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Sign Of The Times

Sign of the Times # 3. Pointing at the history

Виктор Белозеров
Illustration: Viktor Belozerov

Illustration: Viktor Belozerov

Our conversation with Kota Takeuchi continues the “Sign of the Times” cycle, where we talk about how war transforms our present and past, what role memory and archive play in this, and where art is in the middle of all this boundlessness. Kota Takeuchi has become, in my opinion, one of the most persistent artists in the contemporary Japanese context, who cherish and nurture his interest year after year. Starting with the landmark “Representative of Finger Pointing Worker” and “Time Travelers”, which addressed the tragedy in Fukushima, he does not leave this region to this day, although over the past decade he has also had a lot of other projects, we will talk about one of them, called “Blind Bombing” in particular detail. It is dedicated to an episode of the Pacific War, during which balloon bombs directed at the United States were used from the Japanese side, a plot not so well known, but closely related to the illusory nature of war, the desire to create reality, and not stay in the existing one.

On my own behalf, I’ll add that in this dialogue there are a lot of thoughts that are adequate and commensurate with the present time, it seems to me that for the first time in a long time, if we are talking about the artistic community (even if not ours), but these are not slobbering hopes and “art and politics are different things”, but a wonderful and rational way to define your attitude to art now.

My sincere thanks to Kota Takeuchi for our long and productive conversation and help in creating this material.

Русская версия / Russian version

Interview with Kota Takeuchi

Gendai Eye: How was the theme of the historical past of your country, its relationship to its neighbors, presented in your life? Were these questions asked while you were in school or university? At what point did you yourself begin to wonder about what happened in your country during the war and about its consequences?

Kota Takeuchi: When I was in middle school and high school, we students had to bow to the Japanese flag at graduation ceremonies. There was a “practice” time set aside for the school ceremony. Students who did not follow the rules were beaten by the teachers. The students did not dispute such rules. Neither did I.

Shortly after I graduated from high school, around the time the World Cup soccer tournament was co-hosted by Japan and Korea in 2002, alternative right-wing activities, as they are now called, began to flourish, especially on the Internet. The strangeness and vigor of their anti-Korean rhetoric made me wonder why in the world such foul and abusive language was being used with such impunity. Those who incite hatred against our neighbors, insist they do so on the basis of “history”. No matter how history is perverted, it was Japan who invaded them. The discourse of anger and contempt for historically conquered countries will continue to be directed by the Japanese nation of invaders, which I found strange.

In 2011, a nuclear accident occurred in Japan. What struck me at the time was the confusion in the information society, with many people having difficulty grasping what the facts were. This made the recovery from an already difficult disaster and accident seem insurmountable for some issues. I suspect that the fact that this country has been bombed in the past may have been a contributing factor in making the situation particularly difficult. Compared to other countries, the nuclear industry and technology in this country might be a topic that is particularly sensitive and can easily cause alienation in human relations. I also thought that “calm discussion beyond differences of opinion and position” and “sharing scientific facts” are almost fantasies. I was once told by a peace activist in Hiroshima that they would not eat vegetables from Fukushima, which made me very sad. I was hurt when a famous artist told me that my choice to work at the nuclear power plant was wrong, and that I must regret it in my future. But I could find nothing to say to them. I just thought that the crazy bombs that took so many lives in the past are still depriving our society of words, thoughts, and communication today.

Violence is not transitory. It will continue to deprive us of thought and communication for the distant future. New violent rhetoric is developed to hide the history of one’s own violence. A society that has been burned by violence is installed with some trauma. When I think about the past and the present of this country, these thoughts go through my mind.

“Time Travelers” (2015-). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

“Time Travelers” (2015-). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

GE: You have been working on the “Don’t Follow the Wind” project for a long time, dedicated entirely to Fukushima and the consequences that happened after the tragedy in 2011. [1] In your opinion, if we are talking about topics that are most relevant to Japanese society and are often reflected in the projects of various artists, then the theme of the military past is as relevant as natural and technological disasters?

KT: The disasters that occurred in the Tohoku region and the nuclear accident at TEPCO in Fukushima have brought about a variety of complexities. I find it difficult to grasp all of them, but I will talk about something that is interesting to me.

I felt that the natural disaster itself, especially the tsunami, was so huge that I could almost only “escape” and “pray.” I had a great respect for the fact that some of the artists started “speaking” after that, and I saw and heard the activity from a distance. Influenced by those people, I am sharing information with people in the past, us who are future people, and people who live in the future even more than us.

