Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum hosts the monumental group show “Catastrophe and the Power of Art”, curated by Kondo Kenichi.
Featuring 40 artists and collectives, the exhibition examines ways of articulating disastrous events and harnessing the ‘power’ of the visual arts for social change.
To speak of catastrophe – to excavate, memorialise and discuss it – is to somehow quantify or rationalise it. Any processes of creation or attempts at artistically reconstructing a disaster, whether it be as an act of remembrance or activism, is a humanitarian service, where the output is an act rather than an object or icon of beauty.
In the ongoing group exhibition at Mori Art Museum, titled “Catastrophe and the Power of Art”, artists ponder the ‘catastrophe’s’ (in the broadest sense of the term) multifaceted and convoluted ways of being articulated; they, like the theorist Maurice Blanchot, suggest that the disaster itself – be it a natural or manmade one – exists beyond human communication and exceeds representation, yet mapping the cartography of a disastrous event through art is a viable way of addressing it and building a future on its foundations.
After Mori Art Museum’s inaugural exhibition “Happiness: A Survival Guide for Art and Life”, which opened its doors in 2003, MAM celebrates its 15th anniversary by tackling catastrophe as a natural thematic progression in 2018. As recent decades have seen a stream of catastrophic events – 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 being common threads – many artists have produced works dealing with tragedy and the difficulty, or utter impossibility, in remembering it, specifically in a useful, productive way. The exhibition is thus an endeavour to inform the wider world of each event and to present each of the artists’ grappling thoughts about them, ensuring that their stories are passed down to future generations.
We are reminded time and time again of disastrous happenings through mainstream media coverage, but its focus on objectivity and personal truths presents to viewers another kind of narrative, difficult to discern in the shadow of numerically-overwhelming public opinion. “Catastrophe and the Power of Art” suggests that such works may be designed to expose contradictions and cover-ups in wider society and to express personal loss and grief in a shared, communal way. Here, Judith Butler’s writing on frames of violence and grievability comes to mind:
Our capacity to respond with outrage, opposition and critique will depend in part on how the differential norm of the human is communicated through visual and discursive frames. There are ways of framing that will bring the human into view in its frailty and precariousness, that will allow us to stand for the value and dignity of human life, to react with outrage when lives are degraded or eviscerated without regard for their value as lives. (PDF download)
For artworks to communicate a catastrophe, to work through it, they must have a transitive function, making viewers susceptible to “ethical responsiveness”. What curator Kondo Kenichi and each of the selected 40 artists and collectives want to assert is art’s power to question existing channels of information and to elicit change “in chaotic times where the future is uncertain”. “Catastrophe and the Power of Art” looks at how art deals with disaster and personal tragedies, and what role creators play in widespread recovery, contemplating – amid today’s mounting crises of war, terrorism, burgeoning refugee numbers and the destruction of the environment – the dynamic “power of art” to turn the “negative into positive”.
While it is uncontested that catastrophe and crisis can drive us to despair, the exhibition points out that the energy released through collective remembrance can simultaneously spark imagination and boost creative output. The large cohort of international artists, in exhibiting both old and new projects, is attempting to offer innovative visions, to depict the ideals and hopes encompassing wishes for reconstruction and rebirth. As such, the exhibition split into two thematic sections: depiction of the disaster and the power of art.
Section 1: Document, recreate, imagine
Simultaneously presenting works about earthquakes, tsunamis, personal tragedies and war, the first section of “Catastrophe and the Power of Art” focuses on how, in recent years, art has gone about portraying catastrophe. Although all the works in this section deal directly with disaster, the visual languages they use to drive their stories vary widely from realist, to fictional, to the tremendously abstract. This section includes works that give visual expression to less visible threats, such as the proliferation of globalised virtual capital in the 21st century – causing the global financial crisis of 2008 – and radiation contamination from the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima.
Here viewers encounter Isaac Julien’s film Playtime. Part documentary and part fiction, the work follows six main protagonists – the Artist, the Hedge Fund Manager, the Auctioneer, the House Worker, the Art Dealer and the Reporter – the interconnecting figures in a world of art and finance, interwoven with the real stories of individuals deeply affected by the crisis and the global flow of capitalism. The film is set across three cities defined by their role in relation to capital: London, a city transformed by the deregulation of the banks; Reykjavik, where the 2008 global financial crisis began; and Dubai, one of the Middle East’s burgeoning financial markets. The 70-minute film questions the validity of the interview, the documentary, the archive and one’s memory of it all.
Japanese artist Takeda Shimpei’s work is also featured prominently in this first segment. The artist spent a great portion of his youth in Fukushima, hanging out in the shadow of the reactor that would later meltdown and cause one of the worst nuclear disasters in recent memory. Takeda’s Trace series deals with the unfortunate aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe and his personal attachment to the contaminated landscape. The piece constructs abstracted images by collecting soil from the affected landscape surrounding the power plant and exposing it onto large sheets of film for extended periods of time. The result is a physical record of the disaster and its lingering effects on the ground and Japan’s collective psyche.
When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come. The disaster is its imminence, but since the future, as we conceive of it in the order of lived time, belongs to the disaster, the disaster has always already withdrawn or dissuaded it; there is not future for the disaster, just as there is no time or space for its accomplishment.
While touching on the capacity of art to blend beauty and humour into the expression of catastrophe, Section 1 examines how artists attempt to document and recreate the horrors of disaster as well as fear, and preserve their stories for the future by sharing them with others.
Section 2: The ‘power of art’
The second section in this momentous exhibition closes in on the ‘power of art’ to (re)generate creation from destruction. Catastrophe and tragedy can plunge us into despondency, yet disaster can also undoubtedly serve as a catalyst for artists to produce work. The products of their copious imaginations, showing revival, recovery and a better society, in turn, help us to imagine an ideal future.
The artist Ikeda Manabu, in his overwhelming canvas entitled Rebirth, sheds light on the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan as one of the most devastating and perpetuating environmental catastrophes of our time. At its core, Rebirth depicts a tree rising from the debris of the tsunami as enormous waves crash nearby; but a closer inspection reveals thousands of tiny details, the individual stories of anonymous people, plants and animals as they fight for survival and try to reconstruct and reinvigorate their land. Ikeda notes that his work seeks to replicate the “beautiful chaos of life that rarely fits a simple linear narrative”, but instead interacts in unknown and unexpected ways, producing an evermore unknown and unexpected future.
In another attempt to articulate the Fukushima disaster, Kato Tsubasa’s The Lighthouses project highlights art’s power to bring communities together. Each year on 3 November, Japan’s National Culture holiday, nearly 500 people gather in the devastated Fukushima to construct a structure that resembles a local lighthouse destroyed by the tsunami. Built out of the rubble of devastated homes, the continued efforts of the artist and the local inhabitants have developed the project into a local festival of sorts.
The work presented in both sections of “Catastrophe and the Power of Art” – as well as in Mori Art Museum’s related programming and public art displays – does not simply re-present disastrous events, but affirms their eternal place in the hearts and minds of those who witnessed them and those generations responsible for building beyond them.
As Blanchot would say, the exhibition is “not the duplicate of a thing”, but rather a complex set of relations between the visible (artwork) and the invisible (memory). They never stand alone. The breadth of work at Mori Art Museum opens a greater system of visibility that displaces anxiety, redistributes documentary information and addresses catastrophe through a theoretical investigation of activist and personally-therapeutic practices.
“Catastrophe and the Power of Art” is on view from 6 October 2018 to 20 January 2019 at Mori Art Museum, 53F, Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo.