an additional posthuman ability to detect ionizing radiation. Moreover, the display and the loudspeaker on the chest turn the suit into an active system that not only receives input but also communicates danger.

A comparison to the Chornobyl biorobots’ detection system may help to highlight the advanced survival capabilities of the Atom Suit. Biorobots used dosimeters that monitored their radiation uptake on the roof. Supervisors assessed the measurements at the end of each shift, and those soldiers who exceeded the permitted cumulative personal dose qualified for relief from duty. This monitoring could not change much, however, as it registered the harm only after the fact. In contrast, the Atom Suit detected and communicated danger in progress, enabling a proactive response to it. As the artist moved through the zone, the system provided constant alerts, informing him of the surroundings. In this way, the suit played an active role in preserving the wearer’s health.

In terms of personal protection, however, the system has a flaw. Due to the display panel’s location on the chest, the artist wearing the suit could not see the radiation measurements. He could hear the sound but could not read the numbers. Just as the artist needed a photographer to document his navigation inside the Chornobyl zone, the detection system needs a viewer outside the suit to look at the display panel. In other words, the Atom Suit’s detection system is a viewer-oriented one, meaning that along with the personal survival of the suit’s wearer, it strives for the collective survival of those who encounter the performance.

On this collective level, the Atom Suit Project communicates danger not only through numerical and auditory alerts produced by the suit in response to radioactive events, but also through the suit’s very presence in the zone. As Daniel Bürkner writes, the vision of the Atom Suit in the Chornobyl landscape creates a sense of a dystopian “counter-reality,” suggesting that “life [there] is possible only by means of futuristic survival devices.”22 Other critics, sharing an uncanny feeling upon viewing the yellow figure in the landscape, explain it as a byproduct of various symbolic associations. For instance, Kusumi compares the Atom Suit to a yellow canary used in mineshafts to warn miners of dangerous gas concentrations, and Gunhild Borggreen draws an analogy between the suit’s yellow-black coloring and the yellow-black trefoil—an international symbol for radiation.23

While these associations are certainly legitimate, I would expand the explanation of the landscape’s disturbance that the Atom Suit produces by employing the Peircean notion of an indexical sign. Unlike a symbolic sign, which requires interpretation based on a shared cultural code, an indexical sign emerges when an object stands in causal relation to its representamen. Roland Barthes’s description of how a camera creates a person’s body may be particularly pertinent here. “Once I feel…observed by the lens, everything changes,” Barthes reflected. “I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously…transform myself in advance into an image.”24 My point is that just as a camera inspires someone to pose for a photograph, the threat of radiation creates a need for a protective apparatus. Consequently, similar to how we identify the camera’s work behind one’s pose, we may infer the danger of radiation from the presence of the Atom Suit. Indeed, one of the most striking similarities that Yanobe’s photographs share with other images taken in dangerous situations would be the presence of protective gear. Neil Armstrong’s A Man on the Moon photograph (1969), capturing his fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the desolate surface of the Earth’s natural satellite, provides a striking reference here. The astronaut in a space suit stands amid the Moon’s landscape of craters, exposed to cosmic rays, just as the artist in the Atom Suit stands in the Chornobyl zone, exposed to anthropogenic radiation. In both photographs, the suits visualize the otherwise invisible danger, providing the viewers with vital information on hazardous environmental conditions.

Fifteen years after he visited the Chornobyl zone, Yanobe finally exhibited the Atom Suit Project in Ukraine. The photographs were showcased at the Arsenale, an international biennial of contemporary art that took place in Kyiv between May 24 and July 31, 2012. The show’s curator David Elliott structured the program around the antithetical themes of “Apocalypse” and “Rebirth,” exploring the complex interplay between good and bad times in resonance with the multifaceted history of the country.25 The art project staged at the nuclear disaster site aligned with the darker side of this conceptual dichotomy. Speaking to a journalist from the Japan Times, however, Yanobe suggested that the Atom Suit also contributed to the show’s hopeful theme of rebirth.26

In particular, Yanobe recalls a photograph he took in a nursery school in Prypiat.The scene is set in a colorful but wrecked room, with the yellow figure in the Atom Suit occupying the central position. The kneeling artist examines a broken doll that he holds in his hand. On the floor in front of him, a somber installation unfolds—a classroom globe thrown into the radioactive dust, symbolizing global collapse, and fragmented dolls next to it, resembling corpses of the catastrophe’s victims. Behind the artist, a black upright piano with a broken base and remnants of fallen string hint at an interrupted melody of local life. The piano’s corpus directs the viewer’s gaze to the side, where a soft light from the street illuminates the room. An open door in the background reveals a dark rectangular void. To the left of the door, two vertical boards of scenery for children’s performances partially cover scabs of plaster eaten away by moisture. The scene as a whole epitomizes decay. Yet Yanobe highlights a particular detail that stands out from the bleakness of the setting. He points to the image of a smiling Sun painted on the wall just above the piano.