What I was concerned about was the confusion of information. It was also a share of negative emotions such as anger, sadness, resentment, and discriminatory emotions. When I talked about my plans to work at a nuclear power plant, I was shocked by the “justice” that was unreservedly hit by negative words based on misinformation against the background of political bias. The experience and impact of that time still motivate me today.

On the other hand, I also feel uncomfortable with the tendency to use correct knowledge only for the pleasure of mocking and judging others excessively. I am still in the struggle to try to look at those things instead of hating people.

When I think about a tsunami, I imagine an exchange of information from the past to the future. And a nuclear accident seems to me a spiral woven from hoaxes and negative emotions. With these two things in mind, the topic of the military past seemed to be a very modern thing, not just a page in a history textbook. Let me say just to be clear, I do not mean to imply that the national government and electric power companies, the entities that caused the nuclear accident, should be exonerated. There is no doubt that they are at the beginning point and have the most responsibility for the suffering caused by the nuclear accident in Fukushima. But I am also interested in the various circumstances that lead to the complicated situation that becomes unsolvable.

“Demolition of Mihako Theater” (2013). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi, Mihakoza-Reverse Project

“Demolition of Mihako Theater” (2013). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi, Mihakoza-Reverse Project

GE: What sparked your interest in getting into the topic of balloon bombs and how did you come across this story?

KT: Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, where I live, used to have a thriving coal mining industry. The reason I lived in this town was that an old movie theater was to be dismantled due to the 2011 earthquake, and I was invited to cover it. That“s why I naturally started to participate in people”s gatherings and walks, visiting local museums and history circles. Eventually, the days of walking alone in the mountains and going to the sea to visit the remains and stone monuments continued. In it, I came across the history of balloon bombs, a strange weapon that Japan developed to attack the United States during World War II was released from the coast of this town.

GE: How difficult it was to conduct this research, I mean not so much the work with archival materials as the search for locations where these bombs fell. Is it difficult to reconstruct their route and all this bygone eventfulness?

KT: Shortly after the defeat, Japan almost obliterated the evidence about the balloon bomb. Therefore, I think that the difficulty for Japanese people is the difficulty in accessing the original materials and records. The information came to light through the efforts of postwar historians. For me too, I rarely have the chance to go to US archives. In my economic situation, going to the United States itself is a big hurdle. So, after getting a grant to go to the United States and then setting the goal of finding the place where the bomb fell, I was very enthusiastic.

My passion is to follow the information already organized by past historians. I didn“t make any new discoveries. The difficulty of finding where the bomb fell depends on how accurately you look for it. If the range of the fall is narrowed to 10km or 1km, it becomes difficult as much as possible, and when it comes to identifying a perfect ground zero, there are only a few cases where it is known. In that sense, I don”t know the real difficulty. The steady and tremendous effort to find and store truly historical evidence is the real difficulty that historians face. I used a drone to shoot the movement of balloons. I call this a replay, not a reconstruction. The US military intelligence document that remained in the archives was regarded as a “script”, and the drone was made to act as a balloon.

“Blind Bombing” (2017). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

“Blind Bombing” (2017). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

GE: How do you personally understand the use of this “blind” weapon by the Japanese military? After all, it is not the most standard and effective way of waging war.

KT: Balloon bombs are left to the wind, so they are not suitable for reliably attacking a target or seeking targeted damage. There is also an opinion that the goal was to start a forest fire, which would undermine the mood of American society. Anyway, in terms of targeting accuracy, it is inferior to modern drone bombers as well as ancient bow and arrow masters. But I think it represents an aspect of the war very well. In other words, it is not a battle between soldiers and those with specialized skills, but a war between nations and people. For the nation and the people, the farther the reality of harm is, the more sustainable the war will be. Someone seems to beat someone.

It seems that their lives will be enriched, proud and happy. War is underpinned by such illusions. The ideal weapon for “battle” is a ranged weapon with high-precision eyes. But for “war,” it is convenient for the perpetrators to be blind to some extent. Many Japanese people were involved in the production of balloon bombs. It is neither gunpowder nor metal. It is a handicraft that handles paper and glue. It is said that Japanese paper was joined with glue and chemicals to coat the surface, and an air leak test was conducted in a wide area such as a theater or gymnasium. Residents of the coastal areas of Chiba, Ibaraki, and Fukushima saw balloons floating in the sky, but didn’t say that. As for many people except soldiers, I think that seeing, not saying, and illusions make war possible.

