Unbeknownst to his family and friends at the time of the “3/11” disasters in Japan- the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, Thorsten Alberz, curator of the “Duality of Existence – Post Fukushima” exhibit, was on sabbatical in Sydney Australia. Knowing nothing of 3/11 he was sitting peacefully in the Sydney sunshine when he began to receive frantic phone calls and emails and texts asking him how he was faring, assuming he was in great crisis.
Alberz was utterly ignorant of the situation. In his own mind, nothing was wrong. He knew nothing of what had prompted friends and family to get in touch so frantically. He was in perfect harmony with his environment. It was perhaps, a case of Alberz as Schrödinger’s cat.
9/11 in the US may provide familiar queues. In Japan, people have their own stories of “3/11,” where they were when they saw or heard about the destruction wrought by the Great Japan Earthquake, the giant tsunami, and the nuclear meltdown which struck the northern prefecture of Fukushima.
Similarly, every American is likely to have their own “9/11” horror story of where they were when the giant Twin Towers in the canyons of Wall Street in New York City were brought down by terrorists. True, the devastation in New York came from the sky and in Fukushima, from the seas—but there is a certain resonance.
Three years after the disasters, I walked into New York’s Friedman Benda Gallery to see “Duality of Existence - Post Fukushima” with these expectations in mind.
The overall concept of the exhibit as the curator Thorsten Alberz explains is to present the hallucinogenic situation people found themselves in at the time of “3/11.” Frantically, people on the other side of the earth began calling friends and family in Japan. Were they in Japan and in Fukushima? Had the great towers of water smashed them and their homes down? Were they in danger of dying? Everyone existed in the here and now and also in the imagination of others, often very wrongly.
Alberz was not where his friends and family thought he was and neither were they where he thought they were. Mass confusion. Or the duality of existence, perhaps?
I too had experienced this duality. On 9/11, when the Twin Towers were attacked, I was at Union Theological Seminary many miles north of Wall Street with all my fellow seminarians standing in a semi-circle outside the buildings trying frantically to get reception for our cell phones.
I had gotten up late that morning and wandered into the campus coffee shop. Hearing screaming and crying coming from the small conference room nearby, the only area on campus where a small TV could be viewed, I ran for it. The room was packed, endless loops of terrorist attacks in New York. I started to get phone calls from Seattle, upstate New York, Miami, Toronto from people I hadn’t heard from in years, who had no idea that Union was miles away from Ground Zero. “Are you there? Are you alive? Was there anybody you knew down in the canyons of Manhattan? Are you okay? Are you there? Tell me you’re okay!”
Everybody had a 9/11 story. Our contractors, working in the Union Theological Seminary Library, were completely devastated- they had entire companies, building floors of friends and colleagues and family in one or both of the Towers. Never found. Similarly, people in my northern Manhattan neighborhood where so many folks worked for the NYPD, or the Fire Department, or for Sanitation. Streets all over my neighborhood have been renamed for the heroes of 9/11. It is a very impressive and desolate tribute now. For them, then, it was a holocaust.
The day passed in a blur of calls, messages, the endless loops, classes interrupted with bulletins, and an impromptu religious service at noon to commemorate the dead. It was a horror. The rumors of terrorism made it more so.
So what did I find in this 3/11 exhibit? Nothing at all like what I expected – but a plethora of works raising more questions than they answered. Good art, in short. Bright and beautiful refracting images, ominous statuary, man-o-war jellyfish-modeled plastic waves in the shape of a head.
Huge canvases splashed with bright colors, structures decorated with glitter; playful glass toy images of the ever present cherry blossoms of spring in Japan (3/11 was in March) and plastic lumps. Some structures indeed were representational such as two pagodas reflecting each other constructed entirely of tiny wooden matchsticks, or a man who appeared to be either a deep-sea diver or a Fukushima plant cleanup worker clad in a jumpsuit
Without knowing why I found myself murmuring “Hello Kitty, Hello Kitty”—that iconic childlike cartoon image that appears everywhere in Japan, perhaps because several of the very large paintings in this exhibition contained fantasy/cartoon like-elements with huge eyes repeated over and over. In a sort of Hindi style—sharp edges, bright brilliant colors, repeated over and over.
For example Kazuki Umezawa’s “A Certain Mankind’s Super Landscape2 II, 2012,” a huge glittering gorgeous painting, appeared to depict layers of exquisite, tiny, brilliant, hallucinatory images linked to the sea. Within a multi-layered floating pirate ship in the sky encrusted with bombs, eyes, bees, propellers, sea flora and fauna, tsunami waves and debris, floated a tiny Dietrich like blonde head, enclosed within a male Buddha caricature. I thought I even saw an image of the water-bound Yasukuni jinja receding into the background. Did the figures depict the destruction or fragmentation of human consciousness after the release of atomic energy? I can only guess.
And how were these all related to Fukushima? The painter has explained. “Kazuki Unezawa evokes a feeling of separation as he compels the viewer to look at his work through an iPad’s lens, where it transforms into an ever-morphing painting on the screen.” Well, okay. It turns out I did guess the “infinite regression into the background” part correctly. And Umezawa has himself noted that 3/11’s endless images of ever morphing and powerfully destructive tsunami waves and sea, which have flooded into our consciousness, have traumatized us all. So it is correct to call this painting beautiful but cruel.
Takahiro Iwasaki’s “Reflection” (Omnipresence) is also hallucinatory. Iwasaki uses little sticks to create hallucinatory architectural effects. His architectural models of the Heian period – minute when compared to the originals, are versions of the Phoenix Hall in the Byodo-In Temple in Uji, Kyoto, doubled and reversed. The reversed images however are actual tangible duplicates of the original- that is they are not reflections but actual wooden models, top and bottom.
Which image is real? Which is the duplicate? Are both real? Is this not related to the Dual and Omnipresent nature of the Divine?
Regardless, these little models are delightful- I know no one is supposed to find them so, but they are. Like bird cages. The details are exquisite. They invite the viewer to touch them just to trace the accuracy of the duplication. (and the nature of consciousness). Naturally, I did not do so.
Finally, Yusuke Suga’s “Mediator,” departs completely from the charming. It has the quality of an image from a horror movie. “Mediator” seems to be a man but he is merely an empty man suspended standing limply and perhaps menacingly in a HazMat suit or racing suit or a space suit or a diving suit topped with a helmet. He has very large hands and the large helmet is frighteningly featureless. A video of a road passing by is playing in the helmet’s visor on an endless loop. Nobody is going anywhere.
Whether or not the sculptor intended this likeness, and because none of the critics have yet made reference to this sculpture as similar to the plant clean-up workers in the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Kangyo Plant, I’m going to point out the similarities. This is the new man of post Fukushima. No provisions have been made for him in the Japanese culture and yet his work is crucial to the survival of the culture. It is his job to clear the plants of deadly materials, without training, without education, and with few provisions for his own livelihood. Which is likely to have been shortened as a result of radiation exposure. It is a cruel irony.
Truly faceless, unidentifiable, ensconced in protective gear which clearly does not protect him but does obliterate the face, the clean up worker is one of the “thrown away men” like the homeless from Tokyo dragooned by the yakuza into this dangerous job, very badly affected in body and mind by the working conditions, with little or no provisions made for his ills. A whole new category of deeply endangered people has been created and there is no telling how society may be impacted by them.
I suggest that if we are going to talk about the “duality of existence” in post Fukushima Japan we must talk about him!