After the Exhibition Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress

After the Exhibition Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress



Planning for the exhibition Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress started roughly six months after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. The exhibition was held at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito, October to December 2012, one year and seven months after the disaster. It presented twenty-eight disaster-related works by twenty-four artists and groups.[1] One thing to emphasize before moving on is that the exhibition did not only present works that saw themselves as art. In selecting the activities undertaken by artists in response to 3.11 I put aside the question of whether they were art or not, with the intent of presenting the complexity behind artists’ activities, as well as creating an archive that would gather all the activities together in one published collection of documents. In constructing an archive I was aware of creating something that people engaged in art could refer to in the future when subjected to a similar set of circumstances—something bound to happen over the long term.

Because the exhibition opened one year and seven months after the disasters struck, the activities that featured in it all took place relatively soon post-disaster. That timing has decisive significance. The reason is that regardless of the scale of direct loss, almost none of us had ever experienced anything on the scale of devastation as what affected so many in the aftermath of 3.11. Mito City, in Ibaraki Prefecture, where Art Tower Mito is located, experienced large shocks from the quake and sustained extensive damage. Inside the art complex, pipes from the entrance hall’s pipe organ fell, and panels from the suspended ceiling fell down. Consequently the art complex had to be closed for restoration. I was in my office when the earthquakes hit. I stayed there until the shaking subsided and then made sure the visitors had safely evacuated before evacuating to the square outside the building. As it began to grow dark, groups of people who had been unable to get home because the trains had stopped and people who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods began to gather at the art complex. The facility’s backup generators had kept the lights on amidst the blackout caused by the quake and it became an ad-hoc refugee center. The staff were kept busy around the clock for about three days attending to people’s needs; I didn’t make it back home until two or three days after the disaster.

A lot of people who live in Japan were thrown into turmoil. People working in the arts were no exception. Many artists were forced to ask themselves what art could do in a state of emergency; some responded to 3.11 in their work while continuing to feel conflicted, others chose to wait and observe. Perhaps because of the timing so soon after the disaster, only four out of the twenty-eight projects in the show unambiguously took the form of an artwork from the start.[2] Comparatively speaking, the most common projects were workshops sited in affected areas and oriented towards affected people. These were followed by projects that leveraged creativity, ingenuity, and technical skills developed in the course of being an artist (things like documentary filmmaking and photography), followed by projects that aimed to think about the disaster and its effects through art (including through music). There were also cases like KATŌ Tsubasa who first went to the area to work as a volunteer and only developed an art project at a later stage, as well as a few cases in which people took part without considering the activity to be art. These are the features of work done under this kind of state of emergency.

While some of the twenty-eight projects were events that started and ended in comparatively short time frames, others evolved over time and in response to changing conditions where they were sited. In this article I will consider three projects that stand out for the way they have continued and developed over time. Aligning the three projects with the typology above, the first, Project FUKUSHIMA!, aimed to think about the disaster and its effects through art, the second, KITAZAWA Jun’s My Town Market, was a series of workshops sited in affected areas and oriented towards affected people, and the third, KOMORI Haruka and SEO Natsumi’s activities in Rikuzentakata leveraged skills developed in the course of them working as artists. Komori and Seo’s work began at first as a documentary project and gradually evolved into a form of artistic expression with a documentary basis.

The scale and type of damage caused by the three disasters—earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident—means that areas affected by it cannot simply be lumped together as “affected areas.” In some areas normal life has returned, while other areas, especially those affected by the nuclear accident, remain in a state of emergency. The question of how art can engage such a complex “Post-3.11” society is a basic concern for all of the art projects that have continued in the ongoing aftermath and I would like to examine the question through these three examples.


Three artists with connections to Fukushima started Project FUKUSHIMA!: punk rock musician ENDŌ Michirō, musician OTOMO Yoshihide, and the poet WAGŌ Ryōichi. Their motive was to build a platform for people to think through the problems that the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster had caused in Fukushima through art. Together with the three core members, the project was and is planned and managed by an executive committee made up of volunteers with ties to Fukushima.

