Fukushima Disaster Spurs Japanese Artist Into Action in Berlin

Artist Leiko Ikemura’s first instinct after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster struck her native Japan was to jump on the next plane home.

She decided instead to curate an exhibition in Berlin, where she lives.

“I was devastated,” Ikemura says at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, where the exhibition is being held. “I was on the phone to Japan every day and glued to the news for a month. The power of the images was so incredible.

“Yet when the media stops reporting, the problems don’t end,” says Ikemura, a painter and sculptor whose own work will be the subject of a solo show at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo this year. “I wanted to make sure the discussion doesn’t stop at this important and dangerous moment.”

Ikemura’s small, serious exhibition was assembled in a swift six weeks yet steps back from the shock of the March catastrophe for calm reflection.

Called “Breaking News: Fukushima and the Consequences,” it takes the visitor back in time to the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, historical horrors she says neither Japan nor the West has come to terms with.

“Since the war, Japan has always been against war generally and against nuclear war in particular,” Ikemura says. “But the Japanese accepted nuclear power as a source of energy. This is a problem caused by civilization, by progress. It is important that this political discussion about nuclear power should also take place in art.”

Atom Bombs

The failure to address the two atom bombs dropped on Japan is eloquently depicted by Shomei Tomatsu’s photograph of a melted wristwatch, damaged by the blast and stopped forever at 11:02 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1945. Like many of the artworks on display, it predates this year’s earthquake -- it was taken in 1961.

“It is not just what artists have done since the disaster, but what was done before that occupies me, because art often has prophetic qualities,” says Ikemura, who is 59. “We see these works differently now.”

She gestures toward a 2007 photograph by the Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov, also a Berlin resident. A Japanese man with shoulder-length hair is shown in profile, clad in a monk-like brown cloak, clutching a carrier bag on the edge of a bleak sidewalk at night. It’s a lonely, sad image.

“This could be seen as prophecy, but also as a deja vu,” she says. “Our perspective has changed. This looks like now.”

Wenders’s Ganjin

Film director Wim Wenders contributed a powerful photograph of the holy Ganjin Statue in the Toshodaiji Temple in Nara. Ganjin was a blind monk who brought Zen Buddhism to Japan from China. The sculpture, which is not on public view and only a few people have seen, has a surface blackened with age.

Wenders lit it from beneath with a candle to photograph it. For Ikemura, it is a reminder of the comfort of spirituality in times of disaster -- yet the haunting, serene face from 12 centuries ago also recalls the tragic, charred victims of nuclear disasters.

Black-and-white photographs by Donata Wenders capture fleeting moments of beauty -- fireworks, birds fluttering in the sky at Jodoji Temple in Onomichi, and a pointed, triangular, lonely island on the horizon of a gray misty sea. The fragility and transience of beauty and life is something Ikemura says is typically present in Japanese art.

“This time, the price was too high,” she says, and presses her lips tightly together.

Shelter Snaps

Photographs by Lieko Shiga, a young Japanese artist living in one of the villages affected by the quake and tsunami, bring the exhibition right up to date. Of the 400 people in her village, 57 were killed. Many more lost their homes. Shiga moved into a shelter and kept a diary-style photographic record.

Her photos find poetry in the banalities of life in the shelter: Sacks of second-hand clothes arriving for survivors; meals eaten sitting on the floor, and heaps of photographs rescued from the rubble of people’s houses.

Some of the damaged photographs produce apocalyptic new images -- airplanes and people streaked with orange or bleached white, as though caught in a sudden blinding light.

“All these people who lost everything, their houses, their relatives -- what they go back to look for is not money, not cars, but their photographs,” Ikemura said. “I find that very moving.”

“Breaking News: Fukushima and the Consequences” runs through July 7 at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. For more information, go to http://www.kw-berlin.de/

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)