Make a Break: Immediacy in Art after Fukushima

A review of the Art Action UK discussion event at Deptford X Project Space on 21 May 2016

By Beatrix Joyce

How does one comprehensively represent the impact of the series of disasters that hit Japan in 2011? This is a question that has attracted artists and curators from around the globe and is currently being addressed, five years after the earthquake, tsunami and the devastating nuclear disaster that took place in Fukushima. As was highlighted during the artist’s talk, the Japan that is being revealed by these artists is not the Japan that is being presented to us by the media; Japan channels a great deal of effort into their arts and culture industry, which allegedly paints the picture of a ‘cool’ Japan, supposedly fully recovered from the massive upheaval. The relevance of the voices of artists such as Kyun-Chome hereby becomes evident, as they offer an alternative view, subverting the dominant, political agenda. Kyun-Chome’s exhibition held at the Deptford X Project Space presents a selection of their interventionist and mixed-media art works which they have been developing in the after-math of the catastrophes. In their own words, their works build on the mantra ‘escape to survive’. They seek to exemplify the human element of the victims, uncovering further issues of suicide and displacement. Their works offer a twofold insight into the lives of those who have been uprooted, and those who cannot leave the tarnished land they inhabit.

In ‘The Story Of Making Lies’ (2015), Kyun-Chome teach elderly residents of a temporary housing unit how to use Photoshop. They invite these victims, who will probably never have the chance to go home, to digitally erase the barriers now placed in their hometown. By performing this task the former residents revealed their true sentiments on the situation. Surprisingly, they did not always express the desire to return and even showed signs of optimism. This highlights the complexity of emotions invoked, as a mixture of feelings of both nostalgia and acceptance became apparent. Kyun-Chome noted that these thoughts may never have been exposed by a regular interview, and they therefore advocate an art practice that offers a more enriching way into researching political issues than conventional journalism ordinarily provides.

film still from The Story of Making Lies, 2015, image © Kyun-Chome

Other pieces, such as ‘Time Of The Sea’ (2015) and ‘Wake Up!’ (2015) capture emotions on a more abstract level. The stillness of two hour glasses containing radio-active substances is disconcerting, especially when contrasted with the startled responses of stray dogs to alarm clocks. The power of nature is firmly combatted with ‘Do Not Enter’ (2013), a gesture of human fragility and powerlessness performed on the beach in the gusty wind. The alternated use of rude awakenings, passivity and helplessness symbolise the weight and unexpected nature of the disasters, encouraging us to question the extent of the power we have over our environment.

film still from Do Not Enter, 2013, image © Kyun-Chome

Alongside Kyun-Chome, two curators were invited to speak at the artist’s talk. Jason Waite, co-curator of the exhibition held inside the exclusion zone at Fukushima, proposed the use of invisibility as a strategy. The invisibility of radiation is hereby turned into an invisible exhibition, which serves as a monument to those whose lives were lost and those who were displaced. Furthermore, Ele Carpenter offered insights into how contemporary artists have approached the effects of ‘the nuclear’. For example, the dilemma of nuclear waste is marked by the creation of a programme that counts down forever, broaching the incomprehensible concept of infinity. Along the same lines, another artist prints 3D images of Perseus, the Greek god of contagion, invisibility and dust. These statues are to be left behind for future generations to find and question. The theme of inheritance is also embodied in radio-active jewellery; a necklace was created containing stones that may not be safe to wear for generations to come. In this way, the duration of progress is embraced, as catastrophes take time to be processed, mourned and eventually healed.

Art, as proven by Kyun-Chome and as propagated by all speakers present, is an essential and progressive tool in the unearthing of global, political and human tragedies. A tool which is perhaps, as all Kyun-Chome’s works indirectly suggest, an aid in the process of healing too.


Kyun-Chome is a duo consisting of collaborating artists Eri Homma and Nabuchi. Winners of the Art Action UK 2016 Artist Residency Award, their exhibition Ain’t Got Time To Die was held at Deptford X Project Space from the 13th until the 21st of May 2016.

