The Atomic Artists

Transcript

MARCO WERMAN, PRI's The World, Correspondent: [voice-over] It's the evening rush hour in Shibuya train station in Tokyo. More than a million-and-a-half people come through here each day. It's one of the busiest stations in Japan.

I'm here to report a series of stories on the aftermath of the March 11th earthquake. When I arrive, staring down at the passing crowds is this incredible 100-foot-long mural.

For a long time, Japan's contemporary cultural scene has intrigued me. This piece, titled ``The Myth of Tomorrow'' by Taro Okamoto, is among Japan's most famous. It's a chronicle of this country's atomic horrors.

[on camera] It's a pretty impressive painting, this ``Myth of Tomorrow.'' It's kind of surprising nobody's stopping to look at it.

[voice-over] Here's a larger-than-life reminder of Japan's history, the only country to have suffered not one but two atomic bombs. And it's mind-boggling to me that it's at the center of yet another atomic disaster.

These horrors would be made on March 11th, when northeast Japan was engulfed by a tsunami that caused meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. All across the Fukushima region, people's lives will never be the same.

[on camera] Well, we're headed towards the village of Iitate, which lies somewhere between the city of Fukushima and the nuclear power plant. I'm told that the radiation levels are somewhat higher today in Fukushima, so I rented a Geiger counter in Boston before leaving on this trip because they're very hard to come by in Japan right now, for obvious reasons.

[voice-over] As the nuclear crisis spiraled out of control, towns surrounding the plant were evacuated.

[on camera] As we approach Iitate, the numbers are shooting up now, which is not good for human health─ 470, 523─ whoa, this is elevated.

[voice-over] Iitate lies 25 miles northwest of the plant, and it's as close as I'm prepared to go on this trip. It was a farming town before the disaster. But with high radiation levels, Tokyo ordered a mandatory evacuation, something that was unthinkable for the mayor, Norio Kanno.

Mayor NORIO KANNO, Iitate: [subtitles] No one imagined that with the level of technology in Japan, an accident like this could ever happen. After World War II, Japan was built on mass production, mass consumption, mass waste. I think over the next 50 years, we need to rethink our way of life.

MARCO WERMAN: [voice-over] The mayor isn't alone. Many others told me Japanese people have to question the lifestyles they've taken for granted. Some are even taking to the streets, something, I'm told, that's out of character for this country.

MITSUKO SHIMOMURA, Writer: Japanese people, even though they're angry inside, they don't show it. But this is a very important turning point. And now I think those ordinary people, they have to stand up and really become strong.

MARCO WERMAN: As a leading author who's been writing about Japan for nearly 50 years, Mitsuko Shimomura told me she's never seen this many people challenge Japan's direction.

MITSUKO SHIMOMURA: There is a kind of consensus and everybody talking, ``This is a message to tell us that we have to change.''

MARCO WERMAN: Change is being expressed in all kinds of ways, but I kept hearing about one especially provocative group that I wanted to meet. This is the Tokyo-based art collective Chim↑Pom. Ryuta Ushiro is the leader of Chim↑Pom, which formed six years ago. He told me this is a defining moment for his generation.

RYUTA USHIRO, Artist, Chim↑Pom: [subtitles] To witness a moment like this, to be alive at a time like this─ so what can we express? I couldn't help feeling this was being asked of us.

MARCO WERMAN: Chim↑Pom's six members, all in their 20s and 30s, are prepping their installations and paintings for a traveling show of their recent work on Fukushima.

[on camera] So describe what's in this exhibit here, because this is actually a detail of a mural that, actually, I saw at the Shibuya train station the other day.

RYUTA USHIRO: [subtitles] We created this piece as if Taro Okamoto painted it himself. This is the ocean, which is on his mural, as well.

MARCO WERMAN: [voice-over] Ushiro told me they named the painting of the crippled Fukushima reactors ``Level Seven'' after the disaster received the highest rating on the international scale for nuclear accidents. Fukushima and Chernobyl are the only level seven accidents in history.

Chim↑Pom never imagined their work would be taking on themes like nuclear disasters. They told me that in the beginning, they were inspired by, of all things, the MTV show Jackass.

ELLIE, Artist, Chim↑Pom: [subtitles] We'd watch Jackass and say, ``Wow, we should do something funny like that.'' But we were all interested in social issues. That escalated further, and we began focusing on societal themes.

MARCO WERMAN: In an early piece that put Chim↑Pom on the map, the group traveled to Cambodia. Together with local kids who had lost limbs to landmines, they blew up designer bags and iPods, then auctioned the remnants for a Cambodia benefit.

RYUTA USHIRO: [subtitles] We had focused on things like peace and wealth, and at the same time, the issues that people choose not to see. The realities behind peace─ that's what we focused on. But with what happened in Fukushima, this no longer felt relevant.

The images from the real world were so overwhelming, and the scenes that the tsunami left behind were images like I'd never seen. I couldn't believe it was real. It made the images we made through art lose their power, so artists felt a sense of powerlessness. Of course, reality was overwhelming, but I couldn't accept that art was powerless.

MARCO WERMAN: A few weeks after the tsunami, they traveled to a fishing village in Fukushima. Hand in hand with some young locals from the fishing community, they created a video piece that became an expression of solidarity. They called it ``100 Cheers.''

ARTISTS: [subtitles] Fukushima's the best! Radiation won't defeat us! Buy spinach!

RYUTA USHIRO: [subtitles] We ad-libbed, and cheered whatever we felt at the time, anything from, ``Let's go!'' to things about radiation, to things like, ``I want a girlfriend!'' Anything was OK.

ARTISTS: [subtitles] Fishermen are so cool! Grandpa! Radiation's leaking! Let's go with the reconstruction!

MARCO WERMAN: ``100 cheers'' was Chim↑Pom's immediate response, but that was only the beginning. As the nuclear crisis intensified, Chim↑Pom decided whatever they created had to come from experiencing the source of the crisis itself. So on the one-month anniversary of the earthquake, they packed hazmat suits, their art supplies and their videocamera and headed to the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

RYUTA USHIRO: [subtitles] We parked our car at the main gate. There's a public viewing area within the premises. The overlook was built to give locals an understanding of the nuclear plant and it had become a spot to see the first sunrise of the year. We felt the heat, and fear, and got out our white flag.

MARCO WERMAN: At that overlook, Chim↑Pom painted the rising sun of the Japanese flag. They then morphed it, turning the national symbol into the symbol for radiation.

RYUTA USHIRO: [subtitles] The fact is, we have relied on nuclear energy and radiation for our lives. But this was something that Japanese society hadn't thought about.

ELLIE: [subtitles] There's no way we can continue living like before. So many more young people are trying to tell the truth to the public. We should work to provide opportunities to reflect on what's happened.

MARCO WERMAN: The Japanese press are starting to pay more attention to Chim↑Pom and their work about Fukushima. In their most recent project, Chim↑Pom used ``Level Seven,'' their painting inspired by the mural in Shibuya, to add the latest chapter of Japan's atomic history. They literally gave Taro Okamoto's painting an update.

RYUTA USHIRO: [subtitles] ``The Myth of Tomorrow'' has a shape where pieces are missing. So in that missing space would be this Fukushima piece.

We installed it around 10:00 o'clock at night, and around midnight, there was the first post about it on Twitter. The tweet was about whether ``Myth of Tomorrow'' foretold Fukushima. So this prediction myth spread like crazy.

MARCO WERMAN: [on camera] Did you have to destroy any of Okamoto's original painting to do this?

RYUTA USHIRO: [subtitles] We just used a weak masking tape to gently attach it to the wall. We had no bad intentions. Yet in the Japanese media, it was called vandalism. For art to suggest new ways of looking at society is seen as a provocation.

MARCO WERMAN: [voice-over] The ``Level Seven'' installation was left alone for a day before police were notified and it was taken down.

RYUTA USHIRO: [subtitles] The idea that art can change something is perhaps a value that hasn't taken root in Japan. I think this is a moment that'll be looked upon by many in the future. And when that happens, I think future artists will judge what Japanese artists of today were doing.

MARCO WERMAN: With Chim↑Pom's painting gone, ``The Myth of Tomorrow'' is back in its original form. But perhaps, for some of these Japanese commuters, they may not look at Okamoto's painting, and their futures, quite the same way again.

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Posted July 26, 2011

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