In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11

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Shimpei Takeda, Trace #16, Lake Hayama, from the series Trace, 2012. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In the event of a natural disaster, first responders supply video and photographs of the immediate damage, which plays repeatedly in the media, but which rarely tells the story of survivors putting their lives back together and struggling to make sense of tragedy. Curators Anne Havinga and Anne Nishimura Morse at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, present the first major exhibition to offer a response by Japanese contemporary photographers to the triple disasters known as 3/11, which took place March 11, 2011. On view through July 12, it is a profound meditation on fragility, memory, and loss.

Seventeen photographers, some with deep ties to the region, examine the physical and spiritual marks left by the massive earthquake and resulting tsunami. A series of color photographs by Naoya Hatakeyama document the slow rebuilding of a ravaged landscape. He lost his mother and ancestral home to the tsunami, and in one achingly poignant photograph a rainbow ends where his family home once stood. Across the room, Lieko Shiga, who narrowly escaped the tsunami by car, had been in residence collecting ancestral stories prior to 3/11. By making clever use of the enigmatic way the camera compresses space her large, surreal color photographs suggest chaos can potentially erupt at any moment. In one, an elderly husband and wife stand arm in arm in a barren field at night. A blood-red tree root resembling a giant heart appears to pierce through the man’s chest.

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Shimpei Takeda, Trace #16, Lake Hayama, from the series Trace, 2012. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

      Adjacent rooms focus on the cultural anxiety and loss stemming from the ongoing nuclear contamination leaking from the flooded Fukishima power plant. Shimpei Takeda unearths radioactive traces by exposing soil samples from affected areas to photographic paper. While his black-and-white photographs suggest images of galaxies, they are proof of invisible underground dangers. Masaru Tatsuki began documenting ancient traditions still practiced by local rural populations in 2006. Annual hunting rites were banned after the meltdown contaminated the regional deer population, severing longstanding totemic connections. Daguerreotypes by Takashi Arai memorialize decades of atomic destruction, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the 1954 Bikini Atoll fallout and 3/11. His luminescent images capture the havoc wrought by each nuclear episode over decades. A call for remembrance is prevalent throughout the exhibit but simmering underneath is a haunting reminder about the ever-present perils of nuclear energy.