[Visit the Project FUKUSHIMA! website here:]

Project FUKUSHIMA! is an umbrella term referring to a number of related events, but the main one is FESTIVAL FUKUSHIMA!, which is held every August in Fukushima City, which is approximately 56 miles away from the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Thirteen thousand people attended the first event in 2011—a large outdoor charity concert staged by professional musicians at a public park in Fukushima City (called Shiki no Sato). There were activities that allowed for broad participation, like a free area where amateur musicians could perform and a participatory improvisational orchestra performance, one of Otomo’s ideas.

[Click to see the improvisational orchestra, conducted by Otomo Yoshihide:]

Aware of the risk of exposing participants and attendees to radiation, the organizers debated amongst themselves and consulted with a specialist before holding the event. From their discussions with Professor KIMURA Shinzō, a radiation hygiene expert, they came up with the idea of spreading a huge piece of cloth on the grass to prevent people from coming into contact with radioactive particles that may have settled in the park. They thought of this cloth as a furoshiki (a cloth about 2-3 feet square that people often use in Japan to tie things up in a bundle for transport or safekeeping). The giant furoshiki was sewn together by volunteers, using various used fabrics that people sent from around Japan. The final piece reached 65,000 square feet.

At the time of the first festival people were extremely concerned about the risk of being exposed to radiation. Even after covering the ground with a cloth to prevent direct contact with radioactive material, many voices questioned whether it should happen at all. The musicians and audience members that participated in the festival had to think through the risk, and found meaning in placing their own feet on the ground in Fukushima as a way to own up to the problems the nuclear disaster had caused. The 13,000 people who gathered must have had an eclectic mix of various feelings while listening to performances by various musicians, Otomo’s improvisational orchestra, and poetry readings by participants in a workshop Wagō had led. After the festival was over, the giant furoshiki ended up becoming an enduring symbol of Project FUKUSHIMA!.

Segments of the giant furoshiki spread out for the outdoor concert Festival FUKUSHIMA! 2011, Fukushima City. Photo: SHIIGI Shizune

[Image 1. Segments of the giant furoshiki spread out for the outdoor concert Festival FUKUSHIMA! 2011, Fukushima City. Photo: SHIIGI Shizune.]

In addition to the August festival, Otomo and Wagō led classes on improvisational music and poetry reading during the project’s first year, and Professor Kimura gave basic lectures on radiation. The series of projects done in the first year were filmed and later put together into a documentary by FUJII Hikaru that was screened both abroad and around Japan. The film deals with multiple problems caused by the accident, urging the viewers to think about them in depth beyond the limits of location.

In the summer of the second year, a variety of events were held over a span of twelve days. These involved all kinds of people in different locations, with the central event being a participatory music event staged in the street in front of Fukushima station. Compared to the first year’s event, which was one big festival at a single location, the second year’s events took the form of multiple, simultaneous smaller happenings in a way that prioritized letting people from all over Japan participate, both inside and outside Fukushima Prefecture.

The project’s third year saw the birth of what has become another staple: an original obon dance. Obon dance and music are folk-arts with countless variations that are rooted in small village communities and neighborhoods and are passed down over the generations. Even today, every August, people return to their hometowns for obon and everyone from children to the elderly participate in the dancing. People robbed of their hometowns by the nuclear disaster and those forced to evacuate to other regions still hold obon dances at refugee sites. With this situation in the background, Project FUKUSHIMA! organizers started a new obon dance, with the idea of creating a new hometown. In this they took advantage of the great strength of obon dances, which is that they require no special skill or tools—anyone can do them.

The Project FUKUSHIMA! obon dance has one formal difference from the usual dance in that, rather than having people all dance in one big circle around a single dais as is traditionally done, they arrange multiple daises that people dance around in variously sized circles that intersect each other. This form embodies the principles of Project FUKUSHIMA! in regard to networks and relationality: many people interact with and influence each other as equals, while centers and apexes are actively avoided. Since its debut in 2013, the Project FUKUSHIMA! obon dance has participated in a drama festival in Tokyo and has spread from Fukushima to different regions. With the collaboration and participation of many people, these obon dances have been held in Aichi, Tokyo, Sapporo, etc., and have become a distinctive symbol of Project FUKUSHIMA!, much like the giant furoshiki.