Jason Waite is an independent curator and writer based in New York. He is a co-curator of Don’t Follow the Wind: Non-Visitor Centre, an exhibition held within the Fukushima exclusion zone. 

Dr. Ele Carpenter is the Senior Lecturer in Curating at Goldsmiths College. She is a curatorial researcher in Nuclear Culture with The Arts Catalyst and editor of the Nuclear Culture Source Book.

Art as an antidote: artist duo Kyun-Chome discuss the fragility of the human condition and why we all need art

By Jessica Holtaway
Translation:  Kaori Homma

Kyun-Chome – Eri Homma and Nabuchi – are a collaborative artist duo who live and work in Tokyo.  Their work unravels social preconceptions and exposes ecological and political damage inflicted by, and on, society - but with a lightness of touch.  Darkly comedic but full of compassion, each artwork demands that we sustain sensitivity to others’ experiences.  Kyun-Chome don’t tell us how to respond, but they ask us to shift our focus from ourselves to ‘the other’, and to suspend judgement.

This summer, Kyun-Chome are in London for the Art Action UK 2016 residency.  The last two years have been busy and eventful for the artist duo – in 2014 they won the 17th Okamoto Taro Art Memorial Award for Contemporary Art, in 2015 they took part in the Tokyo Wonder Site residency in Berlin and this year they were hailed as one of Art Review’s ‘Future Greats’.  Their inaugural London exhibition Ain’t Got Time to Die, featuring new works from their UK residency, is now open at the Deptford X Project Space until May 21st.

Ain’t Got Time to Die features 6 moving image works, each exploring themes of personal and collective loss.  The shock and absurdity of disaster is explored through Wake Up! in which alarm clocks, set at different times to correspond to different historical events, are placed next to sleeping stray dogs. 
Wake Up! 2015 © Kyun-Chome
A number of pieces pieces respond directly to the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of 2011 – in Do Not Enter the artists try to stop the sea sweeping onto the beach using barrier tape, and in The Story of Making Lies they teach members of displaced communities to use Photoshop, so that they can figuratively remove the road barriers that prevent them from returning to their homes.  The installation Time of the Sea and Time of the Town presents two hour glasses containing substances collected from irradiated areas: Time of the Sea is an hourglass containing particles of seaweed that the artists collected by diving down to the seabed next to the Fukushima Power Station; Time of the Town is an hourglass containing powdered rubble from abandoned buildings in Chernobyl.  These pieces indicate unimaginable scales of time.
Perhaps the most disquieting piece is Rhythm of Survive, a video-work that jumps between images of the artists collecting rope from a suicide site, Jukai forest, and images of the same material being used as a skipping rope in Tokyo.  This artwork, with its evocations of both childhood and mortality, uncomfortably reminds us of our liability to trip whilst trying to keep up with the rhythm of life. 

Rhythm of Survive, 2015 © Kyun-Chome

Finally, their newest work The Plough, created specifically for this exhibition, follows a constellation of migrants who, tied together at the ankles and holding torches in their mouths, link arms with each other and resolutely advance through the darkness of their surroundings.

This is an exhibition that doesn’t let us ignore unpleasant realities.  However, in a strangely playful and elegant way, it seems to reach out personally to each member of the audience and offer a tender kind of hope.

Here the artists speak about working collaboratively and how they understand the role of art in society:

First of all, congratulations on being listed as one of Art Review’s ‘Future Greats’ for 2016!  Your work often focuses on social and political issues in contemporary Japan.  How important is it for you to share your work with global audiences?

Most of our works are triggered by the disasters that have taken place in Japan. However, natural disasters and man made disasters can happen anywhere, at anytime, in the world. It is inevitable that each one of us will have to face despair at some point in our lives. In this sense, the issues we are dealing with is not so much related to "Japan and Disaster" but to the question "how do we live as humans?" This is not an issue we can discuss with specific reference to any nationality or race, but should be considered a global issue that has implications for the entire human race.

When and why did you start working together?

We started to work together in 2011, and for personal reasons.  Nabuchi had been ‘Hikikomori’ for 6 years, and was in a rather desperate state, where without collaborative interaction with Eri Homma, he might have gone over the edge. But we also recognised that by working together we could go beyond our own individual limitations, and create something much more potent and powerful.