The Sun has been a symbol of rebirth in many cultures throughout history. Its daily cycle of setting behind the horizon at dusk and rising again at dawn is reminiscent of the cycle of life and death. This phenomenon has even inspired ancient myths about solar deities engaging in games of hide and seek.27 For example, in Japanese Shinto mythology, the solar goddess Amaterasu retreated to Ama-no-Iwato (Heaven’s Rock Cave) and the other gods then had to undertake a rescue mission, tricking her into returning, to restore her light to the world. In depictions of Amaterasu’s return, the anthropomorphic figure of the goddess shining with rays is usually placed in the background next to a rock that served as her shelter.28 The image of the Sun in the nursery school occupies a similar position next to the barely opened classroom doors, creating an illusion of movement, as if the Sun is emerging from behind that door to illuminate or resurrect the destroyed space with its light.

Atom Suit Project: Nursery School 4, Chernobyl (1997-2001) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, and other collections; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

Atom Suit Project: Nursery School 4, Chernobyl (1997-2001) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, and other collections; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

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In addition to this particular example the artist identified directly, we encounter the image of the Sun in several other pictures. Consider, for instance, two photographs taken near the Ferris wheel at the amusement park in Prypiat. The wheel’s yellow circular skeleton, with its rays resembling the Sun, and with the backdrop of the blue sky, creates a powerful and optimistic chord in contrast to the surrounding desolation. Another photograph shows Yanobe facing the sunrise across the Prypiat River, where the soft yellow light unites the flat surfaces of the water and sky into a magical atmosphere of joy. Even the suit itself, with its yellow color and the ray-like shape of the horns on the helmet, resembles the Sun. Clearly, such extensive employment of solar references establishes the idea of rebirth as a deliberate and prominent theme of the Atom Suit Project.

Atom Suit Project: Chernobyl [Playing with Child] (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

Atom Suit Project: Chernobyl [Playing with Child] (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

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Moreover, the artist further amplifies the theme by incorporating another optimistic trope—that of the child.29 While exploring the countryside near Prypiat, Yanobe visited a village populated by resettlers. Among them, he met a three-year-old boy, who, attracted by the bright yellow outfit, invited the artist to play in the sand. A photograph taken at that moment shows the toddler shoveling sand into a toy truck while Yanobe, kneeling in front of the boy, assists him.

This seemingly ordinary scene gains universal appeal when we consider the long history of using images of children to represent ideas of renewal, redemption, and salvation. A list of associations in diverse cultural contexts comes to mind here, ranging from the Christian portrayal of the Messiah as a Child who promises the fundamental renewal of sinful humanity, to Soviet propaganda depicting a future utopian society as an inheritance of the children, to Japanese manga series, in which children take on the role of superheroes fighting evil and saving the world.30

The last example is especially relevant to Yanobe’s project since, as scholars have pointed out, the Atom Suit, with its name and elements such as the yellow colorization, boots, gloves, pads on the shoulders, and horns on the helmet, draws inspiration from the 1950s manga icon Tetsuwan-Atomu (Mighty Atom).31 According to the plot, this character is a robotized version of Pinocchio, an artificially created child. Given the resemblance between the suit and the manga character, the suit’s wearer may be seen as an embodiment or impersonator of a hero-child. When Yanobe appears in areas designated for children, such as the nursery school and amusement park, the functionality of these places only intensifies this impression.

Of course, focusing on the symbolism of rebirth within Chornobyl’s framework could spark controversy. We know that the rebirth will not happen in the zone in the foreseeable future. Soviet attempts to decontaminate the territory proved futile, akin to Sisyphean labor, as the wind carried radioactive dust into newly cleaned areas. Even today, wildfires continue to contribute to the resuspension of radionuclides in the zone, and the threat posed by the remnants of nuclear fuel inside the ruined reactor remains unresolved.32 The estimates on the repopulation of the zone reach thousands of years from now, extending beyond a time horizon that we can reasonably imagine. Thus, questions arise about whether the emphasis on the optimistic images of the Sun and the child obscures the harsh reality, masking Chornobyl’s danger.

Atom Suit Project: Bumper Car, Chernobyl (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

Atom Suit Project: Bumper Car, Chernobyl (1997) by Kenji Yanobe; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by Russell Liebman.

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Although such skepticism toward the rebirth theme may be justified, we should not disregard the survival value of the positive imagery that the Atom Suit Project generates. Indeed, the Sun and the child can potentially redirect the viewer’s perception away from nuclear doom toward “an optimistic assertion that even in the face of adversity, there is hope,” to quote the Japan Times.33 If rebirth is not possible in Chornobyl, if it is only an illusion, thinking of it still produces this powerful life-asserting emotion, a crucial resource for those who strive to survive. The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch describes hope as a motivating force that drives people to actively shape the future rather than simply accepting the status quo. He writes that hope inspires individuals to “throw themselves actively into what is becoming” rather than passively accepting “what is.”34 Hope helps people struggle for the future they want against the present situation that is unfavorable for them. As numerous studies in social psychology demonstrate, when knowledge is limited, and the future is difficult to predict, hope helps people to persevere. It reduces suicide risk in senior citizens who are isolated from social connections, speeds up a recovery process in ill patients, and even helps to fight climate change.35 By evoking hope amid such a dark place as Chornobyl, the Atom Suit Project fosters its viewers’ resilience and determination to continue living and, ultimately, to survive even against the odds.

On March 11, 2011, the world experienced Chornobyl déjà vu. On that day, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami that heavily impacted Japan’s densely populated coastline and caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. The loss of lives from the flood overlapped with the massive nuclear crisis of 7, the highest level on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES)—the same level as Chornobyl. These events became known as 3/11, named in parallel to the American 9/11 attack to mark a pivotal historical turn.36

Witnessing the Fukushima tragedy, Yanobe felt compelled to act. Akin to the 1990s pattern, when he responded to Aum Shinrikyo’s terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway by creating the Atom Suit Project, the artist reacted to 3/11 with a new artwork—Sun Child (2011). This monumental twenty-foot-tall sculpture (of which Yanobe created several versions) depicts a boy in the Atom Suit, holding a model of the Sun in his right hand while cradling a helmet in his left hand. The display panel on the chest shows the number zero as a reference to a safer world where radiation will cease to exist, and a protective helmet will no longer be necessary.

Sun Child No. 2 (2011) by Kenji Yanobe in cooperation with ULTRA FACTORY project team, Kyoto University of the Arts; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by KENJI YANOBE Archive Project.

Sun Child No. 2 (2011) by Kenji Yanobe in cooperation with ULTRA FACTORY project team, Kyoto University of the Arts; © Kenji Yanobe; courtesy the artist; photograph by KENJI YANOBE Archive Project.

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Following several years of successful travels around Japan and abroad, the sculpture found its permanent home in Fukushima.37 In 2018, the local authorities saw the adoption of Sun Child as a fitting commemoration of the city’s post-disaster revival. Contrary to the intent, the initiative caused controversy, and eventually, the artwork was taken down. According to journalists’ reports, this iconoclastic act stemmed from the opinion that Sun Child implies radiological risks in the area and suggests that residents must wear protective suits.38 Tomoe Otsuki, who investigated the matter beyond the surface of the reports, posits, in turn, that the scandal might have aimed to deflect public attention away from the government’s attempts to dismantle radiation monitoring systems in the city, despite vocal opposition from the citizens.39

In any case, such a scenario would be consistent with Japan’s complex history of dealing with nuclear issues and the 3/11 disaster in particular. As Charles Perrow argues, the coverage of the Fukushima disaster perpetuated a longstanding policy of nuclear denial that dates back to the Hiroshima bombing. He cites multiple reports from respected institutions, including the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the World Health Organization, and several academic journals that claim that the negative impact of the 3/11 event on public health will be virtually untraceable; it will be as if the disaster had never happened.40 Despite these official reassurances, the awareness of radioactivate danger and a possibility of disaster’s reoccurrence has never been entirely suppressed in Japan.

The story of Sun Child’s installation and subsequent removal in Fukushima city exposes the agonistic tension between official claims and the public’s fears. One might admire Yanobe’s work for its “willingness to embrace the nuclear as an intrinsic aspect of contemporary culture,” as Ele Carpenter proposes.41 Or, in contrast, one may criticize it, as Otsuki does, for supporting Japan’s mainstream industrialist ideology and replacing “the complexities of life after the Fukushima nuclear disaster with the fantasy of a redemptive future.”42 What remains constant, however, is that Sun Child (even after its removal) triggers debates around nuclear power and exposes a dormant societal conflict rooted in memories of the nuclear trauma.

It is particularly important to point out that the iconography of Sun Child was utterly indebted to the Atom Suit Project. Yanobe informed me that when the resettler child living in the Chornobyl zone had offered him candy, he removed the helmet from his head.43 Thus not only the Atom Suit, which the artist wore for his Chornobyl trip, and not only the image of the Sun, which he found on the wall in the nursery school, but even the main character of the sculpture—a child—and his gestures of offering a gift and of removing the helmet, all these signifying elements of the 2011 Sun Child sculpture originated in the 1997 journey to the Chornobyl zone.

This connection invites retroactive revaluation of the Atom Suit Project in relation to nuclear debates. If Sun Child provoked the controversy related to nuclear denial, could the Atom Suit Project also do so?

When Pritikin writes that the Atom Suit photographs proved the existence of hell, equating them with documentary evidence of the Chornobyl reality, this implies that such evidence is necessary.44 Indeed, the politics of nuclear denial followed the Chornobyl disaster right from the beginning. Back in 1986, the Soviet authorities initially attempted to conceal the very fact of the reactor’s explosion. Even after the truth became known, they continued to suppress information about the danger, underestimating the disaster’s harmful effects.45 Since Ukraine declared independence in 1991 and embarked on a path toward democracy, the government has taken a humanistic approach to handling the disaster by granting the victims special status and social support. The three remaining nuclear reactors at the Chornobyl plant continued to operate throughout the 1990s, however, indicating that the economic consideration outweighed the ecological and safety concerns.46 Meanwhile, worldwide, the nuclear industry needed positive publicity to continue its operations. The nuclear lobby sought to deconstruct the Chornobyl problem by downplaying the ecological impact of the disaster and inundating the public with unintelligible statistics and vague statements.