[Image 2. Project FUKUSHIMA! obon dance, Festival FUKUSHIMA! 2015, Fukushima City. Photo: Shiigi Shizune]

[Image 2. Project FUKUSHIMA! obon dance, Festival FUKUSHIMA! 2015, Fukushima City. Photo: Shiigi Shizune.]

In this way, beneath the lively festival atmosphere, Project FUKUSHIMA! aims to be a catalyst for thinking about nuclear problems through music, dance, and other participation-friendly arts, as problems all people share beyond any particular place. “Fukushima” has unfairly become synonymous with nuclear disaster in Japan; an initial and continuing motivation behind the project is to undo that linkage. The project is still ongoing at the time of this writing.

Kitazawa Jun – My Town Market

My Town Market was a project undertaken in collaboration with residents of the temporary emergency housing community in Ogawa Park, in Shinchi-cho, in Fukushima Prefecture’s Sōma district. It was organized by contemporary artist, Kitazawa Jun, and held eleven times between July 2011 and August 2014. Children are the main actors in the project: they build a town of their own imagining. The town takes the basic form of a flea market but the shopkeepers are primarily children and the goods and services are also mainly provided by children, with the help of the adults around them. They run the gamut, from handmade knick-knacks to cakes and snacks to fantastical amusements only a child would dream up. The child planners arrange the “town parts,” which are all things they have thought up as ingredients that their ideal town would have. These “parts” are set up on mats hand-woven by the residents that have become a symbol of the project, creating an imaginary town. Every time the town was built it had a different assemblage of varied contents: a bank, café, supermarket, movie theatre, video game arcade, a public bath, planetarium, “Fortune Teller’s House”, “Rainbow Treasure Shop,” “Dog Convenience Store,” and “Monster Broadcasting Station,” to name a few.

[For more information in English visit: For more pictures and detail in Japanese:]

[Image 3. Children spread out hand-made mats to prepare the market. The 11th My Town Market (9th August 2014) at Ogawa Park Temporary Housing, Shinchi-cho, Fukushima Prefecture. Photo by Yuji ITŌ]

[Image 3. Children spread out hand-made mats to prepare the market. The 11th My Town Market (9th August 2014) at Ogawa Park Temporary Housing, Shinchi-cho, Fukushima Prefecture. Photo by ITŌ Yuji.]

The town of Shinchi, where the project originated, is a coastal town about sixty kilometers north of the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. After the earthquake, it was hit by a 30-foot tsunami which destroyed many homes and buildings. It is one of the towns whose residents had to flee in large numbers: between March 12 and 14, 2011, over 2,000 people evacuated, approximately one quarter of the town’s population. Kitazawa went to Shinchi on April 7, 2011. He was affiliated with a volunteer center, but instead of performing regular aid activities like the other volunteer workers, he spent a lot of time at a refugee center listening to the stories of some of the refugees, and began a mat-weaving activity with people living there.

The mat-weaving activity was not an assignment from the volunteer center; Kitazawa undertook it independently, with permission from the refugee center’s administration. The mats gave Kitazawa a chance to meet people at the center and build relationships with them. To the extent possible he sought to build relationships of equality, not based on the asymmetry of “aid giver” and “victim.” On April 29, they spread out a small mat they’d woven and opened a “Small Coffee Shop,” staffed by children. Afterwards, as people transitioned from the refugee center to temporary housing, this evolved into My Town Market. My Town Market ended at the end of 2014, as residents moved out of the temporary housing facilities.

Prior to this project, Kitazawa had undertaken art projects sited mostly in regional communities around Japan, outside the system of galleries and museums. In those works, Kitazawa collaborated with local governments, communities, and NPOs, attempting to seed opportunities for creative communities to be born within everyday life. Given his previous work, Kitazawa was probably aware that his experience might find a role to play among the communities affected by the 3.11 disasters. But as is true of most other artists introduced in the exhibition, he made no attempt to present himself as an artist at the beginning, but went to the affected areas as a volunteer worker. Only after he got some understanding of the situation, and with respect for the feelings of the survivors, did he try to help people find a way to recover from their feelings of fear and from the destruction to their lives wrought by the disaster.