Just in case, blindness itself is not a problem. No one knows even deeply about their neighbors. There is savagery with blindness as an excuse, and nations and / or technology sometimes use it. On the contrary, there is also a technique to overcome such savagery. Braille and dialogue methods for the blind, characters and preservation techniques that convey history. There are many such techniques related to communication between individuals rather than on a large scale. For technology, I would like to expect such a role to know the reality of neighbors, not to create group illusions.

GE: Can you tell a little about the witnesses of these events, did you have a chance to communicate with someone who actually saw these balloon bombs? And what is the attitude of these people towards the war and Japan in particular?

KT: I had the opportunity to communicate with witnesses and stakeholders in Japan and the United States, but I never asked them about war. Besides their memory, I had time to chat a little about my work and what I was working on. I had given him a letter in advance with questions about the war only once, but maybe because of that, I couldn’t meet this person afterwards.

GE: What does it mean to you that you are replaying these routes and using drones and video to restore the movement of these bombs? And what did you personally feel in these places?

KT: It was an ironic experience to replay the random movements of the wind and of the drone. I don“t think the area where the balloons fell is a special experience, as it wasn”t aimed at any symbolic or topographically special place. It“s natural because it”s the result of leaving it to the wind. I went to a place where I would have a hard time if I had a problem with my car. I haven“t been to extremely wild places because I couldn”t fly a drone in a national park, but the time it takes to travel may have touched a bit of the vastness of the North American continent. However, the war is done in the unit of the country. It behaves as if it were a living thing called a country. It was because of these long distances that I had a lot of time to think about such things.

“Blind Bombing, Filmed by a Bat” (2019-2020). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

“Blind Bombing, Filmed by a Bat” (2019-2020). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

GE: I also read that you were surprised when you learned that these bombs were released in Iwaki, that is, in an environment and place familiar to you. How do such seemingly insignificant discoveries allow you to take a fresh look at the history of your places, your country?

KT: I was surprised to find out that Iwaki was the place where the balloons were released. It was “next to the United States” across the Pacific Ocean. The coastal areas of Fukushima Prefecture, including the northern areas including Iwaki, are collectively called “Hamadori”. There is also the TEPCO nuclear power plant that caused the accident in 2011, but before the war there was a training airfield for the Special Attack Units. I can’t go to that place because of the evacuation order due to the nuclear accident, but it seems that there is a stone monument to indicate that.

After the nuclear accident, the heads of local governments and university researchers in the area visited Hanford Site in the United States as a model of how to recover territories. Hanford Site, Washington once had a research facility that produced plutonium for the atomic bomb, and the surrounding area is polluted with radioactive waste, which is said to be the largest in North America. However, even after the war, research facilities for advanced science were built, agriculture was flourishing, and there was no negative image of Fukushima for the local residents. With reference to this, Fukushima Prefecture is constructing research facilities for robots and aeronautical technology on Hamadori, attracting researchers and companies.

Multiple balloon bombs were also flying to the Hanford site. One of them caused a power outage at the plutonium refinery. The plutonium would later become a component of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. After the nuclear accident, Fukushima Prefecture has been striving for reconstruction, entrusting the bright side of technology to drones and advanced technology. I sincerely hope that decontamination will proceed quickly, and that those who are forced to evacuate will be able to return, the damaged industry will recover, and the exchange population will increase. We have also seen extreme hoaxes and prejudices about the effects of radiation on humans. Therefore, I think it is important to have hope, and I cannot totally deny the speculation of the people who expect the technology to draw a bright future. However, even for that reason, I think there are negative aspects of history and technology that should not be forgotten. The sense of land, “Fukushima prefecture, the prefecture next to the United States,” gives me that perspective.

GE: What kind of reaction do you get from audiences or institutions in Japan when you showcase your projects? Still, the topic is still quite sensitive and the plot with balloon bombs is not so well known to most, what is the reaction of people when they find out about this?

KT: I have not yet released this work at a public facility in Japan. So, I haven“t received much reaction. I value the fresh feeling of knowing what I didn”t know. And I got some surprising reactions to the edge of history, simply saying, “I didn’t know what it was”. Also, I received an enthusiastic message from a person who is investigating the drop point of the simulated atomic bomb. [2] I had the opportunity to exhibit at the Iwaki Municipal Museum of Art this fall, so I hope there will be some reaction.

GE: Tell me, please, do you have any other projects in your plans that would refer to history and memory? Would you like to continue with this topic?

