The Atomic Artists

"Art Cannot Be Powerless"

An interview with Ryuta Ushiro

Ryuta Ushiro

Ryuta Ushiro is the leader of the Japanese artist collective Chim↑Pom. This is a translated and edited transcript drawn from two interviews conducted on May 25 and May 30, 2011.

The Origins of Chim↑Pom

What exactly is Chim↑Pom?

Chim↑Pom is an artist unit made of five guys and one girl in their late 20s to early 30s.

Tell me when you formed. Was it before the earthquake or after?

We formed in 2005. There was a popular artist in Japan named Makoto Aida, a famous visual artist, who dealt in particular with societal problems. We had all gathered around Mr. Aida. ...

“I felt that artists of the future will question what artists in Japan produced in the post-3/11 world.”

There was a period of time when there was a number of young people around him. Of them, the six of us wanted to do something interesting. We hadn't really gone to art school, so we didn't have a proper art education. So when we thought of the first thing we could do, it was to take a video camera and start filming interesting things. So that's how we started.

Were you friends before meeting through this artist? Had you already met each other before? Did you know each other in social circles? Did you have similar artistic interests?

I was friends with Hayashi from high school; we were in a band together. And Ellie was a model for Aida in high school. So we had seen each other a few times. And the other three were apprentices of Aida-san.

Ellie was telling us about the connection with the MTV show Jackass when we were at the gallery. How much of that is really a motivator for what you guys do?

When we started, we wanted to do something interesting, but all we had was a video camera. We were a group that couldn't draw; we couldn't sculpt. So back then, we enjoyed using our own bodies to film something interesting, and that was all we could do.

But once we moved on from just video into exhibiting our work, for example, we filmed ourselves catching rats in Shibuya [railway station in Tokyo], and we stuffed the rats that we caught. So we had video, but another element like sculpture. After we started exhibiting our work, the influence that Jackass had on our work diminished.

Their Early Art

The first time we had an exhibit, it was the rats of Shibuya, which we called Super Rat, which we stuffed like Pikachu [from the comic Pokémon].

From there, all over Tokyo there are black crows, many large crows. Whenever I go abroad I notice how different the crows are in Tokyo. So we collected the crows from all over Tokyo, in cars and on bikes, and we brought them around everywhere, and we would take them to the Parliament building, Tokyo Tower, and 109 [a famous shopping center], and we would photograph them.

So we started dealing with the real Tokyo, the real life here, the reality that we try not to see. And we did this not just in Tokyo, but also throughout Japan. In Hiroshima, we drew on the sky with a contrail the word "Flash," [in the piece Pika].

Abroad, we went to Cambodia. Ellie loved celebrities and wanted to do something like Princess Diana. So we got a landmine, took some of Ellie's personal belongings, like her [Louis] Vuitton bag, and exploded them. We auctioned off the remnants in Japan and donated the proceeds to charity.

So these are social problems, but we wanted to work with things that are part of our fun, everyday life that we choose not to look at.

I'm hearing rats, crows, Hiroshima and some social commentary. What's the connecting line for all of these for you?

We had always thought it had something to do with the idea of peace among the youth in Japan. For example, as we grow more affluent and produce more waste in Tokyo, we have more rats and crows. Or the "Flash" in Hiroshima had to do with the fading of the memory of atomic catastrophe. And by the way, the word "Flash" is often used in manga [Japanese comics], where it appears in one square. So it was about depicting in the style of manga the reality back then upon the peaceful society we have today.

So we had focused on peace and affluence, and at the same time the realities that people try not to see, so the realities of peace. [But] since Fukushima happened, this started to feel like it was no longer valid.

The March 11 Disaster

And then March 11 happens -- earthquake, tsunami, and then the nuclear crisis. Everyone in Japan, obviously, remembers where they were at that time in the afternoon. How did you live through it?

At that moment, I was at home, and at home, it shook a lot. So I first turned on the television to get some information, and there was one unbelievable image after another. It was footage like I had never seen, like I couldn't believe they were real. I was glued to the television. And my family couldn't come home, and people working in offices couldn't get home. In any case, I was glued to the television, not knowing what was happening.

From there, I think this is something that every Japanese thought, but I started wondering if there was anything I could do myself. I was one of them, too. Even as I was glued to the TV, I was e-mailing the members [of Chim↑Pom], wondering if there was anything we could be doing ourselves.

But at that point we weren't able to speak calmly about what it was that we could do or make specific plans. So the things that we thought about were volunteering and delivering emergency supplies. That was all we could think of.

But yet, being artists we happened to come face to face with a moment like this; we happened to be alive in a time like this. So what can we do as our expression? I couldn't help feeling that this was being asked of us.

Japan has had many difficulties, like war and nuclear weapons. But I thought about what kinds of art these led to. And I felt that artists of the future will question what artists in Japan produced in the post-3/11 world. And I felt as though the eyes of the past, the future, and also of course from abroad were turning their attention on us Japanese. This isn't limited to the world of art, but also to the press, and I think it's best that all Japanese feel a little bit of this pressure. And as soon as I felt this, I thought I needed to produce work.

Talk about how the media was handling everything, because as you said, the first thing you did was, you were watching TV. And you also said you didn't go to art school; your paintbrush is a video camera. So in a way, you're also the media. You're documenting things in a different way. ...

The reports that first appeared on television had all these images that I had never seen before. And it made the images that we had made through art, our attempt to show people what they might not have seen before, completely lose their power. The images coming out of the real world, from the press, were so overwhelming. And the real sceneries that the tsunami left behind were so incredible, so not only video artists but artists in general felt a sense of powerlessness.

But from there, I couldn't accept that. Of course the reality was overwhelming, but I couldn't accept that art was powerless. But press and what we do aren't opposed to one another. I think they both walk parallel paths.

But in terms of media post-3/11, there was the nuclear accident, and the people within the 20-kilometer zone were mandated to evacuate, and no one was allowed into that zone. But even though you weren't supposed to enter, you could at your own risk. That lasted a little over a month.

And after that, what you saw on television were images [of the plant] shot from outside the 30-kilometer zone but digitally made more clear, and the press only carried comments from the government. But it was really unclear what was going on inside. ...

So there are all these people working there, and I deeply questioned why the media won't go in to hear what they have to say or report on what these people are working on. Are there people working inside areas that are so dangerous that reporters can't go? And it bubbled in me all these doubts and curiosities about what exactly is going on there. So since it was a time when people could enter at their own risk, I really felt that we needed to go.

Their Projects at Fukushima

... Tell me about that project in going up to Fukushima.

Many of the pieces we exhibited are constructed from going there or gathering materials from there or taking pictures in Fukushima. Basically, there were members [of Chim↑Pom] who had spent a long time there, volunteering for a month, who had taken photographs there, and we wanted to exhibit those. But just exhibiting photographs made our work not too dissimilar from the work of the media.

So we collected, for example, frames that had been struck by the tsunami, and we placed the photographs of the dog, for example, or the cow that was killed in the tsunami in the frame. And we gathered flowers and plants that were growing right around the 30-kilometer border and decontaminated them, measured them with a dosimeter, and brought them back to Tokyo, and made a flower arrangement from that.

There are [three] pieces that we actually filmed in Fukushima. We went to Soma, which is about 50 kilometers from the plant, and an area where not many volunteers are going. So there are many young people who have been struck by the disaster, and because volunteers won't go near the town, these young people have not only had to live through the tsunami but are doing their own rescue and relief efforts. And they have a lot to do. They have to volunteer; they're the ones heading up the reconstruction.

So we got together with them to create the 100 Cheers. We ad-libbed and cheered based on whatever we felt at the time, starting with "Here we go!" to "We're going to rebuild!," to there were things about radiation, to "I want a girlfriend!" to "I want a car!" Anything was OK.

[The piece] where we go into the premises of the Daiichi plant, we parked our car at the main gate of the plant, and there is an overlook within the premises of the plant. That overlook was built to gain the residents' understanding for the nuclear power plant, and it had become a place where people see the first sunrise of the year. It's about a 40-minute walk round-trip from the main gate to that overlook.

So the first thing was to make that 40-minute walk in our hazmat suits. We went to check it out a few times first and felt that we needed to get out of the car, that we needed to feel something more. So we trekked for 40 minutes and felt the heat and fear. So we felt out of breath, and our goggles were foggy.

We walked to the overlook and got out our white flag, and painted in red the rising sun of the flag, which comes from the sunrise. And then we altered the flag to be more like the wartime flag, but also in the image of the radiation symbol.

And the performance was, like the Apollo landing on the moon, to plant the flag there, where likely no one will come again.

And the other piece was at a field closest to the Daiichi plant, where we took off our hazmat suits and created a scarecrow out of it. Scarecrows protect fields, but we thought of these scarecrows as having to eternally protect these fields where no one will ever enter again. So it was an expression of homage of sorts to the people who continued to work at the Daiichi plant, who were sacrificing themselves. So the title of that piece is Without Say Goodbye. And among us, it became something we say instead of saying bye.

Myth of Tomorrow

... Tell me about the project that you installed in the Shibuya train station.

Taro Okamoto is likely the most famous Japanese artist. He's passed away. And this mural, called the Myth of Tomorrow, exhibited in Shibuya station, is a national piece by Okamoto. The subject of this mural is Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Daigo Fukuryumaru, expressing the history of radiation disasters in Japan.

And the mural depicts the power of human life and life force even under those circumstances. In other words, this is a chronicle of radiation exposure. This is a mural that we see on a daily basis in Shibuya station.

But the history of radiation seems to have been left behind by Japanese people in the 20th century. We had that impression for a long time, but with the recent disaster, reality is that we have renewed this history.

So the Myth of Tomorrow by Taro Okamoto has an irregular shape. It was originally commissioned by a hotel in Mexico, but the hotel went bankrupt, and it returned to Japan, and it was made to fit that wall. So it's not perfectly square; there are spaces missing in the lower left and right corners.

So this piece on the Fukushima plant was fit into that missing space. And this is the ocean, and on his mural as well there is an ocean where the Daigo Fukuryumaru is, so we connected the horizon. We created this piece in the style as if Taro Okamoto had painted it himself and added this piece to the mural.

When people walked through the Shibuya train station, did they notice this?

We installed this around 10:00 at night, and around midnight that night, there was something about it on Twitter. And the tweet was about whether the Myth of Tomorrow was really a painting like this, whether it predicted Fukushima, so there was this prediction myth.

So that spread like crazy on Twitter. And all day that following day, it was left alone, and no one noticed. But around the evening, we had made this so that it peeled off easily, and we had just leaned it against the wall, and the portion that was leaning began to peel. And then it was removed.

Did you have to destroy any of Okamoto's original painting to do this, because there are gray panels there where this used to be?

We installed this in that empty space, so basically we haven't even touched Okamoto's mural. And also, so that we don't affect or peel the wall of Shibuya station behind the mural, we just leaned it against the wall, and we used a weak masking tape to gently attach it to the wall. So everything went back to normal, both the mural and the station.

What do you think Taro Okamoto would have made of what you guys did?

He's passed away, so I'm not sure. But there was quite a debate about this as well, since he's a very popular artist. Taro Okamoto was very forgiving when it came to his own work.

For example, there was someone who had damaged one of his pieces at a museum, and the museum was going to put a glass case around his work. And that upset him very much. He said that if the work was damaged, then he would fix it.

And there was another monument he created for the Osaka Expo called the Tower of the Sun, and a man entered it, and he said that brought the piece to life; that the man should have danced. So he welcomed these acts. So there were opinions that he would have liked what we did, that he would have enjoyed it, and others who criticized us for altering someone else's work. ...

What we wanted to value the most in this piece is that we shouldn't look at this nuclear accident in Fukushima as an isolated incident, but we thought it was important to look at it in a historical point of view. From that standpoint, Japan really began with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it's a country that has spent a large proportion of time thinking about atomic disasters. But now that this accident has happened, so I think that we have to think about the continuity and see this in a historical light. So in that way, what Taro Okamoto has done and what we did are connected.

So you're an activist-artist involved with this group, Chim↑Pom. What do you think the role of an artist is during a national crisis?

I think it's difficult to put into words the role of art. But this time, there is something we intended with the Real Times exhibit [of Chim↑Pom's post-3/11 work], and I think it has something to do with the here and now.

So for an accident of this magnitude, a crisis of the nation, to pass this moment here and now, truly real time, I think is something that will be looked upon by many people in the future. When that happens, I think that future artists will question what the artists of today were doing. And I think that this won't be limited to us artists, but also the press will be questioned on what they reported, and I think people in general will be questioned for the way they lived.

And when that happens, I think that art cannot be powerless. The idea that art can change something is perhaps a value that hasn't taken root here in Japan.

But even so, I wanted to have done something, to have created an experience during this "real time" which people will look back upon. And perhaps that is the borderline that determines whether art in Japan is powerless or [has] some effect.

It sounds like what you're saying, in a way, is that the media in Japan [hasn't] taken charge of the situation and have been critical enough, and you as artists are going to step into that breach. Is that correct?

I do think the media did everything they could do. But, for example, the video piece that we have exhibited here, we actually went to the main gate of the Fukushima plant and to an overlook about a kilometer in from there. And there's something I thought about there, and that is, that for some reason, after they mandated evacuation from 20 kilometers and 30 kilometers, the media stopped going in. It was always from outside the 30-kilometer zone that they were filming, and stations like NHK would make it digitally more clear. But that's a place where people were working, the same human beings, and I questioned this, that there were people working in an area where the media can't go. So I felt some discomfort in that.

And of course I can't force the media to go, but as our expression, and as part of Real Times, as I said before, that we would be judged later on, which side are you on? Did you take the risks and go there to capture something, to feel the air and create an expression, or did you create something based on looking at something from outside the 30-kilometer zone? I think there's a big difference.

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Posted July 26, 2011

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