An important aspect of Kitazawa’s work is that it lacks the hierarchical relationship that one sees in public collaborative art projects designed by older generation artists, where an artist plans a project from a leadership position and the locals assist. As an artist of a younger generation (he was born in 1988), he has been seeking an approach to collaborative art projects that would replace the conventional hierarchical structure. Even in coming up with the idea for the “Small Coffee Shop,” Kitazawa pitched ideas to the children who had gathered together on the woven mats and waited for their responses. The project only started to slowly move forward when the children took an interest in it. Other than the initial proposal of “want to try making a coffee shop,” all Kitazawa actually did for the project was: 1) ask questions, 2) wait, and 3) engage in dialogue. In that way Kitazawa became a partner or an escort to people as their feelings of agency awakened and they began to want to realize an idea by their own effort. His role was to spur creativity in their daily lives and My Town Market was a project that succeeded very well in doing this.

My Town Market became a regular local event and the transfer of management from Kitazawa to local residents initially went well. They adopted a system of children leading and adults supporting. Adults formed a board to manage the event and even budgetarily the operation sustained without external support. Nevertheless, the project wrapped up after three and a half years. Kitazawa stated that this was because he could not hand over his role of “questioner,” which he had prioritized in his previous work as well, to any of the participating residents. According to Kitazawa, the role of questioner is an abstract element, one that cannot be systemized or put into a manual: it is exactly here that the art of the work resides. Through “questioning” Kitazawa expands children’s imaginations and helps them view their everyday lives from a different perspective—this is the root of the art in My Town Market. From the beginning, Kitazawa had planned to hand off management of the project, and while it seemed to progress and mature under local management, it paradoxically exposed a dilemma, namely that My Town Market was unable to run when completely separated from the artist.

What this might show is that for children to succeed in giving form to an imaginary town they’ve conceived, there needs to be a facilitator present who has the keen judgment to stimulate their imaginations and guide them in making things. It is a similar situation when artists lead workshops; it shows that the presence of art and artists is a source of inspiration for people. But specifically in the case of Kitazawa’s projects, I believe that he is ingenious at sowing devices here and there in the process of building the project together with participants from zero, that let people discover what their roles will be, and that bring out their independence and sense of self-determination through the experience of moving towards a climax that will affirm each of those roles. It is for that reason that My Town Market worked for three and a half years through eleven iterations. As Kitazawa’s presence faded into the background as he had hoped it would, it seemed that running the market had taken hold among the residents. But in fact what may have happened is that one of the things the residents enjoyed was Kitazawa coming to visit them in their otherwise oppressive everyday life in the emergency housing project. That made Kitazawa’s presence as the motor of activity something the project couldn’t do without.

One can approach My Town Market as a new type of art project that evolved out of relational aesthetics. The new type proceeds in accordance with the creative work of people, in which the artist forgoes leadership and occasionally authorship. It is strange then, that the project would end when the artist leaves the scene. While Kitazawa’s act of questioning might not be amenable to being written down in a manual as he states himself, there should be room to question whether its abstraction is really something that prevents it from being passed along to others. Given that humans have long passed art and skill through word and gesture without writing, it would be strange if there were really no way to teach and learn the technique of questioning. The reasons My Town Market came to an end are complex to be sure, but it is not solely because the residents could not carry on the role of questioner, as Kitazawa claims. To the extent that the residents enjoyed Kitazawa’s visits themselves, it may still have been difficult to sustain the motivation to continue the project without him.

Komori Haruka and Seo Natsumi’s Work in Rikuzentakata

Komori Haruka and Seo Natsumi were graduate students at Tokyo University of the Arts when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. Komori works with moving images and Seo works in painting and text. Since 3.11 they have worked as a pair. They began documenting the tsunami-hit coastline a little less than a month after the quake, in response to one survivor who told them, “It’s too painful for me to bear looking at what has happened here but I ask you to look and remember it.”[3] They made frequent trips to disaster-stricken areas to document them and held ongoing events around Tokyo and Osaka to report on conditions. One year later, in April 2012, they decided to take up residence in the region to work, moving their base of operations to the heavily damaged city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture.

