It’s an art exhibition you can’t visit. Not yet, at least, until officials declare the Fukushima exclusion zone habitable again, which for certain areas could take decades. The zone, comprised of land within a 12-mile radius of the Tepco-owned Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, still contains high levels of radiation since the March 2011 tsunami resulted in meltdowns of half the station’s nuclear reactors, forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee their homes. This year, 12 artists have each installed site-specific works within the deserted zone in response to the disaster, which a report published 20 years prior had foretold. (Japanese authorities announced last week that three former Tepco executives will face prosecution for professional negligence resulting in death.) The exhibition, titled Don’t Follow the Wind, centers on the notion of inaccessibility, with public permission to view the works tied inextricably to the unforeseen day when Japan lifts all evacuation orders. In the meantime, the art will remain invisible, not even available to see through images.
The exhibition, slated to run for the period of “2015 — ?”, was installed on the fourth anniversary of the nuclear fallout. Spearheading the project is the Japanese collective Chim↑Pom, who first visited Fukushima a month after the explosion. There, collective members watched as contaminated water leaked into the Pacific Ocean and smoke continued to rise from damaged power plants; all around stood houses abandoned by their residents but still stocked with their contents.
“Entering blockaded ghost towns officially renamed ‘difficult-to-return to zones,’ while struggling against the survival instinct that tempted us to go back right away, we were confronted with the fact that so many people had lost their homes all of a sudden,” Chim↑Pom told Hyperallergic. “‘Difficult-to-return,’ but where will they return to? The answer remains vague even now, four years after the disaster.”
The collective has developed strong relationships with former residents over time as it visited various pockets of Fukushima, and the works created for Don’t Follow the Wind occupy four contaminated and evacuated sites lent by former residents: a home, a warehouse, a farm, and a recreation center. The participating artists — half of whom are Japanese — include Ai Weiwei, Koizumi Meiro, Trevor Paglen, Eva and Franco Mattes, Taryn Simon, and Chim↑Pom itself. As Kenji Kubota, one of the exhibition’s curators explained, they had approached artists who they thought “could operate between speculation and memory, and peak the collective imaginary.”
In the space of the home, Kota Takeuchi has hung self-portraits of himself on the site of the power plant wearing clothes left in an evacuated house. Takeuchi once worked as a nuclear clean-up worker and may be behind the mysterious man who pointed a finger at a Tepco live-feed. Ai Weiwei’s contribution consists of photographs documenting daily life in Beijing, also installed in abandoned domestic spaces next to remaining family photographs. Trevor Paglen has crafted an opaque cube from glass he found from contaminated buildings then melted together; inside the cube sits a chunk of the slightly radioactive Trinitite from the site of the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico.
The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones dismisses Don’t Follow the Wind as a “fatuous plan” and “a mere stunt, a gesture,” but he fails to touch on how an exhibition based on inaccessibility engages with and highlights feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness in the time of an ongoing catastrophe. The artists refuse to share images of their work “in an act of solidarity with the residents until they can return to their homes,” as the press release states; the exhibition’s website is but a white page, with details offered only through voiceovers by the artists. This deliberate masking of the art frustrates and denies fulfillment of any desire for concrete information: we first have to hand over our complete trust to believe that the works actually exist, and then we are limited to imagining them. Now, we can only wait, along with the thousands of displaced residents who have been waiting, and continue to wait, for permission to return to their homes. Don’t Follow the Wind thus calls attention to the anxiety of suspense and the dependency on a timeline with no defined points. Although it seems like time has stopped in the deserted landscapes of Fukushima, the exhibition reminds that victims of the disaster feel its effects every day. The works, which will wear down over time from environmental forces, will also reflect the wearing on of cleanup efforts.
The artists also liken the current invisibility of their works to that of radiation, which they perceived only through beeps from Geiger counters while installing the works. The unseen menace highlights “that the causes of the most urgent threats to our collective existence — nuclear catastrophe and climatic shifts — cannot be seen, only becoming apparent in their disastrous effect,” as co-curator Jason Waite told Hyperallergic. “We don’t want to avoid the invisibility but embrace its alternative potential, as an invitation to use other senses and induce a speculation that can expand to imagine new ways of living together.”
As an extension of the localized exhibition, a “non-visiter center” will also open at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art on September 19. It won’t display images of the Fukushima works but rather “interpretations” of them, such as a drawing by a former resident. Don’t Follow the Wind borrows its name from this resident’s account of his evacuation, when a friend of his working at the power plant advised him to travel in the direction opposite to the wind since it carried nuclear fallout material. He changed paths — contrary to advice from official Japanese government sources, as Chim↑Pom relayed to Hyperallergic — thereby escaping with his family to safety. Access to works such as his drawing will still be limited, however, with the gallery’s entrance designed to be walled off and with viewing occurring from a distant observation platform, assisted by an audio guide. For now, and through an unfixed future period, that is all we have to accept.
“Don’t Follow the Wind is an exhibition for the human beings of all times,” Chim↑Pom said. “From those who have constructed history to this day, whether they forget or remember it, all the way to the children who will see it someday in the future.”
Don’t Follow the Wind continues at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (Ōkuma, Fukushima, Japan) through an indefinite date.