The Atom Suit Project resists Chornobyl’s oblivion and stands as a potent reminder that the disaster is ongoing. Consider the already-discussed photograph of Yanobe playing with the child in the sand. The perception of the scene as idyllic collapses from the realization that it takes place at the nuclear disaster site, with the sand in which the child plays contaminated, along with the water and food the child consumes. The contrast between a child’s unawareness of danger and the viewer’s knowledge about it produces an unsettling effect, leaving a sense of helplessness. There is nothing we can do; there is no way for us to help. Consequently, the child trope in the Atom Suit Project not only evokes hope for the future but also emphasizes the child’s victimhood and its role as a sacrificial offering on the altar of the nuclear industry. In this, the Atom Suit Project aligns with the dark iconography of Chornobyl-themed Ukrainian and Belarusian art, which frequently depicts dead or suffering children.47

Moreover, it is not just the contaminated environment that raises concerns. The story behind the photograph highlights the problematic fate of resettlers—those who chose to return to their ancestral land despite the hazardous living conditions. According to the artist, the boy in the photograph was brought to the Chornobyl zone by his mother, who returned to the village after a divorce.48 By posing questions about who this boy is and how he came to live in the Chornobyl zone, the image exposes the often-overlooked consequences of the nuclear disaster, such as evacuation failures and the tragedy of displacement. This photograph expands the problem of resettlers, particularly children, beyond the statistics in the Soviet secret police reports.49 It makes the plight visible to a global audience who might not have been aware of the ongoing tragedy in the area.

The image of the Sun also contributes to the Atom Suit Project’s anti-nuclear stance by highlighting solar energy as an alternative to nuclear reactors. Both solar and nuclear power are carbon-free sources of electricity, meaning they do not directly produce the carbon emissions responsible for climate change. But they are not equal in cost and safety. Solar energy is cheaper to generate and safer to use, as it cannot cause a disaster comparable to the meltdown of a nuclear reactor. Therefore, although both solar and nuclear energies offer better alternatives to fossil fuel burning, solar energy is superior to nuclear from an ecological perspective.50

Although at the time of Yanobe’s visit to Chornobyl, the solar-nuclear opposition was not as pronounced as it is today, two decades later, when the artist commented on his sculpture in Fukushima, he interpreted the model of the Sun in the boy’s hand as a reference to “new forms of energy.”51 Notably, in 2018 when the scandal with Sun Child occurred, the first solar power plant was launched in the Chornobyl zone.52 This event seems to justify the rebirth implications of the Atom Suit Project from 1997: if to imagine a renewal of the zone under current conditions, producing solar electricity could become a pathway to that goal.

Finally, the Atom Suit Project rebels against the pro-nuclear role of its alleged prototype—Tetsuwan-Atomu. According to the manga’s plot, besides being a child-hero fighting against evil on Earth, the android is also powered by a small nuclear reactor. This significant detail gives Alicia Gibson ground to elevate Tetsuwan-Atomu to a status of political act aimed at “the displacement and repression of Japan’s atomic wartime experiences in utopian fantasy”—a fantasy involving nuclear power as an ultimate tool for social prosperity.53 In other words, the manga hero presents a case of pro-nuclear propaganda embedded in popular culture. No wonder that when it comes to Chornobyl, with a few exceptions, manga artists largely ignored the theme.54 In contrast, by staging photographs in the nuclear disaster zone and then exhibiting them in Japan, Yanobe brought Chornobyl to the forefront of the Japanese contemporary art scene; he brought Chornobyl closer to Japan.

Given the timing, I would align the Atom Suit Project with the Japanese anti-nuclear movement that gained and kept momentum exactly in the decade following the Chornobyl disaster. This movement produced several significant acts, including a rally of 20,000 people in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park on April 24, 1988; the collection of over three million signatures under a petition for the Nuclear Phase-Out Law in 1990 and 1991; a protest campaign against the shipment of plutonium from Europe in 1993; and a successful local referendum that prevented the construction of a nuclear power plant in Maki, Niigata Prefecture, in 1996.55 Staged in 1997, the Atom Suit Project forecloses this era of resistance, followed by the anti-nuclear movement’s decline in the early 2000s. In light of 3/11, Yanobe’s project also serves as a warning of a potential nuclear disaster on Japanese soil, which could have been prevented if those in charge had taken the lessons of Chornobyl more seriously.

The Atom Suit’s warning is still globally relevant today, reminding us of the potentially grim future and the imperative to avoid it. The hard-fought battles over nuclear power remain crucial for survival in the face of the looming threat of turning the Earth into a deserted place akin to the Chornobyl zone. In this context, the Atom Suit’s interference with the nuclear denial strengthens the camp that seeks to prevent new catastrophic accidents. As such, the Atom Suit Project contributes to survival, not just on a personal level but on a collective level of humans and nonhumans as a whole.

The early 1980s witnessed the rise of “nuclear semiotics,” a subfield of sign science that addressed a practical problem: how to discourage future generations from intruding into nuclear waste repositories.56 In particular, two years before the Chornobyl explosion, Thomas A. Sebeok proposed the concept of the “atomic priesthood,” a unique institution that would facilitate the long-term preservation of knowledge about nuclear sites. He envisioned the atomic priesthood as “a commission, relatively independent of future political currents, self-selective in membership, using whatever devices for enforcement are at its disposal, including those of a folkloristic character.”57 Basically, Sebeok proposed reaching the deep future with the cultural technologies from the deep past—religion and folklore. If ritual and myths could survive to the present from the distant past, they can potentially thrive in the deep future, too.