Their method of documentary is to make many visits to people they have formed relationships with in order to record their thoughts, feelings of loss, and memories tied up in the land and loved ones as they emerge in unaffected, unhurried conversation. Their first work made in this way conveys the changes to the life and surroundings of one woman, K, over the course of the year following 3.11. At the Artists and the Disaster—Documentation in Progress exhibition, they juxtaposed single channel video projection produced by Komori with text and drawings created by Seo presented on slides. Komori’s video was a documentation that followed K around closely but reservedly through the daily life that had been turned upside down by the disaster, while Seo’s drawings and text were a description of the devastated area that emerged from within Seo as an individual, with a few hours or days intervening between when she experienced the sites close at hand and when she started her work.

For roughly a year afterwards, they were completely absorbed by the realities of living in the region and continued their documentary work on the side. But after having an opportunity to show their work in London in 2014, they reaffirmed the need for artwork, for expression—something other than recording alone. That was because as long as they were presenting their work in art circles and to people who did not share any experience of the disasters (in this case, Londoners), evaluation of their work always focused on it as a single, discrete artwork, not as a document bearing connection to the actuality of the Great East Japan Earthquake. In other words, they were faced with the realization that when trying to communicate with distant others about a specific, local event of which they have no first-hand experience, it is difficult to do so by only showing recorded materials. Artistic expression was precisely what could capture a viewer’s attention and make communication possible.

This episode demonstrates something about the transmission of experiences of war and calamity. Running through the practice of displaying records and documents of war and calamity in museums and media is the hope that they can overcome temporal distance to communicate with people who may have no direct relation to the events. It sounds an alarm to distant others about the potential for disaster, and serves to raise their awareness about its risks. What Komori and Seo faced in London was people who shared time but whose spatial distance made it impossible to share positionality. The problem of communicating with people who don’t share positionality is the same whether the distance is spatial or temporal. The experience in London showed them that introducing the event through documentation alone would not create a connection with people and that it was necessary to create while preserving the impact of documentary.

Since then Komori and Seo have devoted ever greater energy to creating new works. A series of works titled Under the Wave, On the Ground was motivated by a massive earth moving project that aims to raise the land’s elevation high enough above sea level to make it tsunami-proof, but which was about to destroy all the pre-tsunami remnants of the town of Rikuzentakata. The work grew out of Komori and Seo’s unique approach to collaboration with local residents and utilized documentary footage they had filmed of the town between 2012 and 2014. Basically, that process consisted of listening to residents they knew from around town as they told them about the people, places, and local culture that was important to them. Komori filmed the resident taking them to a particular spot related to his or her recollections. Seo would then compose a text in the style of a reminiscence written in the first person from the perspective of the resident. The final piece was composed of video documentary edited by Komori, to go along with the voices of the residents reading Seo’s texts. This series of works is made as a story based on a factual account, told in the intimate voice of one who experienced it.

[Trailer for Komori Haruka + Seo Natsumi Under the Wave, On the Ground:

Worth noting is that once Komori and Seo began showing this kind of work, locals began taking them to emotionally significant locations and asking them to document them. The residents of Rikuzentakata even refer to the works as “mementos.” I think that the fact these works are accorded such special value as to be called “mementos,” is not just because of their aesthetic value but in large part because of Komori and Seo’s approach and method. If their work was not so centered on the survivors, it would be unlikely to elicit sympathy from them even if it garnered respect as a work of art. Komori and Seo lived in Rikuzentakata for three years, from spring 2012 to spring 2015, supporting themselves by working part time at local shops like a photo studio and a cafeteria, during which time they became familiar with the other residents around town. When Komori wanted to document a person she would visit them repeatedly over a long period of time, while Seo continually photographed and sketched the town as the reconstruction work transformed it. As Komori and Seo have continued to focus on a specific region and build relationships of trust with the residents, they internalized the positionality of the survivors. Remaining faithful to the region and the memories of the people who live there, they have adopted the approach of creating while remaining conscious of documentary value.

