Participating artists: Curtis Anderson, Katharina Grosse, Leiko Ikemura, Jun Kaneko, Philipp von Matt, Boris Mikhailov, Daido Moriyama, Yoko Ono, Lieko Shiga, Stephanie Stein, Yutaka Takanashi, Shōmei Tōmatsu, Rosemarie Trockel, Donata Wenders, Wim Wenders.
During the time following a moment of devastating collective trauma, like what has happened in Japan this year, there tends to be a questioning of what role Art has in understanding the societal and personal ramifications of such a violent event. In the neatly curated exhibition Breaking News, at Berlin’s famous KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Swiss-Japanese painter and sculptor Leiko Ikemura invited artists to exhibit both contemporary and more historical works that address themes surrounding the process of recovery that Japan has embarked on following the recent events that have so dramatically changed Japan’s near and more distant future.
The small exhibition consisting of eighteen works hung between three rooms was hastily put together and has interrupted KW’s planned exhibition schedule, yet still manages to create a compelling environment in which to contemplate the recent events in Japan. By including both works created during the months following the tsunami and a range of historical works, Breaking News situates the recent events into a broader historical narrative of Japan. While this historical element is essential, especially with Japan, which has a contemporary history rife with multiple moments of intense collective trauma, the rapid transitions between new and old works did come off as a bit disjointed, especially within the context of such a small exhibition. While the hastiness with which the exhibition as a whole was compiled is very palpable, there are several individual works that stand out as intriguing interrogations of themes of history, place, trauma and rebuilding.
Of the works produced in direct reaction to the recent events in Japan, artist Lieko Shiaga’s Report, 2011 stood out as a haunting time capsule of the damage, both physical and emotional, wrecked on Japan following the tsunami. Report is basic in design, consisting of several letter-sized pieces of paper arranged along the wall, with a small image and often a brief text laid out on each page. The text and images appear to be printouts of emails that Shiaga sent to friends as she documented the wreckage she saw around her with a simple camera phone. While each piece of paper reads like an email, the text component is reduced to short poignant phrases edited from real conversations, which creates a personal intimacy that was missing from the majority mainstream media coverage of the events in Japan.
Shōmei Tōmatsu’s Atomic Bomb Damage: Wristwatch lends a stark historical reference, with an isolated image of a wristwatch permanently stopped at the exact time that the nuclear warhead was dropped on Hiroshima. This direct link between those horrific events from World War II and the nuclear disaster still ongoing at Fukushima, while in no way equivalent, does map the history of a nation forced to grapple with the wreckage caused by nuclear technology on multiple occasions. By drawing parallels between nuclear disasters from the past and present in Japan, the work begins to question our attitudes towards the violences we inflict on our natural environment as well as how we understand cycles of creation and destruction. The work also reminds us that as Japan deals with this contemporary moment of collective trauma; ghosts of the past continue to hold a presence to this day.
Other works in the exhibition took a more conceptual approach to addressing the issues of economy, technology, the environment, and the costs of human “progress;” all integral themes to a discussion of the events still unfolding in Japan. The photographic work of Donata Wenders had a very strong presence in the main room of the exhibition, taking up an entire corner with four different small images. Each photograph was a seemingly over-exposed and very still image of scenes from nature that had a feeling as if they had been found in some long-lost drawer, working as relics of a fictive distant past. The relationship between memory and nature present in the works questions the process of manipulating our natural environment and how those actions get recorded in our collective historical narrative.
Grappling with the aftermath of the tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima requires a broad discussion of the many factors that lead to such devastating combinations of natural disaster with human error. Therefore, the multi-pronged approach that Leiko Ikemura undertook in the curating of the exhibition, in that each artwork addressed these horrible events in very diverse ways, is required in an attempt to better understand the contemporary and historical events and ideologies that become implicated in an extended analysis of what has and still is happening in Japan.
~Collin Munn, a writer living in Berlin.
(Images: Yutaka Takanashi, o. T. (Towards the City), ca. 1971, Gelatin silver print, printed 2010; Courtesy Yutaka Takanshi & Galerie Priska Pasquer; Shōmei Tōmatsu, Atomic Bomb Damage: Wristwatch Stopped at 11:02, August 9, 1945,1961, gelatin silver print, printed 1985, 34,9 x 32,8 cm, 50,7 x 40,6 cm; Courtesy Shōmei Tōmatsu & Galerie Priska Pasquer, Köln; Jun Kaneko, Untitled, 2003, Japanische Tusche auf Reispapier, Ölkreidestift, 95 x 63,5 cm; Courtesy Jun Kaneko / Foto: Tina Wessel)