Invisible changes in East Japan: an interview with Yumi Song

Artist and curator Yumi Song discusses her current exhibition Place as an Extension of Body:  Linking London and Fukushima, and reflects on the role of art in a changing world

By Jessica Holtaway 

SUIKO, “Tuchiyu”, Arafudo Art Annual 2013 photo by Kazuyuki Miyamoto.

Yumi Song arrived in London in May 2017 and has spent four weeks on the Art Action UK residency programme.  As an artist and curator, her exhibition Place as an Extension of Body:  Linking London and Fukushima features documentation from curatorial projects that took place in Fukushima – Arafudo Art Annual 2013/ 2014 - and in Northern Ireland in 2015.  The exhibition also features her artworks How to know the distance to it and OYASUMI – Trees: This is the story of how I acted as an artist and worked on March 11th.

Yumi Song "OYASUMI-trees" photo by Yumi Song

As an artist, Song is interested in the ways in which we might visualise subconscious impressions.  Her work aims to uncover commonalities between people and places that are not immediately visible.  Spanning performance and installation, her artworks focus on instances of hope and joy - they celebrate life.  But this is not to say that Song looks at the world through rose-tinted glasses.  Song was born in Japan and lives in Tokyo, but as a Korean she frequently faces prejudice and been subject to hate speech.  Her father is a survivor of genocide during the Cold War. Responding to her family history, Song’s work often addresses themes of memory and communality – for example in 2016 she collaborated with artist Yisha Garbarz (whose mother survived the Holocaust) to make Throw the poison in the well a video work that developed over the course of two months in which the artists lived and worked together in Kyoto.   

In the residency exhibition Place as an Extension of Body:  Linking London and Fukushima Song focuses on the consequences of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in East Japan.  Through discussions about her practice, she draws attention to how the name ‘Fukushima’ is now used as a blanket term to describe a number of places, all affected differently by the disaster. In 2014 and 2015, Song spent time in Tsuchiyu-Onsen, working creatively with local residents.  Tsuchiyu-Onsen is a village in the mountains, historically popular for its hot springs and with the lowest levels of radiation in the Fukushima area.  Song worked with local people to playfully subvert some of the regulations in the village – she facilitated a wall mural (which some may have seen as ‘defacement’, by graffiti writer SUIKO) and encouraged local people to produce home-brewed alcoholic drinks made by artist Nobuhiro Kuzuya, which had been prohibited.  Media sources soon heard about the arts festival and throughout the summer thousands of visitors came to Tsuchiyu-Onsen.  The media presented the festival as proof that Fukushima was a safe place to visit and that it was once again thriving.  Whilst Song had hoped to provide a positive creative experience for residents and visitors, her aim was to engage with the repercussions of the disaster in a more nuanced and critical way.

Nobuhiro Kuzuya "Pioneer party fermented recipe"
Arafudo Art Annual 2013 photo by Kazuyuki Miyamoto

Song’s artworks explore the way in which corporal sense creates a perception of place.  Often her works unfold into participatory practices, such as the site-specific work in Deptford - How to know the distance to it.  In this piece, British cities are mapped out on the wall of the gallery piece and visitors can use wooden measuring sticks that show the distance between the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and Tokyo, to see the equivalent distances here in the UK (the distance between the power plant and Tokyo, is roughly the same distance as London to Sheffield).  OYASUMI – Trees This is the story of how I acted as an artist and worked on March 11th features texts from Song’s diary, in which she reflects on act of giving gifts (lavender bags in the shape of trees) to people who were experiencing loss and anxiety after the 2011 disaster.  These small acts of giving, of creating something tangible to share, also characterised her curatorial practice at Arafudo Art Annual.  Here local residents were encouraged to participate in familiar creative practices in new ways, and visitors to the village could buy ceramic artworks by artist Hiroyuki Yamada using an ‘honesty box’.  

