A freighter pushed inland by the tsunami

Some days make me realise all over again what a privilege it is to be an artist. I’ve spent the day being shown around the tsunami impact zone just outside Sendai. We are researching a new project for the Aichi Triennale in 2013 and I’ve come to the area to learn more about the wider impact of the disaster on Japanese society.

Starting early in Tokyo, I met with Manami Yuasa and Chika Sudo at the British Council before taking the Shinkansen north to Sendai. Meiko Sano and Masahiko Haito have been my guides all day. At the train station we met with Hiroyuki, an architect and Sendai resident, and Izumi, a student who experienced the earthquake first hand and drove out of the city towards the coast. As we crossed the main motorway running north to south, suddenly the damage could be felt. Lines of electricity pylons are out of kilter. And the paddy fields are brown where the salt water has reached.

When we came to a lone school building I asked to stop and take some photos. As I walked through the long weeds across the road, I realised that I was, in fact, inside the foundations of someone’s house. And once we climbed to the top of nearby shrine I could see that the foundations were continuous in every direction.

Then we arrived at the long straight shoreline. Jagged concrete shapes off shore mark the defences that were already in place but it’s easy to see how a wave almost 10 metres tall would sweep directly over the sea wall. A small shrine is within earshot of the diggers working. Otherwise it is quiet and still.

Later we travelled to the bank where Izumi was waiting to get some money when the earthquake struck. I wanted to film her as she described what happened inside the bank. But despite the best efforts of Masahiko, the staff member deferred to the manager, the manager deferred to the regional man and our permission to film was denied. So I recorded sound only as Izumi described holding on to the legs of the table to stop it jumping around as she cowered beneath it. Then we walked outside as she showed me where the traffic lights were out as she tried to get home. People had spilled onto the street in shock. Once she got home, there was no electricity, no water and no phones; she and her mother waited through the afternoon as each member of her family finally made it home.

There are many other moments I could have picked to illustrate today. All forms of media seem unable to represent scale; certainly nothing I had seen prepared me for the scale of this. But alongside my sense of shock was another constant unsettling feeling. As an artist and an outsider, how do I dare to engage with this?

In The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein draws out the ways in which a disaster or crisis provides an opportunity for those with financial or political power to advance their agenda. She uses Hurricane Katrina as one of her examples, showing how neo liberal orthodoxies powered the approach to reconstruction. While the community was reeling, the profit motive unpicked long standing social contracts.

Here, it seems less ideologically divisive but fundamental questions have also been raised. Protests are taking place every week as the government restarts the nuclear plants. The first one came back online at Ohi on 1st July. The government insists everything is safe. That so many people are openly sceptical of those claims is a significant change in society.

The theme of the Triennale is “Awakenings”. Tomorrow, at 5am, we head north to Kesennuma.

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