A Future for Memory: Art and Life after the Great East Japan Earthquake
On March 11, 2011, Japan was rocked by a massive earthquake that caused extensive damage to the Great Eastern region. The ensuing tsunami swallowed up coastal towns, and caused irrevocable damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
In the 10th anniversary year of the Great East Japan Earthquake, or 3.11, A Future for Memory, on display at the Museum of Anthropology, addresses how we deal with memory when our physical surroundings are drastically altered. It focuses on the changing physical and psychological landscapes in the aftermath of 3.11 and shows that regional disasters have global relevance. Events such as 3.11 force us to rethink our ways of life in relation to nature. Even in the midst of disasters, people have the desire to create and to express themselves—as does nature.
The works in the exhibition trigger memories, emotions and imagination. They serve as more than objects of memory; they remind us of the force of nature and the continuous efforts of survivors to rebuild their lives. There is a future for memory through the creation of connections that will be passed on for generations to come.
Curated by Dr. Fuyubi Nakamura, MOA’s Curator for Asia, A Future for Memory features works by eight artists, groups and institutions from Japan, tracing the material and intangible effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The exhibition opened on February 11 in time to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 2011 triple disaster.
Featuring works by:
• Masao Okabe
• Chihiro Minato
• Atsunobu Katagiri
• The Rias Ark Museum of Art
• The center for remembering 3.11
• The Lost & Found Project
• The “Lost Homes” Scale Model Restoration Project
• The Tsunami Ladies film project team
Bulletin Interview: Dr. Fuyubi Nakamura
I remember when the earthquake and resulting tsunami and nuclear disaster hit, and the impact it had on Japanese and Japanese Canadians in Vancouver. For whatever reason, it impacted a lot of people here and we raised a lot of money for the relief efforts. It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years. What was the impetus for putting this together this exhibit?
This exhibition derives from my personal experience in the disaster region. My initial involvement with relief and recovery activities in 2011 was in Miyagi Prefecture, which suffered the largest number of casualties. I worked particularly closely on rescuing and cleaning photographs found among the debris, an experience that led me to reconsider the relationship between memory and objects. By going back to Tohoku every year since then as an anthropologist, I have continued research and collaborated with local museum professionals, survivors, volunteer groups, and artists in Japan.
My maternal grandparents immigrated from Miyagi Prefecture, a small town near Sendai City, I believe. My wife and I visited the area several years ago, but didn’t have time to visit the area affected by the tsunami. The closest we came was Matsushima Bay, which escaped the brunt of the destruction. You spent some months in Miyagi Prefecture and have returned there every year since – what is it that drew you there?
When the news reached me that Japan had been rocked by a massive earthquake, I was on the other side of the globe in Argentina. Worried about my family and friends in Japan, and staring blankly at the constant flow of disaster images, I felt utterly helpless and restless. Later, I was interviewed by the local media in Argentina about the aftermath of the disaster in relation to the role of art, as an exhibition I curated had just opened in Buenos Aires. After the exhibition ended in May, perhaps with a kind of survivor’s guilt and desire to do something, I went off to Miyagi Prefecture, soon after I returned to Tokyo in May and I decided to take a leave from my work. Since that time, as an anthropologist, I turned it into a research project so that I could keep getting involved with the recovery process in a different way for a long period of time.
You talk about focusing on rescuing and cleaning photographs found amid the debris, how that led you to reconsidering the relationship between memory and objects. Can you elaborate on that?
What we often call “debris” or gareki was actually made up of someone’s belongings. The debris included not only the wreckage of buildings and ships, but just about anything and everything we would normally have at home or work – tables, shoes, bags, bathtubs, clothes, credit cards, and family albums etc. Among huge piles of debris, objects which had retained their familiar shapes became candidates for omoide no shina or ‘objects of memory’.
Because it was easy to recognize their value, photos and family albums were the most frequently rescued objects. None of digital photographs stored on hard disks, CDs or memory sticks survived in the tsunami-stricken areas. It was the materiality of photographic prints that enabled these images in rescued photographs to survive. Photographs thus became objects of memory and relics at the same time. For most of the survivors, reclaiming pieces of their past in a material form gave them strength, as proof of their life and the hometown they had lost.
Ten years is at once a sobering reminder of the passage of time and a blink of the eye when viewed through a longer lens. How are the affected areas recovering, both in the terms of the people and the landscape?
The recovery process is different in each disaster affected area. In the areas along the Sanriku coast, massive sea walls are being built. The evacuation order for some areas close to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant is yet to be lifted.
It’s somewhat ironic that this exhibit is opening in the midst of this global disaster. Is there anything we can learn from the Japanese experience of recovery and reconstruction as we look to deal with and recover from the pandemic, do you think?
The exhibition got postponed for several reasons including the pandemic and also the up-coming seismic upgrades of the Great Hall at the museum. I thought it was ironic when it first got postponed because of the seismic construction, and then again due to the pandemic.
This triple disaster also left many people to live with invisible disaster: radioactivity and nuclear leaks are barely visible, if not invisible, despite the visible fears they induce. In a way, that experience is not unlike what we are going through today as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, though the cause is entirely different. Recovery from a disaster is a long process. Art can be a crucial component in revitalizing disaster-affected communities, as it can provide an opportunity for reflection and create a shared sense of hope.
You’ve featuring eight artists, volunteer groups, and institutions in this exhibit. Is there one aspect of the exhibit in particular that speaks to you or touches you?
The wall filled with rescued but heavily damaged photographs found in Yamamoto-chō in Watari District, Miyagi Prefecture, and cleaned by the Omoide Salvage Project, and kept and exhibited by the Lost & Found Project is the work which speaks to me most as I was also involved in the same kind of activities with another group as a volunteer. There were many volunteer groups that were involved with rescuing and cleaning photographs across the disaster region.
What do you hope people will take away with them when they visit the exhibit?
A Future for Memory will help us learn about natural disasters and resilience, enabling recovery processes to be seen as unique opportunities for new connections and relationships.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which hit Japan on March 11, 2011, I will be giving an online tour of A Future for Memory on March 11, 2021 to reflect on the event and learn from the recovery process. I hope you will be able to join the event.
Register here: bit.ly/3rcjHWO
Dr. Fuyubi Nakamura is a sociocultural anthropologist who specializes in the anthropology of art and museum studies. She is MOA’s Curator for Asia, and is Associate Member of the Departments of Anthropology and Asian Studies at UBC. Dr. Nakamura obtained a doctorate from the University of Oxford, and taught at the Australian National University and University of Tokyo, and curated exhibitions internationally prior to joining UBC in 2014. Her last exhibition, Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy from Asia (2017), was the recipient of the Canadian Museum Association Award of Outstanding Achievement in the Research – Art category in 2018.
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