Image © Kyun-Chome

What are some benefits and challenges of working collaboratively?

The positive aspect of working collaboratively is that when one of us is asleep, the other can continue working, so the work can develop further. Also when one of us thinks a work is OK but the other thinks it is not interesting enough, we then have to work harder to get to the point where both of us feel happy, so as a result our works get stronger.

The difficult aspect of working collaboratively is when we are at loggerheads. We then inevitably get to the point where we can sulk in silence for more than five hours before reaching a conclusion.  When this marathon-like stage arrives, especially when one of us is in a bad mood, it can be like hell. 

Your work combines comedy and tragedy in a very sensitive way.  One of the things I really like about your artworks is the absence of a specific moral message.  How does this ambiguity affect your audiences?

We think that when information becomes more concrete, we can become bound by specific information. Perhaps it is easy to repeat a mantra of  "Anti-War" or "World Peace", and highlighting the wretchedness of a specific war might not be too hard. However, we are interested in the issues behind those obvious moral messages. We are interested in the hidden aspects of human actions; the way we live, the beliefs we hold onto and the way our emotions sway from one side to another. News of war, or disasters we hear about from distant places, quickly becomes issues far removed from us, and can appear to be ‘other people's problems’. However the narratives of human behaviour are universal.  These narratives transcend time and place - even after thousands of years people might be able to relate to these narratives with their personal stories.

I am particularly interested in your work ‘Do Not Enter’, in which you try to stop the tides using ‘do not enter’ tape.  For me it provokes questions to do with the function of art; what does art actually do?  Can you tell us more about the role of art in Japan, particularly art that responds to the disasters of 2011?

Throughout history, Japan has experienced many tragedies. Considering the area is geologically prone to major earthquakes and tsunami, from now on, Japan will continue to face more tragedies. However, if we treat this itself as a tragedy, these incidents can only exist as archived parts of history. In other words, it will only remain as a data for future generations, but will not communicate the human impact and experience of these disasters. Therefore, art needs to go beyond the polarity of tragedy or comedy. We believe that art is a language beyond verbal language, and we feel that we need to further develop its communicative potential.

Record Number of applications were made for 2016 Residency Project

Application is now closed for
2016 Art Action UK Residency Project and this year we have received a record number of applications with lists of very strong candidates.

We will be going through rigourous selection process and 
2016 Reseidency artist will be announced by early Feburary 2016. 
The Art Action UK Residency will take place in London April - May 2016

Post 3.11: What Can Art Do? Four Years On: Art and the Disaster

Jessica Holtaway

It has been over four years since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in East Japan in 2011, but contemporary artists continue to respond to the disaster.  Bold and often critical, these art practices engage with the lived experiences of those most affected by the events of 3.11 and comment on the political climate in Japan.

On May 28th 2015, The Japan Foundation hosted an event at the Free Word Centre in London entitled:  Post 3.11:  What Can Art Do?  Four Years On:  Art and the Disaster.  The Japan Foundation invited a panel of speakers to discuss the transformative potential of art. Each member of the panel has been following, if not directly involved in, visual practices post 3.11.  The panel featured: artist Yoi Kawakubo, Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at UCL Professor David Alexander, independent researcher Dr. Majella Munro and curator Eiko Honda.  The discussion, chaired by Kaori Homma, an artist and founder of the organisation Art Action UK, provided insight on cultural practices in East Japan, and looked at how these are represented internationally.

The following paragraphs spotlight some of the issues discussed at the event and illuminate the significance of particular artistic practices post 3.11.

Art as social critique

Researcher Dr. Majella Munro explains that artistic responses to nuclear proliferation began in the 1950s, when artists Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi began to create The Hiroshima Panels.  This series of fifteen panels depicts the consequences of nuclear disasters, in particular the affect of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Although the panels were initially banned from being exhibited, they are now on permanent display in the Maruki Gallery in Saitama, Japan[i].  Over time, social critique is becoming more accepted within cultural practices.

Detail from 'The Hiroshima Panels'.
Image ©

Munroe observed that following the disaster of 3.11 there has been ‘an information vacuum which has provided fertile ground for artists.’  Many people feel insecure about government advice and statistics, and are finding creative ways to comment on and challenge the official responses.

One particularly notable figure, now known internationally as ‘Pointing Man’, was an employee of TEPCO[ii], and worked in the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant.  Following the nuclear meltdown, TEPCO installed a live video feed of the power plant.  On 28th August 2011, ‘Pointing Man’, dressed in protective clothing, positioned himself in front of the camera and pointed at the lens for 20 minutes.    Not only did he shatter any illusion of transparency and openness that the live footage may have generated, by pointing into the homes and work places of thousands of people in Japan, he created a sense of mystery that enabled him to communicate a political message.  Later the employee explained that he was pointing at TEPCO and the Japanese government.  His aim was to draw attention to the lack of response to workers’ rights issues.[iii]

Image ©

Artist Yoi Kawakubo observes that ‘art can work on a different scale to activism and journalism’.  Art offers a different kind of engagement- a space for shared thinking and understanding that begins from a personal subjective experience.  Art doesn’t ‘tell’ the viewer how to respond, but calls for a response. Even if this is simply emotional or empathetic it has social significance.

Professor David Alexander points out that disasters are human phenomenon.  Disasters ‘open a window on society, on human rights’.  Alexander believes that art can intervene and ‘stop people from forgetting, from expunging the memory’ of disasters.  Memories provide the basis for the future, they are the backdrop of our experience of the world and often determine how we respond to new circumstances.  Likewise collective memories can provide opportunities for new responses and create the chance to understand and prevent future disasters.

Art as social practice

The events of 3.11 caused many fatalities and losses.  Families were fractured and homes destroyed. In the years following 3.11, the focus on reconstructing cities and reclaiming land has detracted from rebuilding communities and healing the emotional and social wounds inflicted by the disaster. Kawakubo explains that communities are being rearranged and ‘almost broken’ by living in temporary housing locations.

For many people, participatory art has become a powerful way to re-establish communities and create platforms for people to share their personal experiences and feelings following the disaster. 

Dr. Munro identifies Komori Haruka and Seo Natsumi; an artist duo who moved from Tokyo to Rikuzentakata; an area heavily damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.  Komori and Seo live and work in Rikuzentakata and document the emotional impact of the government’s rebuilding programme.  Aimed at raising the city by ten metres by 2018, the rebuilding project dominates the community, allowing little space and time for shared acts of remembrance or to respond to the specific needs and desires of the community itself.  Komori and Seo’s documentary films are quiet indictments of this kind of top-down authoritative governance.

Rikuzentakata, Image © Komori and Seo

In Ireland, Eiko Honda’s recent project Noodles Against the Machine: the Politics of Food and Artists’ Resistance in Contemporary Japan explored the way in which simple acts of cooking and eating can take on different social significance, depending on the cultural and political context.  In an innovative curatorial gesture, Honda hosted a cooking class in which she taught participants how to make udon noodles.  At the same time, the class took the form of an art ‘lecture’ in which the participants discussed other contemporary culinary artworks that address issues of nuclear contamination and the existence of a state ‘machine’; The United Brothers Does this soup taste ambivalent?, Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s Vegetable Weapon: Saury fish ball hot pot / Tokyo, Tadasu Takamine’s Japan Syndrome and the phenomena of Japan’s Techno Udon.  By integrating art into participatory creative projects, Honda embraces new and inclusive curatorial practices that lend themselves more directly to grassroots political engagement.

Image © 

Social practice art not only responds to current social issues, it looks ahead into the future.  One of the issues with the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant is that it will be highly radioactive for thousands of years.  Human political and linguistic institutions are yet to last this long, which poses the question of how to warn future generations of dangerous levels of radiation.  Artists and architects are discussing the possibility of developing Thomas Sebeok’s concept of the ‘nuclear priesthood’.  Religion has provided the longest standing social institutions.  Therefore, by turning the damaged power plant into a ‘shrine’ (buy encasing it in concrete and building a religious monument on it), a religious priesthood could guard the radioactive ‘shrine’ and convey its danger to the next generation and so on.

Art in an international context

Dr. Majella Munro observes that most art practices in East Japan haven’t changed in the past four years, but the art world is changing.  Audiences that previously shied away from expressions of political criticism are now engaging with political art practices.  Social norms are changing, and criticism is increasingly understood as a method for improvement and development.

These social shifts are significant, not just in Japan, but globally.  International audiences are realising that concerns over nuclear energy production and governmental responses to disasters are global concerns.  In an increasingly connected world, more and more people feel that a global democratic crisis is unfolding. 

An expert in the science of disasters, Professor Alexander comments on how fast the recovery programme has been in Japan.  Normally, he explains, a recovery programme following a disaster of this magnitude would take up to 25 years, but Japan is likely to complete the restoration of infrastructure within the next five years.  Nevertheless, the psychological and emotional impact of the disaster will have longer repercussions.  This is where art has significance.  Alexander explains that art can express a mood, for example a mood of piety or solidarity, and this can be individual or collective.  Art is a kind of barometer and has an important role in communicating and nourishing the human spirit.  Politics and science articulate different realities, but Alexander says that ‘art has answers as much as science’; it reflects, shares and alters human feelings and emotions. 

'Monju' Image © Yoi Kawakubo

Yoi Kawakubo is here in the UK to take part in the Art Action UK summer residency programme.  The overall aim of the residency is to provide respite for artists who live in areas affected by a disaster.  By exhibiting work in the UK, artists can reach out to new audiences.  Kawakubo’s London exhibition To Tell a (hi)Story highlights the constructed nature of historic narratives.  Media can be manipulated and contextualised to fit a political agenda.  Kawakubo’s aesthetically beautiful photographs of Japan’s nuclear reactors create a sense of unease and fascination.  For Kawakubo, the fragility and contingency of nuclear energy needs to be highlighted.  He wants to encourage people to think deeply about nuclear energy production, about what it means globally.   There is a sense of the sublime in Kawakubo’s photography, the beauty of the images is disarming and allows new audiences to engage with these political issues.

Art and neutrality

Often, there tends to be a kind of hierarchy in the art world; more established (generally older) artists have higher profiles.  Eiko Honda says that when it comes to politically charged artworks, younger Japanese artists have an advantage because they can ‘disguise their identity’ and respond to social issues without having to be conscious of their place in art history.  Young artists have more freedom and independence. But this hasn’t necessarily led to explicitly political artworks.

Yoi Kawakubo explains that he doesn’t want to make his work ‘too political’ because it makes practicing art more ‘dangerous’.  He argues that emotions are faster than thought and he prefers to respond calmly and thoughtfully to political issues, to slow down and take time to respond.  When pressed on his views on nuclear energy production he says, ‘I just want people to think about it.  If they ultimately decide that we need nuclear power then that is respectable.’  However, this lengthy engagement with and openness to, democratic responsiveness, contrasts with accelerating political and social systems that demand speed and functionality.  As such, this artistic approach itself becomes a political stance; whether it intervenes with or runs alongside politics, it still relates to and moulds political engagement.

 ‘Is there space for outrage?’ asks Professor Alexander.  Honda points out that in Japan, the notion of the ‘public’ and of the ‘commons’ is very different from the West.  In the UK we understand ‘public’ as being ‘of the people’, but in Japan the idea of the ‘public’ pertains to the government, to state power.  She explains that in Japan, there is a greater emphasis on the idea of harmony and this affects the need for, and the impact of, outrage. 

For art collectives such as Art Action UK, the issue of neutrality is important.  The group has provided a platform for art activists such as Kaya Hanasaki as well as more ‘neutral’ artists like Kawakubo.  The purpose of the group is to provide a space in which artists can express themselves however they wish, away from the social and political climate that they normally work in.  If the group were to create a unified political message, it would reframe the featured artworks as illustrative of a political goal.  This functionalization of artistic practices would close down the communicative potential of the works.  