Although Yanobe never referred to nuclear semiotics as a source of inspiration for his work, Carpenter made a striking comment that the Atom Suit Project mutates into “a science fiction pseudo-religious cult” by “collapsing the opposition between belief and knowledge.”58 This observation offers an apt invitation for exploring the project’s cult-like dimension, which, according to Sebeok’s proposition, could secure the transition of the message beyond the horizon of time. To access this intriguing intersection of art and religion, however, we must look back into the era preceding both the Atom Suit Project and the Chornobyl disaster.

Founded in 1970, the city of Prypiat embodied the Soviet futuristic dream—the “Atomgrad,” as poets then called it. Attached to a nuclear plant, a cutting-edge technology of its time, its architectural planning served as a prime example of Soviet urban development. If Prypiat had a mascot, it would be the titan Prometheus, whose statue adorned one of its squares. The figure of the titan, known in Greek mythology for stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humans, provided a vivid metaphor for the new technology. Assuming the role of a modern Prometheus, the nuclear industry promised to bring about the ultimate utopia, where the problem of energy supply, and consequently all the other problems, would vanish once and for all.59 With the reactor’s explosion, however, the Promethean fire transformed into Pandora’s box. By 1997, Prypiat and its surroundings had become an abandoned ghost of itself.

For Yanobe, the visit to the Chornobyl zone resonated with his childhood memories of the encounter with the site of the Expo ’70 in Osaka, synchronous with Prypiat’s founding. Organized around the theme of “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” the global fair showcased futuristic buildings and structures that anticipated a prosperous and technologically advanced future for humanity.60 Yanobe, however, saw the site in a different light. As a child, he visited it after the show had ended, and its exhibits had turned into abandoned relics of the vision of the future they aimed to impart.

To describe his experiences of both Chornobyl and the Expo ’70, Yanobe employs the self-invented concept of the mirai no haikyo (ruins of the future). The future the artist refers to is not the one “where we are in time and space right now,”61 as Borggreen explains, but rather the one that “was imagined and constructed in the past,” or, as Noi Sawaragi puts it, the one Yanobe “retrospects” while it “has already ended.”62 The journey into Chornobyl thus turns into time travel on a parallel timeline. Yanobe travels not to an actual future that lies ahead but rather to the one conceived in the past and ended before it came to pass.

With its inherent logical contradictions, the proposed concept resembles religious ideas, for which their paradoxicality serves as proof of validity. These ideas do not require evidence provided by scientific or thought experiments. They prefer faith over knowledge and want people to believe instead of to know. When the concept of the ruined future recurs in the artist’s interviews or the critical analysis of his artworks, it inflates these texts with a mysticism characteristic of theological discourse.

Viewing Yanobe’s concept of the ruined future as theological in nature invites identifying other analogies between the Atom Suit Project and a religious cult. The entire story of Yanobe’s visit to the Chornobyl zone resembles a myth of a hero’s journey into another world with challenges, threats, loneliness, and a victorious return. It is akin to a ritual performed by an atomic priest in a nuclear temple or to a believer’s pilgrimage to a “sacred precinct,” as Yanobe defines the Chornobyl zone.63 The exhibition of the photographs, which capture the wandering of the yellow figure in the radioactive landscape, offers an equivalent to hagiographic cycles painted on the walls of churches or represented in stained glass windows (Yanobe exhibits the images in light boxes)—the visual narrative of saints’ lives constructed in line with the dogmas of the faith. Finally, the Atom Suit’s enclosure in a transparent coffin-like display case in a museum resembles a holy relic that demands veneration. Although it was thoroughly scrubbed of radioactive materials, the suit is stored behind glass with a warning sign, which suggests that it still possesses or is possessed by a mysterious spirit of radiation.

With its cultic dimension, the Atom Suit Project provides an example of what the nuclear semiotics strove to achieve—to deliver a message from the present into the deep future. The project’s approximation to mysticism speaks for the potentiality of its survival in a prolonged temporality. The distant futurity might become ignorant and indifferent to the present-day discourses, but it also might remain susceptible to a mystery, as humanity has always been. Even if the memory of Chornobyl fades away, the Atom Suit Project, as a postapocalyptic cult, has a chance to thrive beyond the horizon of time and pass its survival strategies to the world to come.64


On Aum Shinrikyo’s attack, see Angus M. Muir, “Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 22, no. 1 (1999): 79–91,


Unless indicated otherwise, all quotations by Kenji Yanobe are from an interview with the artist, via email, on August 30, 2019.


Besides the Aum Shinrikyo attack, another disaster that in 1995 triggered Yanobe was the Great Hanshin earthquake, one of the worst in Japan’s history. It caused thousands of deaths by hitting a densely populated area close to Ibaraki, Osaka, the place of the artist’s birth.


On the link between manga and the Aum Shinrikyo cult, see Richard A. Gardner, “Aum Shinrikyo and a Panic About Manga and Anime,” in Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, ed. Mark W. MacWilliams (New York: Routledge, 2008), 200–18. On the otaku subculture, see Frederik L. Schodt, Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1996), 44–49. On the intersection of otaku subculture, fantasies of Armageddon, and the Japanese Neo-Pop art movement, see Noi Sawaragi, “On the Battlefield of ‘Superflat’: Subculture and Art in Postwar Japan,” in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, ed. Takashi Murakami (New York: Japan Society and Yale University Press, 2005).


The spelling “Chornobyl” represents the Ukrainian name for the place. The more commonly used spelling “Chernobyl” reflects the Russian pronunciation enforced by the Soviet authorities toward Ukraine’s toponyms. The zone around the nuclear plant in Ukraine is officially called the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). An adjacent restricted area in Belarus is called The Polesie State Radioecological Reserve (PSRER). Yanobe visited the CEZ. In this article, I refer to the CEZ as the Chornobyl zone. For the maps, see the “Chernobyl/Chornobyl Project,” launched by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) in 2021,


For the history of the disaster see Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (New York: Basic Books, 2018); Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020). On the disaster’s multifaceted consequences, see David R. Marples, The Social Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster (London: Macmillan Press, 1988); Adriana Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019).


Asahara changed his prophecy several times, from 1999 to 1997, and finally to 1995 (Gardner, “Aum Shinrikyo and a Panic,” 202).


Yanobe, email interview with the author on August 30, 2019. Yanobe’s landing with the Atom Suit in the Chornobyl zone became the first chapter in a series of similar performances and photo sessions staged later in other locations, particularly at the site of the Expo ’70 in Osaka. The time frame of the Atom Suit Project sprawls from 1997 to 2003. For the images of the Atom Suit Project in its entirety, see the artist’s website at Yanobe also included the 1997 video footage from Chornobyl in his later projects. See, for instance, Kenji Yanobe, Last Film Theater of the World, 1998,; TheTorayan, “Dokyumento torayan no dai bōken” (Document of the Great Adventure of Torayan), video, 9:14, May 31, 2011,; TheTorayan, “Torayan no sekai 2004” (World of Torayan), video, 12:58, April 9, 2011,


The term “delusion” in the characterization of Yanobe’s preoccupation with survival appears in Noi Sawaragi, “An Amusement Park Called ‘The 20th Century,’” in Kenji Yanobe 1995 >> 1998 (Tokyo: Röntgen Kunstraum, 1999), 19. In another essay, the same author writes that Yanobe’s works are “like shelters, intended to sustain a near-autistic imagination, physically removed from society and intelligible only to itself” (Noi Sawaragi, “Future as deja vu,” in Kenji Yanobe [Stadtgalerie Saarbrucken, 2000]). Elizabeth Brown, in turn, characterizes Yanobe’s works as “ways to cope with the insecurities we face as we enter an uncertain future.” Elizabeth Brown, “Future-Past: Strategies for Surviving the Present,” in Kenji Yanobe 1995 >> 1998, 35. For Renny Pritikin, the photographs capturing the yellow figure in the radioactive zone epitomize the helplessness of “comic book imagination” in the face of “true harmfulness and tragedy.” Pritikin, “Putting Out a Fire by Shooting It with Bullets Made of Ice,” in Kenji Yanobe 1995 >> 1998, 25. Gunhild Borggreen describes the Atom Suit as “a parody on ready-made survival kits sold at the local hardware store, which are designed to provide a feeling of security rather than actual protection.” Borggreen, “Ruins of the Future: Yanobe Kenji Revisits Expo ’70,” Performance Paradigm 2 (2006): 133. According to Daniel Bürkner, Yanobe’s project aims to “critically ironize” the heroic poses of the dark tourist selfies, which indulge in the bravado of exposing oneself to dangers instead of pursuing survival. See Bürkner, “The Chernobyl Landscape and the Aesthetics of Invisibility,” Photography and Culture 7, no. 1 (2014): 34,


On Cesium-137, see “Radionuclide Basics: Cesium-137,” United States Environmental Protection Agency,


Marc De Cort et al., Atlas of Caesium deposition on Europe after the Chernobyl Accident (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1998), Plate 60.


De Cort et al., Atlas of Caesium deposition, fig.III.1, 15.


P. Hedemann Jensen, “One decade after Chernobyl: Environmental impact assessments,” in One Decade After Chernobyl: Summing up the Consequences of the Accident (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 1996), 82.


Pritikin, “Putting Out a Fire,” 24.


For characterization of the Atom Suit as “another layer of skin” and its protective qualities, see Miwa Ohba and Masatoshi Tsuzuku, Yanobe Kenji, 1969–2005 (Kyoto: Hideki Yasuda, 2013), 56.


Yanobe, email interview with the author, August 30, 2019.


On the story of Sarcophagus, see Plokhy, Chernobyl, 249–66.


The conclusions of the 1996 conference, jointly held by European Commission (EC), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and World Health Organization (WHO) a decade after the Chornobyl disaster and just at the time Yanobe was conceiving the Atom Suit Project, discuss the potentiality of the Sarcophagus’s collapse. See “Summary of the conference results,” in One Decade After Chernobyl, 14–15.


Kiyoshi Kusumi, “Sculptor within Kinetic Sculpture: Atom and Robotics,” in Kenji Yanobe 1995 >> 1998, 6.


For the story of the biorobots, see Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl, 288–91.


Elizabeth Brown, “Future-Past,” 35.


Bürkner, “The Chernobyl Landscape,” 34.


Kusumi, “Sculptor within Kinetic Sculpture,” 7; Borggreen, “Ruins of the Future,” 125.


Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 10–11.


“Arsenale 2012: Kyiv International Biennale,” e-flux, April 10, 2012,


Edan Corkill, “Ukraine and Japan’s radioactive bond,” Japan Times, July 12, 2012,


Michael Witzel, “Vala und Iwato: The Myth of the Hidden Sun in India, Japan, and beyond,” Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 12, no. 1 (2005): 1–69,


On the representation of Amaterasu, see Masako Sato, “The Myth of “The Cave of the Sun Goddess”: Images and Interpretations in Tokugawa-period Japan,” in Sprachlich-literarische “Aggregatzustände” im Japanischen: Europäische Japan-Diskurse 1998–2018, ed. Eduard Klopfenstein (Berlin-Brandenburg: BeBra Wissenschaft Verlag, 2020), 254–79.


Tellingly, references to childhood are quite common in the discussions on Yanobe’s works. Pritikin, for instance, compares the Chornobyl photographs to a “child in silly pajamas wandering into his parents’ black-tie dinner.” Pritikin, “Putting Out a Fire,” 24–25. Elizabeth Brown describes Yanobe’s art language as playful and anchored in childhood. Brown, “Future-Past,” 35. Bürkner writes that Yanobe is “playing with the iconography of childhood photography.” Bürkner, “Eine vollkommen neue Realität: Transgression des Wahrnehmbaren in den Bildern Tschernobyls,” in Maßlose Bilder: Visuelle Ästhetik der Transgression, Ingeborg Reichle and Steffen Siegel (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2009), 201.


On children in Japanese postwar visual culture see Tomoe Otsuki, “Visualising Nuclear Futurism and Narrating Queer Futurity in Yanobe Kenji’s The Sun Child and Tawada Yōko’s The Emissary,” Asian Studies Review 46, no. 3 (2020): 3–5,


On Tetsuwan-Atomu, see Frederik L. Schodt, The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007). On the link between the Atom Suit and Tetsuwan-Atomu, see Kusumi, “Sculptor within Kinetic sculpture,” 6; Brown, “Future-Past,” 35; Borggreen, “Ruins of the Future,” 125–6. Yanobe also points to other visual sources for the Atom Suit, such as Dr. Serizawa’s aqualung in the film Godzilla (1954, directed by Ishirō Honda).


V.I. Yoschenko et al., “Resuspension and redistribution of radionuclides during grassland and forest fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone: part I. Fire Experiments,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 86, no. 2 (2006): 143–63, 10.1016/j.jenvrad.2005.08.003; Yoschenko et al., “Resuspension and redistribution of radionuclides during grassland and forest fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone: part II. Modeling the transport process,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 87, no. 3 (2006): 260–78,


Corkill, “Ukraine and Japan’s Radioactive Bond.”


Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 3.


For studies on the survival significance of hope, see Suzanne McLaren et al., “Suicide Risk among Older Adults: The Moderating Role of Hope,” Clinical Gerontologist (2022),; C.R. Snyder et al., “Hope and Health,” in Handbook of Social and Clinical Psychology—The Health Perspective, ed. C.R. Snyder and D.R. Forsyth (New York: Pergamon Press, 1991), 285–305; Maria Ojala, “Hope and climate change: the importance of hope for environmental engagement among young people,” Environmental Education Research 18, no. 5 (2012): 625–42,; Jochen Kleres and Åsa Wettergren, “Fear, hope, anger, and guilt in climate activism,” Social Movement Studies 16, no. 5 (2017): 507–19,


On 3/11, see Pradyumna P. Karan et al., Japan after 3/11: Global Perspectives on the Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Meltdown, ed. Pradyumna P. Karan and Unryu Suganuma (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016). On artistic responses to 3/11, see Anne Nishimura Morse et al., In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11 (Boston: MFA Publications, 2015); and Gabrielle Decamous, Invisible Colors: The Arts of the Atomic Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019).


The video on Yanobe’s personal YouTube channel brings together the venues of the Sun Child pilgrimage. See TheTorayan, “The Way of Sun Child 2011 2018,” video, 5:06,


Watanabe Shin, “Controversy Blocks Out Sun Child Statue in Fukushima,” NHK World-Japan, October 4, 2018,


Otsuki, “Visualising Nuclear Futurism,” 9.


Charles Perrow, “Nuclear denial: From Hiroshima to Fukushima,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 5 (2013): 56–67,


Ele Carpenter, “Shifting the Nuclear Imaginary: Art and the Flight from Nuclear Modernity,” in Cold War Legacies: Legacy, Theory, Aesthetics, ed. John Beck and Ryan Bishop (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 123.


Otsuki, “Visualising Nuclear Futurism,” 3.


Yanobe, email interview with the author, August 30, 2019.


Pritikin, “Putting Out a Fire,” 24.


Susan Schuppli suggests that the Chornobyl disaster as a media event happened in the Soviet Union not on April 26 (the day of the actual reactor’s explosion) but on May 14 when the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov made a television address concerning the incident. See Schuppli, Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020), 47. On the Soviet suppression of information from a historical perspective and the analysis of the Chornobyl coverage, see Plokhy, Chernobyl, 173–8. For a specific case study of Chornobyl coverage in Pravda, the leading Soviet newspaper, see Festus Eribo and Gary D. Gaddy, “Pravda’s Coverage of the Chernobyl nuclear accident at the threshold of glasnost,” Howard Journal of Communications 3, no. 3–4 (1992): 242–52,


On Ukraine’s response to the Chernobyl aftermath, see Petryna, Life Exposed.


For examples see Hanna Chuchvaha, “Memory, Trauma, and the Maternal: Post-Apocalyptic View of the Chernobyl/Chornobyl/Charnobyl Nuclear Disaster,” East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 7, no. 2 (2020): 3–31,


Yanobe, email interview with the author, August 30, 2019.


For example, a secret report from the Ivankivsky district KGB chief to the KGB office in Kyiv, dated May 16, 1989, informs that fourteen villages in the Chornobyl zone hosted 1,126 illegal resettlers, including 18 underage children. See Chornobyl’s’ke dosie KGB: Suspilni nastroï. ChAES u postavariĭnyi period. Zbirnyk dokumentiv pro katastrofu na Chornobyl’s’kiĭ AES (KGB’s Chornobyl Dossier. Public Sentiments. The Nuclear Plant in the Post-Disaster Time. A Collection of Documents about the Disaster at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant), ed. Oleh Bazhan et al. (Kyiv: Haluzevyĭ derzhavnyĭ arkhiv Sluzhby bezpeky Ukraïny, 2019), 623.


For a comparison between nuclear and solar power production, see Mostafa Esmaeili Shayan and Farzaneh Ghasemzadeh, “Nuclear Power Plant or Solar Power Plant,” in Nuclear Power Plants: The Processes from the Cradle to the Grave, ed. Nasser Awwad (London: IntechOpen, 2021), 11–28.


Quoted in Shin, “Controversy.”


Pavel Polityuk, “Three decades after nuclear disaster, Chernobyl goes solar,” Reuters, October 5, 2018,


Alicia Gibson, “Out of Death, an Atomic Consecration to Life: Astro Boy and Hiroshima’s Long Shadow,” Mechademia: Second Arc 8 (2013): 318–20, 10.5749/mech.8.2013.0313.


On the Chornobyl theme in manga, see Verena Maser, “Nuclear Disasters and the Political Possibilities of Shōjo (Girls’) Manga (Comics): A Case Study of Works by Yamagishi Ryōko and Hagio Moto,” The Journal of Popular Culture 48, no. 3 (June 2015): 558–71.


On the anti-nuclear movement in Japan in the years following the Chornobyl disaster, see Kōichi Hasegawa, “Continuities and discontinuities of Japan’s political activism before and after the Fukushima disaster,” in Social Movements and Political Activism in Contemporary Japan: Re-emerging from Invisibility, ed. David Chiavacci and Julia Obinger (New York: Routledge, 2018),; Anna Wiemann, Networks and Mobilization Processes: The Case of the Japanese Anti-Nuclear Movement after Fukushima (Munich: IUDICIUM Verlag, 2018), 40–41; Beata Bochorodycz, Fukushima and Civil Society: The Japanese Anti-Nuclear Movement from a Socio-Political Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2023), 48–52.


On nuclear semiotics, see “Long-time nuclear waste warning messages,” Wikipedia,; Scott Beauchamp “How to Send a Message 1,000 Years to the Future,” Atlantic, February 24, 2015,


Thomas A. Sebeok, Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia, Technical Report prepared for the (United States) Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation (1984), 28,


Carpenter, “Shifting the Nuclear Imaginary,” 12.


For references to the Promethean fire as a metaphor for nuclear energy, see Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).


On the Expo ’70, see William O. Gardner, “The 1970 Osaka Expo and/as Science Fiction,” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 23 (2011): 26–43.


Borggreen, “Ruins of the Future,” 123.


Sawaragi, “An Amusement Park,” 19.


Kenji Yanobe, “A Time Machine to the End of the Future,” interview by Noriko Fuku in Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan, ed. Christopher Phillips and Noriko Fuku, with a contribution by Linda Nochlin (New York and Goüttingen: International Center of Photography and Steidl, 2008), 245.


I owe a debt of gratitude to my first readers, James Nisbet, and Halyna Kohut, as well as two anonymous reviewers for Afterimage, whose feedback and insights helped me to improve and nuance my argument. I also wish to thank Anne Helmreich, Alexa Sekyra, Mary Miller, Andrew Perchuk, Roselyn Campbell, Renata Holod, Jesús Muñoz Morcillo, Alan Braddock, Stanislaus von Moos, Grace Kim, Emily K. Morgan, Jamie A. Kwan, Ann Harezlak, Roman Koropeckyj, Karen (Ren) vanMeenen and Lucia Sommer for their helpful suggestions that contributed to my progress with my research and/or the article. I first became interested in Yanobe’s Atom Suit Project when I was accepted into the scholar program at the Getty Research Institute (GRI) in 2019. The Getty’s community and library provided invaluable resources and inspiration that fueled my research over the following years. Along the way, I gave several presentations on the topic at the GRI (2019), UCLA (2019), the College Art Association Annual Conference (2021), and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (2022), and I am grateful to the organizers and audiences for their stimulating discussions and feedback. The emergency grant from the Shevchenko Scientific Society in the US enabled me to complete my work under the challenging circumstances of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022–23. Finally, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Chiho Shimizu for arranging an email interview with the artist, to Manabu Miki for assistance in obtaining permission for images, and to Kenji Yanobe himself for his insightful responses to my questions and his aid to Ukraine.