The neon sign in the window of the Eighth Street NW art gallery is doubly ironic. “Atomic Power is the Energy of the Future,” it reads, in Japanese.
The first irony is that the wording of artist Masaharu Futoyu’s piece is taken from a sign in Futaba, a town that’s been off limits since the partial meltdown last spring at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The second is that the artwork, which gently questions the Japanese power company TEPCO, is on display at the PEPCO Edison Place Gallery.
Futoyu’s yellow-neon sign is part of “2.46 and Thereafter,” a show of Japanese artists’ responses to the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear calamity.
“The artist is totally apolitical. So when he did this, I was very surprised,” says Kazuko Aso, general director of DANDANS, the Tokyo artists’ cooperative that organized the show. (The name combines the Japanese word for group, “dan,” with the French one for in, “dans.”)
But, Aso adds, “having this exhibition without mentioning the nuclear plant is not possible.”
More than 15,000 people died during the earthquake and tsunami, and more than 100,000 were displaced, a number of them permanently. So, of course, some of the art in the show is somber. But there’s a wide range of styles and outlooks among the 18 artists’ work, which includes both modern and traditional Japanese elements — and whimsy as well as sorrow.
“2.46 and Thereafter,” whose title refers to the minute when the disaster began, is DANDANS’s first show outside Japan. Twenty percent of the proceeds from any art that’s sold will go to relief efforts. (The number was 50 percent when the group displayed art on the same theme in Japan, but the costs of mounting an exhibition in the United States are higher.)
The show is a collaboration with D.C.’s Transformer, a nonprofit visual arts organization. DANDANS and Transformer were introduced to each other by Yoriko Fujisaki, wife of Japanese Ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki.
“We did this all via e-mail,” marvels Transformer Executive and Artistic Director Victoria Reis, looking around the gallery.
The theme and certain cultural references aside, the work resembles the sort of art generally made by American artists today. It’s eclectic and conceptual, yet emphasizes craftsmanship as much as ideas. Futoyu’s reminder of the civic cheerleading for nuclear power is about as strident as the show gets.
Yuya Fujita, for example, has painted two large, photorealist apples. The fruit is grown in the area hardest hit by the calamity, known as Tohoku (literally, “east north”). But Fujita writes that the two glossily rendered apples, titled “The Orderly New World,” also salute the systematic, unpanicked way Japan dealt with the crisis.
Yasushi Ebihara’s “Afternoon,” also realist and representational, depicts a woman lying in a tatami-mat room. Her long hair floods the small room, buffeting toy houses, airplanes, cars and trucks. The presence of an oversize praying mantis, nearly as big as the woman, is quietly ominous.
Among the works that draw on historic Japanese imagery and technique are Tetsuya Noguchi’s “Black Sendai — ‘Ema’ painting for the Tohoku Revival,” which depicts a samurai procession; Ryota Unno’s “Tohoku’s Ark,” which floats a traditional ship on a Peter Max-like sea; and Kotaro Isobe’s “Tohoku Spring,” which depicts a rainbow over a tentatively resurgent landscape.
Starker are Takeshi Abe’s “There Are People Hoping to Forget It,” which shows nighttime illumination (and lack thereof) in East Asia; Akiko Ozasa’s “Lighthouse,” designed to symbolically summon “victims believed to be lost at sea”; and Shinichi Tsuchiya’s three-part “Puzzle,” which collages pictures of post-tsunami detritus in a jigsaw puzzle format.
Kazumasa Noguchi, one of three artists who spoke during a panel discussion the evening of the opening, contributed a painting of a largely red full moon. There was a full moon on March 10, which makes the image somewhat foreboding. “I wanted to contrast the peacefulness and the destruction,” says Noguchi.
Two of the pieces mourn the deaths of children in the earthquake and tsunami. Mihoko Ogaki’s “Milky Way — flowers #1” is an installation that features paper flowers and a small, kneeling figure. Ogaki calls it a “requiem.”
Chiho Akama incorporated handmade, children’s-size shoes into a depiction of a lotus flower. The lotus, a white bloom that grows from muck, is a classic Buddhist symbol of purity amid the corruption of life.
“I used children’s shoes as the lotus flower to show that there is a lot of hope, even in this devastation,” Akama explains.
Shinji Maeda’s contribution is more directly connected to the tsunami than most of the show’s art. His “Gate311. Remarks” is an airplane-themed installation constructed from debris Maeda found in Tohoku, based on an image he saw of Sendai airport after the destruction.
Maeda initially traveled to the region in search of a missing relative, who was found alive but badly injured. “The Japanese are very, very good at recovering from massive destruction,” he says. He and the other participants cited fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and, of course, war.
“I still remember playing in the rubble,” recalls Aso, who grew up just after World War II. (She’s a generation older than the DANDANS artists, who are mostly in their 30s.)
If “Gate311. Remarks” began as a memorial, it’s also become something of a gag. Inspired by the piece, Maeda has founded an imaginary company, German Suplex Airlines. He wore a hat bearing the firm’s logo during the discussion, and at the reception he was joined by a female flight attendant, dressed in a German Suplex uniform.
“My big-picture objective is to become Virgin Atlantic,” he playfully proclaimed as waiters moved through the reception crowd, offering sushi rolls.
Although good-humored, Aso is more serious. She calls the Tohoku disaster a turning point, although — in customary Japanese fashion — she presents this as a consensus opinion rather than her own. “Everyone says that the period of after-the-war was ended by this tsunami. We were chasing prosperity. This was a big shock. . . . We see that the most important thing is not the Gucci handbag.”
“I think the materialism has changed a little bit,” agrees Akama, who says that the catastrophe has also “changed the way people look at art. People are looking for a message. I think a lot of people are not looking at the surface.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
On view through March 25 at PEPCO Edison Place Gallery, 702 Eighth St. NW; 202-872-3396; www.transformerdc.org