KT: I am interested in the relationship between Myanmar (Burma) and Japan. I would like to approach the massacre that the Japanese army caused in Kalagong village, but it is currently difficult to travel to the country. For this case, I was filming the original court documents in the National Archives of the UK.

I“ve been looking at things from a balloon perspective and scale for years, and I”ve been critical of that and technology, but I have to get closer to the history of the ground, the history of people. It’s a little more violence that belongs to the ground.

“Representative of Finger Pointing Worker” (2011-). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

“Representative of Finger Pointing Worker” (2011-). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

GE: To what extent is art capable of identifying problems and contributing to their solution in cases where there are conflicts and unresolved issues between neighboring countries?

KT: First of all, the fact that I can do art despite the fact that there is a war going on means that I am not in a situation where I have to fight, don“t I? When I have a muzzle pointed at me, I have to run away or fight. When “art thinks about or solves some problem,” I think, with some exceptions, that”s people who can afford to think about something. I don“t have the luxury of thinking of a roundabout solution when the gun is pointed at me right now. So what we are talking about here and now is about a situation where I can afford to think about what art can do, right? First of all, I write on that assumption. I speak here and now about the word “art” in general. But while doing so, I had to think about those who cannot afford to utter that word. Scenes in which they die if they do not resist, if they do not flee, and people who starve to death, who are raped, who are deprived of their precious property, land, and people. I don”t want to ignore that art itself is often basically powerless against such urgent situations.

Exceptions include art activities that are more akin to journalism and ingenuity in resistance movements. Or architect Shigeru Ban, who designs effective architecture with limited logistics and turns it into disaster shelters and refugee camps. Recently, a photographer I know, Lieko Shiga, invited a Burmese photographer to her studio for a poetry reading event. I think that the ability to respond flexibly to emergency situations is great. However, one should not easily say that this is a great achievement of art". This is a great attempt on “their (the artists) part”, and to exalt it with the word "art” is too broad a term at least for my sense. If they self-identify as an art activity, that may be one of the great aspects of art, but I think there are many other, not so great aspects, “of art”.

I find two meanings in the word “art.” One is the meaning of the art world as an industry or economic sphere, academic groups, publisher…etc. In this case, we don’t need to talk only about art in particular, but as one of the industries that make up society, we can say the art industry can also raise funds and awareness, and many people are actually doing so. It does not have to be a special technique or a genius idea; it is a universal contribution to society. The power of the art industry just as an industry and economic sphere and international collaboration. It is important.

The second meaning of the word “art” is about the art itself, its content. There is often a difference between “art industry activity” and “art itself” (As like the football industry is not exactly the same as football itself. Although I guess there are some dexterous exceptions in the art world…). And when thinking about that “art itself,” it is important to note that art does not necessarily mean justice. As far as I have observed, expressions, movements, and people who are called “art” can potentially be complicit in false propaganda and falsehoods. This is because there are all sorts of people in the art industry. In a field where “diverse and open discussion” is affirmed, I also believe that cautiousness is necessary because of the diversity. Although different from war, some of the art that responded to the nuclear accident that occurred in Japan in 2011 not only did not contribute to solving the real problem but also hindered it, as it spreads misinformation close to wrong discrimination in the name of justice or reduced a complex issue to a simple slogan. Such “art” is barely tolerated because the main fields of art are guaranteed a generous amount of time and space to read and calmly discuss diverse viewpoints. And disasters, wars, poverty, and exclusion are situations that do not allow such leeway, I think.

Whether we want it or not, the term “art” is also used in the situation, for example, to describe the work of rich people who are too ignorant of society and unwilling to learn, and who take up the weak and make them into objects for show in order to fill their own loneliness. And not so few people are becoming to arouse unquenchable hatred and suspicion in the word “art” itself. I have seen such cases to the point of disgust, in the situation of disaster and art. Sometimes I even don“t want to point the word ‘art,” which allows such things, at artists. Of course, I know there are great artists who do not have such problems. But I am often hesitant and cautious to use that term to refer to some practical solution while I have had the aforementioned experience. I say “an artist did something great” instead of “art did something great”. Maybe what you simply wanted to hear was “a good example of an artist”s activity’. If so, I am sorry, however, I am particularly wary of the noun “art” and feel that it is the root of some problem. Looking back at the merits and demerits of similar acts classified as art in history, I could not skip this point.

