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:

Art Action UK would like to announce the 2015 residency project:

To Tell a (hi)Story
By Yoi Kawakubo
16th – 30th May 2015

To Tell a (hi)Story is an exhibition accompanied by workshops and discussion events.
Location:  Husk Gallery, 649-651 Commercial Road, Limehouse, London, E14 7LW 

Art Action UK is honoured to present the 2015 artist-in-residence, Yoi Kawakubo.

When the mist takes off the suns, 2014 © Yoi Kawakubo

Kawakubo buried a photographic film in the ground in an area of the Fukushima exclusion zone.
When the mist takes off the suns features the subsequent radiation exposure on the film.

Following the earthquake and nuclear meltdown in East Japan in 2011, Kawakubo has created work in Fukushima that focuses on the limits of photographic representation.  He asks us to carefully re-examine our immediate visual perceptions and to reflect on the ominous histories beneath the aesthetic beauty of his work.

To Tell a (hi)Story includes photographic, sound and text works along with an installation.  Kawakubo’s artworks respond to ongoing social issues following the nuclear meltdown in East Japan.   His personal and philosophical reflections on the disaster ask us not only to empathise, but to deeply consider the global implications of the nuclear meltdown.

Drawing from Greek mythology, Kawakubo looks at the way in which we construct knowledge.   He highlights the contingency of nuclear energy, understanding it as a future emergency that has already begun, the effects of which are beyond our comprehension.  Ultimately, Kawakubo is questioning our perception of history; how it can be fabricated, manipulated and contextualized to either undermine or bolster given power structures. 

16th               Gallery open to public                 2-5pm
21st                Private View                                  6-9pm,
23rd              Workshop                                       2-5pm
28th              The Japan Foundation                 6:30-8:30pm
                        Discussion Event
30th              Talk                                                  7-9pm

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Closed on Sunday/ Monday

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