A Restatement: The Art of ‘Ground Zero’ (Part 28)
‘Tanesashi Decontamination 2016’ (II)
Installation view (first floor gallery) of “Shuji Akagi + Kio Kuroda – Tanesashi Decontamination 2016” at Hachinohe City Museum of Art. © ICANOF. Photo courtesy ICANOF.
Just what kind of relationship could there be between Shuji Akagi, who continues to document the temporary storage depots in Fukushima through his quiet photographic endeavors, and the forgotten avant-garde poet and “literary insurgent” Kio Kuroda? Moreover, the latter remains conclusively absent from this “Tanesashi Decontamination” exhibition. That being the case, all the viewer can do is find Kuroda within Akagi and make Akagi appear from within Kuroda by their own efforts. But how are they to do this given that the times in which the two lived and their backgrounds are so different? In fact, they are not only different, but starkly contrasting.
It goes without saying that Kuroda employed the language of poetry. And even if his inner feelings of incongruity towards the existing language of poetry saw him incline towards “anti-poetry,” he showed no signs of abandoning the use of metaphor, symbolism and all the other weapons that are not only indispensible but to all intents and purposes the only weapons available for the purposes of writing poetry.
Kio Kuroda (1926-1984) © Kio Kuroda / Kyowakoku. Photo courtesy ICANOF.
Akagi, on the other hand, has never been a poet. And while it is true that he has amassed a vast quantity of photographs, he is not even a photographer. Can we really call this “expression”? If it is expression, then we can also probably say that metaphor and symbolism function in some form or other within it. If this were not the case, then it would remove the possibility of a connection not only with Kuroda, but with poetry itself.
As for what exactly Akagi’s photographs are – generally speaking they would probably be regarded as records or documents. He began taking them after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, when the city of Fukushima where he and his family were living was contaminated by radioactive material disseminated from Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in him deciding to evacuate his family from the city. No doubt Akagi, who in spite of this continued to commute to the city on his own so that he could work to support the family budget, felt that the way the area around his home, an area that should have been familiar to him, changed day by day was an extraordinary event that needed to be documented at any cost.
Shuji Akagi – Above: “February 20, 2012,” below: “January 24, 2015.” Photos courtesy ICANOF.
So, despite the fact that Akagi’s photographs have a dispassionateness that enables them to capture reality matter-of-factly, they provide hardly any room for the kinds of metaphors or symbolism that freely broaden the scope of viewer interpretations. Certainly, because Akagi has published his photographs on Twitter, they have been supplemented by words, albeit just a few. However, in cases where the kind of “room” where such interpretations are likely to arise through discourse does appear, by emphasizing, as Akagi has done whenever he has had the chance, that, “Photographs can be interpreted in any way depending on how a scene is framed, so please regard these as nothing but biased works framed according to my own subjective viewpoint,” Akagi has restricted the ability of words to behave arbitrarily.
For poetry, however, surely this very “room” where such behavior can occur is vital. Is it not precisely because the after effects of words belong to nobody, not even the author, but constitute unoccupied, unattached behavior that arises between the reader and the author that poetry has the power to be effective as poetry? Akagi asserts, in order to ensure that records are records, that this is a result of “subjectiveness.” Any record, as long as it is created by someone, is inevitably possessed of a specific bias that is difficult to peel away, he seems to be saying, as if to emphasize that it is only when it possesses this that it can become a record. But if this were true, then the distance between Akagi and Kuroda only widens. In this sense, leaving aside the fact that it may have been by design, that while his name is summoned, Kuroda himself is totally absent from this exhibition, is, as far as one can tell from looking at the exhibition, completely appropriate.
However, the passage of time since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami opened up cracks in this “appropriateness.” This is clear from reading the text titled “For the exhibit at Hachinohe” that Akagi wrote for the pamphlet accompanying this exhibition. This exhibition in August was the largest display of this massive collection of photographs to date, and the first since spring, when a change so dramatic that even Akagi himself has trouble making sense of it occurred. Akagi describes this change as follows:
Since April, my life has changed dramatically. My family, who had been living in Fukushima city since seeking refuge voluntarily five years earlier, returned home. Since then, I have been coming home from work to meals prepared by my partner. My second daughter does her homework at the table. (…) I simply cannot get in the mood to think about my photographs, to think about what to write in my tweets, to think about what place my hometown has in history. (Shuji Akagi, June 2016i)
This is perhaps an acknowledgement by Akagi that the implications surrounding the documentary nature of the photographs he has been taking so conscientiously until now have become imbued with a contradiction that is fundamentally difficult to resolve. To begin with, the reason the documentary nature of Akagi’s photographs came to be considered so important was because, as Akagi himself puts it, “Photographing the scars in the town where my family was no longer present was also an act of justifying my family’s evacuation.” For this very reason, this activity had to be not expression but documentation. However, now that he has returned to his former home with his family, if he wants to retain this same kind of motivation then the fact that he has brought his family home must mean that the contamination problems surrounding Fukushima have instantly disappeared, in which case in principle he must also stop taking photographs. Logically speaking this is true, but in fact he did not stop taking photographs at all. Akagi continues to take photographs to this day. In other words, it is no longer documentation as “an act of justifying my family’s evacuation.” Or perhaps it stopped being such “documentation” a long time ago.
Installation view (second floor gallery) of “Shuji Akagi + Kio Kuroda – Tanesashi Decontamination 2016.” © ICANOF.
And yet despite this, Akagi has not undertaken a mid-course correction for the sake of consistency by suggesting that his work may have been “expression” from the beginning. On the contrary, he seems intent on running down not his photography but himself, even going as far as saying, “I sense that the return of my family will completely contradict and invalidate my activities.” To speak of the “invalidation” of the significance and continuation of the activity of taking in excess of 350,000 photographs, let alone its contradiction, is extremely strong language. But I get the sense that it was at this very time, at this very moment, that the presence of Kio Kuroda burst into the exhibition venue like floodwater as if to fill the void left by the absence of a reason for Akagi’s photography. This is none other than because Kuroda’s poetry, rather than saying this or that as language-based expression, was pieced together from the contradictions and invalidations that are inevitably contained within whatever language is produced as one’s own language. We may follow Kuroda’s example and call this “anti-poetry,” but with Akagi in mind, if we extend our thinking to the “room” or “behavior” of the words or photographs that fill the gap between the two, perhaps it should be called “non-poetry” in the form of “non-documentation or non-expression.” Because describing it as “non-” as opposed to “anti-” makes it seem like a fate one was born with or a fate bestowed on one against one’s will as opposed to something intentional.
And at this time, Kuroda’s poem “Kuso no gerira” (Imaginary guerrilla) reflects Akagi’s condition like a mirror. In a separate poem titled “Aozametaru ushi – waga ansatsu shiko” (The pale cow – my assassination wish), Kuroda mentions as a weapon for the purposes of assassination a peculiar object called a “tsuzubo” or “tsuchibo,” which he describes as a weapon not “sullied by our literary way of thinking.” And it is my contention that this “tsuchibo” is for Akagi his Geiger counter.
From Moeru kirin (Burning giraffe): Selected poems by Kio Kuroda (Kyowakoku, 2016)
I have never seen Akagi without a Geiger counter on his person. And whenever he sees a patch of earth that bothers him, like a fast-shooting gunman he quickly points it at the ground and reads the result. When I think of this, I realize that Kuroda’s poems could also be describing Akagi as he walking aimlessly through the contaminated zone of self-contradiction and self-invalidation that was unrecognizable as either his home or his hometown, pointing his “tsuchibo” in the form of his Geiger counter towards the ground at every opportunity.
Days and days of walking
a gun on my back
the road twisting
threading one strange village to another.
Beyond is a village I know well.
And to which I return.
Where am I?
Where does the road go?
Tell me, please.
The gun in my hands again I face the silent houses.
But something is wrong…
The weight in my hands is wrong…
Wood – a rod of wood three feet long.
Kio Kuroda, “Kuso no gerira” (Imaginary guerrilla) (1955) (1)
In this poem, the gun was no longer a gun. In which case, perhaps Akagi’s camera, too, was no longer a “weapon” for documenting things after all. So what was the “rod of wood three feet long” Akagi held in its place? Was it not the very Geiger counter that was once used to measure and examine the locations of temporary storage depots buried underground, but that had been separated from its original function and had its meaninglessness extended out to three feet? The camera is above all an extension of this. It is no longer possible to call such a thing “documentation.” Even more impossible is treating it as the result of subjectiveness. On the contrary, has not Akagi himself without us realizing it turned into another Kuroda, or what Kuroda refers to as an “imaginary guerrilla”? (To be continued)
“Shuji Akagi + Kio Kuroda – Tanesashi Decontamination 2016” was held from August 26 through September 11, 2016 at Hachinohe City Museum of Art.
- Poem translation by T. Fitzsimmons and R. Fukuda. Published in
The Beloit Poetry Journal
- 16, no. 3 (Spring 1966).