In Closing

There is a great deal of discussion over the definition of socially engaged art. In Education for Socially Engaged Art, Pablo Helguera argues that it must be based on “actual practice” and involve “social interaction,” whereas at the 2015 symposium “Socially Engaged Art in Japan” at the University of Washington, where I was invited to speak about this exhibition in the context of socially engaged art after 3.11, discussions included “symbolic” work that could be displayed in a museum gallery, counter to Helguera’s definition.[4] In Japan as well, people tend to apply the term to any kind of work that actively addresses some current social theme—anything that evinces the quality of “social engagement” that the term itself communicates. But if what we call artworks are usually things or performances presented to spectators through a practice of exhibition or staging, we can see the case of socially engaged art is different in that there is no equivalent category of “spectator.” Although socially engaged projects can be exhibited and often involve performances, they are different in that prior to that moment, there is a group of people who have participated in the realization of the project itself. I feel that putting this difference in participant/spectator-ship at the center of our thinking around the definition of SEA could go a long way towards clearing up the confusion, at least in Japan, where the spread of the term has gotten ahead of itself. It is worth noting that, by Helguera’s standard, fewer than half of the works in Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress were socially engaged art.[5]

Such a definition is also useful because it makes us conscious that a form of art that does not ultimately require spectators raises questions about the role of the museum. How can museum curators deal with a form of art that runs counter to one of the origin points of curating: namely, to place something on display? There are three approaches I have seen. The first is for museums to serve as a base for commissioning socially engaged art projects in the surrounding community, the second is to put a project that has already happened into the form of an exhibit of documentation related to it, the third is to use the museum space to host some socially engaged practice. Regarding the third approach, recently museums tend to be designed to have a room for workshops in addition to conventional exhibition space, but it hardly solves anything to pretend one can simply use a museum for social practice. Important questions remain as to how to approach diverse people beyond the usual museum crowd and how to sustain and develop real partnerships with the world outside the museum. These are questions that have historically been taken up by audience development departments of museums and perhaps for that reason are now often handled under educational programming in Japan. However, it remains an important task for the future for curators who are in charge of exhibitions to consider their options, whether to critically bring down the system of exhibition space and exhibitions from the inside, or whether to formulate new methods that respond to the sudden rise of socially engaged art without adhering to the practice of exhibition, so that they can engage as active participants in the writing of a new page in the history of art.

Finally, I would like to close by touching on ethical questions that socially engaged art sometimes provokes. When artists engage with social problems like natural disaster, nuclear meltdowns, and refugee crises, problems that have irretrievable victims, there is another way to get involved that is neither symbolic representation nor socially engaged art. It is through social engagement that makes no claim to art at all. As a couple of examples, Tanotaiga organized a volunteer group to remove rubble and sludge in the aftermath of 3.11, infused with his own unique brand of humor. Refugee Rescue provides aid to Syrian refugees and attracted attention when Jake Chapman donated a boat to the project.[6] Both Tanotaiga and Refugee Rescue have made it clear publicly that their activities are not artistic expression or socially engaged art. Their stance indicates that there may be an ethical problem related to the ego and public image of an artist when they want to approach people through the category of art who are in a state of emergency that threatens their lives. In the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and presumably in the case of the refugee crisis as well, there were probably many artists who wavered in the face of emergency, questioned themselves about what they should be doing, and even after wavering and finally choosing a road they could believe in, remained aware of this ethical problem as they followed through with their work with conflicted feelings.

For this reason, many of the projects that trace their roots back to the period right after the 3.11 disasters did not call themselves art or artists at first, but only began to present their work as art later, or developed into a different practice that they went on to call art, while some were intentionally left ambiguous whether they were art or not. Speaking about the three projects introduced in this article, Kitazawa, Seo, and Komori were all extremely cautious about using the word “art” or “artist” right after 3.11. In My Town Market, Kitazawa was consistent from the beginning in not emphasizing his position as an artist or the project as art, but rather gave highest priority to answering to the situation at the site in ways that respected the wishes of the residents. As a result of their experiences in London, Seo and Komori moved to develop their artistic expression while sustaining the value of documentary, yet nevertheless, their earnest stance as they interact with the survivors of the disasters has not changed. Because they have built strong relationships with residents no ethical issues have arisen between them and the residents who work with them and appear in their works. Project FUKUSHIMA!, on the other hand, was criticized for needlessly exposing audiences from outside the prefecture to the dangers of radioactive contamination by holding an outdoor festival in Fukushima, not even six months after 3.11. Indeed, if it had been solely for the purpose of exhibitionism it would raise serious ethical questions. The criticism, however, made light of the fact that Fukushima City is about 56 km from the accident site and, as it wasn’t a designated evacuation area, its citizens had continued to live there after the accident. The criticism was rooted in the tendency after the disasters to lump all of “Fukushima” together under one banner as a nuclear disaster zone. This was precisely the prejudice Project FUKUSHIMA! aimed to problematize. At the same time, it is understandable given the confusion at the time that it roused this concern. Many people in Japan were fearful of the radioactive material that had been blown into the atmosphere by the accident; the criticism shows how on edge the public had become amidst all of the confusing information about it.