Hiroyuki Yamada "Earthy radish" Arafudo Art Annual 2013 photo by Kazuyuki Miyamoto

In the following interview, Song further explains the context and implications of both her art practice and curatorial practice:

Your exhibition Place as an extension of body looks at embodied practices that respond to the disaster in Fukushima in 2011 – can you tell us a little more about you approach the relationship between body and place?

When I was deciding whether to hold an art festival, I talked with people living in Tsuchiyu-Onsen in Fukushima. They were not concerned with the actual amount of radiation, but they were worried that something invisible was entering their daily life. For example, the scenery that we see everyday can be said to be part of our body. We see an arrangement of the books on the shelves of our favourite library in our head, as if it is part of our body. We know the distance to nearest supermarket when feeling hungry. Although there is a clear boundary between my body and my environment (my skin) I think the actual boundaries in our mind are a little more ambiguous than we think.

I know a chef at the hotel in Tsuchiyu-Onsen who used to be proud to use local wild vegetables and fish. But his business has suffered since 2011, despite of the fact that Tsuchiyu-Onsen has not directly been affected by the earthquake, tsunami or radiation. The mountain still looks identical in appearance. But after the disaster, the mountain he knew became an unknown territory. The trouble is that the problem is invisible. The chef cannot move out of the village as his business is deeply linked to the mountains and hot springs, which cannot move with him. Everyday we experience the landscape around us as an extension of our bodies.  Invisible uneasiness and anxiety spreads over the ground. We thought about and discussed how to deal with this new reality and the changed relationship with the landscape around us. And we talked about the possibility of considering the landscape as a part of our body. 

You are an artist and a curator – do you see the two roles as different? Are there any ways in which they overlap?
Yes, they are different, and I do not exhibit my own artwork when I curate. However, when I work alongside other artists as a curator I use similar logic to my own practice, so there is a similarity in both roles.

What are some challenges you have faced as a curator working in Fukushima?

It was difficult period after the disaster to work as a curator in Fukushima. People’s hearts were still sensitive and delicate. For example, authorities in Fukushima City requested that we withdraw a video work by artist Kouichi Tabata in which rose flowers wither, as they thought it might hurt children's feelings. They thought the withering of flowers were reminiscent of death. In the end I managed to show this piece. Does this mean I have hurt children’s feelings in Fukushima? I do not know who will be hurt by a piece of artwork, and I do not know how to choose a criteria to measure the harm caused by the artworks. I question "what criteria should we use?”

Kouichi Tabata "rose" Arafudo Art Annual 2014 photo by Kazuyuki Miyamoto

What role do you think art has in responding to a disaster?

Art did not directly impact the recovery effect after the disaster. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, people needed to be given space and time and physical necessities were the first and foremost priority. People had to survive after the disaster. I first went to the disaster area as a volunteer to clear up the debris. I also helped to search for bodies along with the local fire brigade and took photographs. But I saw cases where the local evacuation centre received requests from artists who sent artworks/ projects with a box of supplies and asked the centre to send them a photograph of the local victims. It was obviously a real annoyance to the locals and as an artist I felt embarrassed by the actions of other artists. But then, after a while, around 2012, I was invited to Tsuchiyu, as they had started to make an effort to recover the local economy, which had been indirectly affected by the disaster. They approached me because they thought art might help the economic recovery of the area. I accepted this invitation as I believed that we had to reconfigure new moral frameworks after the disaster. And I thought art could help to view a world that had changed.

What plans do you have for 2017/ 2018?

I have been the director of an art museum in Miyagi pregacture in the north of Japan since 2014, so I will organize an exhibition there. And when I’ll go back to Japan after this residency, I plan to develop an old house in Kyoto as a space for art. The name will be “Baexong Arts Kyoto” which combines both my mother and father's family names. In Korea women keep their family name after marriage but children use their father's family name. In this art space the presence of women is as important as the presence  of men.  I started this project in 2016, using the space as a residency space and also hosting discussion events etc. I would like to develop this programme, and am hoping to find funding to run it as a proper programme in the future.