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In the Wake examines how Japanese photographers have processed the disasters of March 11, 2011. On that day, three cataclysmic and interrelated events fell upon Japan like disastrous dominos: first, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in the country shifted the earth’s axis several inches and devastated northeast Japan; second, a powerful tsunami resulting from the disruption of the Pacific Ocean floor inundated the Tōhoku region with waves measuring more than 130 feet high; third, emergency cooling systems of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant failed due to the tsunami, releasing contaminants into the environment. These catastrophes had immediate and far-reaching impacts that are only partially measured in known casualties, counting the loss of more than eighteen thousand lives and the displacement of nearly four hundred thousand people.
The photographers attempting to represent such overwhelming events are challenged not only by the scale of the tragedy, but also by its timing. Unlike with disasters of the past, twenty-first century photographers live in a world where amateurs and professionals alike are on hand to capture almost every historical event and broadcast its images for near-instant global consumption. Where some of the seventeen photographers included in In the Wake directly record the destruction of 3/11, while others allude to it metaphorically, all share a slow, deliberate approach that resists the tawdriness of YouTube coverage and the narrative tidiness of news reporting. In many ways the photographers’ more protracted engagement reflects the character and pace of life in the remote region of Japan wrecked by the disasters, an area where Western modernization came late and distinctive local cultures continued to thrive.
Opening at the Japan Society in New York exactly five years after 3/11, the exhibition makes a virtue of looking at the incidents in retrospect. Deeper reflection on the philosophical issues at stake in photographing harrowing events was the major impetus for the show, organized by Anne E. Havinga, senior curator of photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Anne Nishimura Morse, senior curator of Japanese art. In many instances the selected photographers working “in the wake” harken back to their nineteenth-century predecessors, who due to technical limitations could only photograph disasters wrought by major conflicts, such as the Civil War, after the fact rather than as they transpired. At its finest moments, the exhibition transcends the immediate context of Japan to probe what experiencing an event in real time can mean in the digital age.
Slowing down the flood of quickly taken and disseminated images, several of the photographers work in a documentary mode that memorializes the disaster. Kozo Miyoshi uses a large box camera to make impassive black-and-white prints reminiscent of the New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, in 1975, a seminal exhibition of primarily American photographers coolly surveying what the show called the “man-altered” landscape. Miyoshi’s large, eerily still images call attention to the details of the debris in this “nature-altered” landscape, from ravaged communities to violently warped train tracks. The tragedy struck Naoya Hatakeyama personally—the photographer is from the regional town of Rikuzentakata and lost his mother and ancestral home on that momentous day. Here his color photographs documenting the ravaged landscape and the gradual unfolding of its cleanup and reconstruction are presented as both prints and digital projections. This dual format—one static, the other durational—embodies the push-pull between remembering and moving forward innate to any tragedy. Hatakeyama’s photographs assert the ongoing significance of place and local histories in a global media environment that tends to flatten unique characteristics and to quickly forget suffering as the next newsworthy event comes to public attention.
In images placing the disaster in a longer tradition of representation by evoking seventeenth-century landscape painting, Keizō Kitajima has said he tried to distinguish between “the actuality of the predicament I saw with my own eyes” and “the apparent reality” of images flooding our consciousness everyday (35). Takashi Arai has similarly sought to prolong the course of remembering by resuscitating the earliest major form of photography, the daguerreotype. By way of this nineteenth-century technology of unique images made on polished silver-plated copper, Arai considers Fukushima in relation to Japan’s longer history of nuclear fallout, in pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Beyond expanding the time involved in visualizing the destruction, literally and figuratively, another strategy to reveal the devastation’s extent has been to play with how photographs are framed. At Asia Society Texas Center, the exhibition began with an installation of works from the Lost & Found Project, with photographs cascading across the wall like uncontrollable waves. The photographer Munemasa Takahashi has organized this initiative to recover thousands of family photographs discovered in the wreckage. Volunteers clean and digitize the images, and where possible return them to survivors. The snapshots that have gone unclaimed—faded, distorted, and often obliterated from their exposure to extreme conditions—viscerally embody what humans endured in the wake of 3/11. Despite their material distress, they are still mostly identifiable as images of people and places. Even as they echo lost and irretrievable victims, they also suggest the hope for preserving and restoring treasured memories through photographs.
Apart from repurposing found images, other artists recontextualize their pictures in different ways to think about how disaster fundamentally alters our perception of photographs. Tragedy heightens the dynamics of time inherent to the medium. Photographs made before catastrophes can seem sadly ignorant of the ruin in store and become monuments to what was lost. In the case of Lieko Shiga’s phantasmagoric works made immediately pre-3/11, surreal arrangements of bodies and the natural world actually make her photographs seem oddly prescient of how everything would be suddenly thrown into disarray. Photographs made in the wake of disaster, on the other hand, carry a melancholy, helpless belatedness. In Tomoko Yoneda’s series Cumulus (2011), titles transform the meaning of her views by burdening them with painful memories. A photograph of a grazing horse is a pastoral scene until the label locating it in the Fukushima Prefecture charges it with unease about nuclear contamination. Invisibility amplifies the sense of danger.
Also related to the subject of the Fukushima disaster and how to visualize the invisible menace of nuclear contagion, Ishu Han’s large-scale print takes the one widely circulating image of the plant and reinvents it. At the time news photographers could only report on the plant from outside the exclusion perimeter—an enforced distance relayed by Han’s pixelated mosaic of the deteriorating nuclear towers. Upon closer inspection, the “pixels” reveal themselves to be one-yen coins, pointing to the intertwined economic interests some thought led to the devastation. Both Yoneda and Han offer answers to the question of how to devise an iconography without access to anything directly photographable.
In broader terms, some of the most memorable images of twentieth-century conflict are the photographs of mushroom clouds over Nagasaki. They are shorthand for nuclear disaster, in part because they so powerfully visualize an otherwise invisible threat. Billowing smoke and debris give that kind of peril an iconic shape and also an origin in one catalytic moment. Without those forms, photographers must rely on metaphor to speak in other terms about how the disasters renewed major anxieties in Japanese culture.
The two main strategies on view here for communicating fears of radiation exposure from Fukushima are through content and materiality. Takashi Homma photographed mushrooms that had been deemed toxic after the earthquake—these humble fungi symbolize the hope of surviving radiation exposure as they evoke the cloudy formations of World War II and the Cold War. An approach more rooted in materials is that of Nobuyoshi Araki, perhaps the most recognizable name in the show for Western audiences. Araki scratched his date-stamped negatives with scissors, recalling the involuntary destruction of family photographs in the first gallery.
If photography makes visible the invisible action of light, its technical apparatus makes it a fitting medium for expressing the fearful dynamics of the presence and spread of radiation. Masato Seto was one of the few photographers to gain access to the Fukushima plant during a visit in 2012. He printed the resulting photographs in the negative so that his Tyvek-suited, gas-masked subjects become even more nightmarish. Shimpei Takeda exposed sensitized papers to soil samples collected from sites of historical significance around Fukushima Prefecture. Like galaxies punctuated by the “stars” of concentrated contagions, his striking abstract works are laced with danger.
Though these photographers’ highly personal works do a noble job of resisting a unified understanding of the catastrophe and what it has meant to the country, the exhibition stops short at being thoroughly self-reflexive. Implicitly bound up in the questions it raises is the deeper issue of who has the right to represent national trauma. Exhibiting works made by Japanese photographers (and the Shanghai-born Ishu Han, who has lived in Tōhoku since the age of ten), the show sanctions the idea that only those on the inside can authentically respond. This is even as the catalogue deconstructs that premise in an insightful essay by Michio Hayashi, a professor of art history and visual culture at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Hayashi writes, “The more we are exposed to the forms [the disaster] took through the specificities of photographic images—with their unique material and formal details—the less confident we become about our own capacities to understand what we see, as we are made aware of distance from the victims and among ourselves as witnesses” (177). This gets to the heart of why photographs are difficult to press into a nationalist framework or to interpret as testimony more than as artistic expression, as the exhibit tries to do: they can not help but be made from an individual’s perspective, and in that sense they are always subjective. In the Wake succeeds in bearing witness for posterity in a rapid-fire age and suggesting how Japan’s past lives on. It is perhaps a testament to the work that it fails to amount to any collective statement on how best to remember an event like 3/11, which the world watched but no two people experienced in the same way.
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, Department of Photographs, National Gallery of Art