Most people would agree that there are things to be done in a life threatening emergency that take precedence over art. The most banal and yet the most considerate decision artists and curators can take as an immediate reaction to such a situation might be to shelve their identity as artists and curators as a way to contribute to society. Artistry can serve people best in a way that it meets their needs, perhaps more mentally than practically, or at a later stage when the emergency has eased. This is an issue that I raise specifically in relation to emergency situations that involve life and death; it is not a question about the ethics of socially engaged art in more everyday contexts. But in addition to the need to define socially engaged art in the context of art and to historicize its practice, I would like to end by emphasizing the importance of speaking about the social actions of artists in the same field that are distinct from socially engaged art.

Translated by Justin Jesty

TAKEHISA Yuu is Curator at Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito. While curating an exhibition within a white-cube space, she also organizes socially-engaged art projects beyond an institutional framework, working closely with artists and local residents. She is interested in pursuing the possibilities for a public art museum as a place to evoke multilateral standpoints and diversified thoughts. The main exhibitions that she curated include: Koki Tanaka: Possibilities for being together. Their praxis. (2016); Artists and the Disaster – Documentation in Progress (2012), Otomo Yoshihide Ensembles 2010: Resonance (2010-2011). She was one of the Directors of Water and Land – Niigata Art Festival 2012.


[1] Participating artists of the exhibition Artists and the Disaster – Documentation in Progress are ARAI Ryōji, Chim↑Pom, ENDŌ Ichirō, FUJII Hikaru, HATAKEYAMA Naoya, HIBINO Katsuhiko, KAIHATSU Yoshiaki,  KATŌ Tsubasa, KITAZAWA Jun, KOMORI Haruka + SEO Natsumi, MIYASHITA Maki, MURAKAMI Takashi (MMIX Lab), NAKAJIMA Yuta×birdo flugas, Nishiko, PROJECT FUKUSHIMA!, SANADA Takehiko, TAKAYAMA Akira (Port B), Tanotaiga, TERUYA Yūken, TOCHKA, TSUBAKI Noboru, wah document, YAMAKAWA Fuyuki, and YANOBE Kenji.

[2] Chim↑Pom, Takayama Akira (Port B), Teruya Yūken and Yamakawa Fuyuki are the artists who responded to 3.11 by creating a piece of artwork.

[3] Komori Haruka and Seo Natsumi, interview with author, April 27, 2012.

[4] Pablo Helguera, Sōsharii engeijido āto nyūmon (Introduction to socially engaged art), translated by the Art and Society Research Center (2015), pp. 34, 38, 14.

[5] Looking at artistic activity in Japan in the six years since the events of 3.11, one could argue that even artworks that remain mostly “symbolic” also provide spaces for dialogue and discussion, invite people to participate in the production process, i.e., get local people engaged in creating their own works, or actively set up contact points with the public to gain feedback from diverse perspectives, which then serves to support the artistic production, influencing the artist in various ways for better or worse.  Komori and Seo’s work could be one such example. These do not fit the narrower definition of socially engaged art, but while they do not have the efficacy to immediately or directly reform society or solve society’s problems, the artists are personally committed to the issues involved and they do succeed well in prompting people to think about the issues involved. In other words, in Japan at least, establishing criteria of SEA on the basis of things like the strength of the author/artist’s commitment and level of awareness of people and social issues, together with how well that is reflected in the contents or production process of the work, would conform more closely to the present situation of contemporary art in Japan.

[6] Christians Viveros-Fauné, “Jake Chapman on Refugee Rescue in Greece: It’s Not Art, It’s Helping People,” Artnet News (January 12, 2017).