And yet to be neutral is to take neither one position nor the other.  It is ‘between’ and indicates a centrality.  In the context of political commentary, this centrism is relative and often defined by the dominant political power.  In many circumstances neutrality could be understood as political conformity.  To perpetuate the possibility of democracy within an art collective, the group should foreground ‘art-activist’ practices as well as ‘neutral’ art practices.

 What can art do?  

The discussion highlighted the social, emotional and ‘spiritual’ significance of art.  These are often intangible things.  To answer the question, and to decide ‘what art can do’ is paradoxical; true ‘art’ emerges without function, it doesn’t prescribe a specific response. Art exceeds immediate rationality.  Nevertheless, it is powerful- it can keep memories alive, bring communities together and transform perceptions of the world.  It can communicate beyond cultural, linguistic and social divides.  It is democratic.  What can art do?  Eiko Honda summarizes perfectly; whatever art can do it’s ‘certainly not for the privileged few to decide’.


Yoi KawakuboKawakubo graduated from the University of Tsukuba with a BA in Human Sciences.  After working in the finance industry in Tokyo for 3 years, he began to create artworks.  He has subsequently won awards including the Tokyo Wonder Wall 2011.  He was shortlisted for the Sovereign Art Foundation Asia Award 2012 and the Ohara Museum of Art Prize at VOCA 2015.  He is Art Action UK’s 2015 artist in residency.

Professor David Alexander:  Alexander obtained a PhD in Mediterranean Geomorphology from University College London (UCL) in 1977, where he is now Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction.  He is Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Disaster Reduction Risk.  Alexander has worked in institutions internationally, including University of Florence and University of South Pacific Fiji and has visited the Tohoku area several times since 3.11 to analyse the recovery programme.

Eiko Honda:  Honda is a curator and Fellow of the Overseas Study Programme for Artists led by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs.  Her recent projects include Noodles Against the Machine: the Politics of Food and Artists’ Resistance in Contemporary Japan (2014), Unlocking the Diary:  The Archiving of Nameless Memories (2014) and NOW & FUTURE:  JAPAN 2012.  She is currently working on a project that explores contemporary ecological theories, which will feature the works of Minakata Kumagusu.

Dr. Majella Munro:  Munroe is a writer and researcher.  After graduating from the University of Essex with a PhD on the Japanese Surrealist movement, she has completed a research monograph with Tate’s Asia-Pacific Research Centre entitled Close To Nature?  Japanese artists and the environment, from Fukushima to Hiroshima.  Recent publications include Communicating Vessels: The Surrealist Movement in Japan, 1923-70 and Understanding Shunga: A guide to Japanese Erotic Art.

Kaori Homma: Homma graduated from the Tokyo University of Art and Design with a BA in Fine Art, and from Chelsea School of Art, London with an MA in Fine Art.  She is Associate Lecturer of Fine Art at Central Saint Martins and co-founder of the organization Art Action UK.  Homma is currently exhibiting work in the Sailing Stones exhibition USA and has had solo exhibitions in Paris, Budapest, Japan, UK and USA.


Brown Marc, 2014,Fukushima vegetable soup on menu at Frieze London art fair’, The Guardian, 25/0/14,

Munro Majella, 2014, ‘Close To Nature?  Japanese artists and the environment, from Fukushima to Hiroshima’, 9/12/ 14,

Ozawa Tsuyoshi, 2001, ‘Vegetable Weapon’,

Sudo Yoko, ‘Techno-Udon Challenges Japan’s Dance Restrictions’, 9/7/14, Japan Real Time

Takamine Tadasu, 
'Japan Syndrome – 
Utrecht Version', E-flux Journal,–-utrecht-version/

The Fukushima Project, ‘The Mystery of The Pointing Man at Fukushima Daiichi Solved,’ 9/9/11:

[i] the fifteenth panel is displayed at the Nagasaki International Cultural Hall
[ii] Tokyo Electric Power Company
[iii] for more information see ‘The Mystery of The Pointing Man at Fukushima Daiichi Solved,’ in The Fukushima Project: