Critics’ Picks

Tadasu Takamine, Japan Syndrome MITO version, 2012, color video transferred to Blu-ray disc, 49 minutes.

Mito-shi

Tadasu Takamine

Art Tower Mito
1-6-8 Goken-cho
December 22 - February 17

Observers of Japanese contemporary art often complain about its apparent lack of political content. The combined tsunami and nuclear disasters of March 2011 have begun to change this; “Tadasu Takamine’s Cool Japan” is perhaps the best-realized reflection yet on the social consequences of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.

The show parodies the asinine branding of Japan as “cool”—an effort launched by the nation’s government in the early 2000s—which helped artists such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara find worldwide fame. Using this PR campaign as a foil, Takamine creates a sequence of large-scale installations that playfully visualize the way everyday slogans, images, and conversational habits in Japan both reinforce social solidarity and stoicism in the face of adversity, and also unconsciously affirm repressive moralities and political passivity.

Rooms of voices, posters of quotes from newspapers, and spinning mirrors with LED texts cumulatively spell out everyday Japanese expressions and phrases that socially reproduce unthinking national political identity. These installations function as a preface and warning for the largest room, in which young associates of the artist perform, on video, dialogues that Takamine has gathered through real-life discussions with residents and shop owners in different parts of Japan since March 2011. We watch with growing alarm as the sketches—which emphasize the subtlety of typically “Japanese” conversational habits and physical interactions—reveal how ordinary citizens manage to distance themselves from victims of the disasters. Shopkeepers are portrayed denying to themselves and their customers the menace of radioactivity in food products, while local residents are heard downplaying the dangers of placing nuclear reactors in earthquake-prone locations.

The whole show visualizes a quiet but determined anger. Standing soberly in each room are classical-style sculptural casts of ordinary Japanese people observing proceedings. Then, in a mausoleum-like corridor, a historical time line of the nearly 2,000 nuclear tests conducted worldwide since 1945 cradles a long series of photos of a typical Japanese “nuclear family,” which we eventually realize is Takamine’s own. The political is personal. Echoing social theorist Shunya Yoshimi’s recent denuciation of Japan’s reliance on nuclear power—its postwar “umbrella” of “nuclear sunshine”—Takamine’s show challenges illusions of safety and compliance that have powered Japan for too long.