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Japanese artists confront devastation

A new exhibition in Berlin showcases the works of Japanese artists made in the immediate wake of the earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011. Fear and anger but also hope and solidarity are recurring themes.

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What can art do in the face of devastation? This is the question the Hamburg-based artist Nobuko Watabiki was faced with last year. She was in Tokyo when the earthquake struck.

"Afterwards, everything froze," she told Deutsche Welle. It was unlike anything she had experienced before and there was no alternative but to do something, to give artists a platform to express themselves.

For curator Markus Ito there is no doubt that art has to be created in the wake of natural disaster. "Artists have a gift of transmitting certain feelings, emotions or impressions in a creative way," he explained to Deutsche Welle.

Thus, the "TEGAMI and Latest Art Works from Tohoku - Perspectives of Japanese Artists after March 11" exhibition came about. Ito and Watabiki asked Japanese artists to send postcards or postcard-sized artworks to Germany. By mid-May, some 350 tegami (which means "letter") had been sent by over 230 people.

One artist simply expressed what many were thinking and wondered what the best course of action was: "I get away from Tokyo and run away to the West. I apply for work at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. I stay in Tokyo."

Nobuko Watabiki and Markus Ito

Noboku Watabiki and Markus Ito believe in the power of art

For Satoshi Nakata, it was very clear: "I will continue making art," she said.

But what kind of art?

Shin Yamagata took perhaps the most direct route for a photographer. His apocalyptic landscapes of caved in buildings and crushed cars give a sobering rendition of the devastation wreaked by the earthquake of magnitude 8.9 and the tsunami which reached terrifying heights of 40 meters.

Most of the commissioned artists, however, chose not to refer directly to the devastation in their works. One recurring motif is cherry blossoms, representing nature's beauty and harmony and resilience. Other persistent themes are hope, peace - sometimes represented by doves - and love.

Fear, hope and solidarity

In their descriptions on the back of the postcards, the artists sometimes speak directly about the disaster, others talk generally about the meaning of life, some are more laconic, a few even cynical. A minority is angry and calls for the abolishment of nuclear energy.

Shin Yamagata photographed the scenes of devastation

Shin Yamagata photographed the scenes of devastation

"Natural disasters can be overcome but catastrophes caused by humans (nuclear accidents) should not exist," writes Miyako Ishiuchi.

One of the reasons that perhaps make nuclear accidents so difficult to "overcome" is the fear and uncertainty that surround atomic energy. Radiation can be measured with a Geiger counter but it is invisible and its direct effects are difficult to pinpoint.

Kanako Ishii's tegami best encapsulates this fear. In her extremely simple but powerful work, she has taped an empty test-tube to a blank card and asks: "Are you scared of this air?"

It is also maybe this fear that propelled the frantic media reporting about the nuclear disaster which, as Maki Maruko - an artist from Fukushima - regrets, overshadowed reporting about the earthquake and tsunami victims. She told Deutsche Welle she hoped they would not be forgotten.

The young woman's first artwork after the disaster shows two hands holding each other, symbolizing the solidarity among people in temporary shelters.

Maruko said the disaster had made her realize how important the people around her are - her family, her close friends - and the significance of helping people on a small scale. On a larger scale, she said, those around her had started going to demonstrations, expressing themselves publicly. "That's good for society!"

Nobuko Watabiki agreed it was significant that people were standing up more, expressing their opinions. "A common social structure and voice can develop from different opinions," she hoped.

Children are the future

Whereas Nobuko Watabiki, Markus Ito and Maki Maruko believe art has more of an indirect effect on society, there have been many projects over the past year which hope to make a direct impact. After a minute of silence, a few Japanese-German projects were presented at the inauguration of the tegami exhibition in Berlin.

Maruko Maki with her installation

Maruko Maki is interested in light and material

One of the most moving is an initiative by social service company Fröbel - competence for children to support a kindergarten in Yuriage where four children and one teacher died.

Today, the other pupils of the Wakaba Kindergarten are scattered around Japan, living with relatives or in temporary accommodation, Communications Officer Tibor Hegewisch told Deutsche Welle.

They have drawn pictures that have been turned into postcards to raise funds for the reconstruction of their kindergarten over the next five years. Children are the future and should not suffer any further, said Hegewisch.

These children from Yuriage and all the others affected by the triple disaster are the protagonists of Atsuko Kobayashi's tegami of a child's face wearing a protective mouthpiece and a woman's face with huge yellow crocodile tears running down her cheek is emotional and direct. "Please save Fukushima's kids! They live in a highly radioactive area. Moms are crying."

The childish drawing, not dissimilar to those done by the kindergarten kids, clearly answers the question of what art can do in the face of devastation.

Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Sarah Berning

* The exhibition runs until April 13 at the Japanese-German Center Berlin

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