Art is not magic. At a time of heightened social crisis and tension, it is necessary not to expect too much from the word “art” and to be suspicious of its rhetoric. On the other hand, if someone in the art world says something as banal as “I hope peace will come soon”, etc., of course it is not inconsequential. I do not think that peace can be achieved by eccentric ideas or temporary sentimentality. Peace can only be achieved through the enormous sacrifices of the past and the steady accumulation of people’s efforts. So, this is common and normal, I can only say such slogans, and I think it is important to share that normality with many people. I am not welcoming a sense of helplessness. I do want to say that there are many situations where we need to be careful about the all-powerfulness that is unique to art. We should look at the enormous lives and efforts of people on the ground that are often overlooked in times of peace and affluence. Against the reality of war, we are reminded that the problems of the world can only be solved by steady accumulation, not by a brilliant art.

I want to say this emphatically so that there is no misunderstanding, but I am not telling you not to do anything. I am also taking care against an attitude of remaining silent by feigning calm (I often fall into that kind of wrong, personally). I“m saying, it”s ok to do something universal, not special, not “artistic”. If it is steady and useful, even if it may not be called art per se, then do it. My point is that there is no need to call it “art” in particular. If there is a participant in an anti-war demonstration, it may happen that he/she is an artist, that’s ok. People who are familiar to the magic words for advertisement which encourages art is something special may feel it as powerless, but it would not be a waste for the next generation to know even the powerlessness of such word itself, while at the same time putting their efforts into ordinary activities as a member of society, without thinking of the art industry in a special way. It may sound contradictory, but I think it is actually better for art itself.

We can think later if it is art or not, and it doesn’t have to be art. To the next generation…that is why we must clearly reject against genocides and erasure of history, which make intergenerational succession itself difficult.

“Take Stone Monuments Twice” (2013-2016). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

“Take Stone Monuments Twice” (2013-2016). Courtesy: Kota Takeuchi

GE: I ask everyone this question regarding the role of memory in history and the possibility of its transmission to the next generations, what do you think about this? Does global history predominate, or do we still rely on the histories of families and individuals?

KT: For example, is the history of women’s rights and social status a global issue when it comes to labor issues? Or is it something that can be talked about on a scale such as between individuals, families, and communities?

Recently in Japan, international journalists and filmmakers, critics and young art curators have been accused by such people by workers or contractors of being forced into sexual acts or unfair treatment.

Once I exhibited a video about a balloon bomb at an exhibition. It seemed a good project to examine disasters, national policies, and visual culture from multiple perspectives. But an assistant hired by the curatorial company that organized the exhibition later accused the curator of unwanted sexual contact and forced dismissal because of this situation. The company has filed a defamation proceeding against the woman, both of which are still in dispute. [4]

The exhibition director was separated from the company. He proceeded to create a book, saying “It is important to keep a record of this exhibition for the future (even though there are some troubles)”. But in the process of editing the book there were inappropriate words and actions to the woman such as “recommending reconciliation with the perpetrator”, that’s what I heard. Eventually I refused to publish my work in such books. And, in the exhibition/book direction, it was called “archive” many times as meaning artistic and historically significant work, but there is no voice of that female staff in the book.

Archives have become a widely used term today for digital recording and recording media, but originally meant library stacks and buildings. Continuing to operate the archive is on a historic scale, and I think it will be difficult to maintain it unless the materials are protected in a robust building and stable operation is carried out with the power of a nation. I have repeatedly reiterated the importance of archiving, the significance of the destruction of historical materials, the recurring wars, the announcement of new creations associated with them, and the effort to preserve them. But at the same time, I thought I had to keep imagining, respecting and paying attention to the existence of something that would be excluded from the archive. I wasn’t convinced that there was an individual who was forced to silence because of the “archive”, which is a book that leaves the possibility that the problem was dismissed and diminished.

In order to talk about the global history and nation created by power, I thought that I had to refer to the record of power, and I had to be careful about the danger that the power in the narrative threatened the individual. So, answering to your question, the fact that we personally think “be careful” may indicate the superiority of our global history.

After all, I can’t dilute my personal history about the research and work of balloon bombs. I have to admit that. Regarding the ethics of the artist, I make crisp excuses such as “This is my personal history” and “I aim to resonate with the individual viewer.” However, I have a tremendous respect for documentaries and visual art works about excellent individuals and families by writers who are not really me.

[1] “Don’t Follow the Wind” — is an artist collaboration project dedicated to understanding the Fukushima tragedy.

[2] Imitation atomic bombs — bombs similar in size and shape to the “Fat Man” that would later be dropped on Nagasaki, but without the nuclear charge. They were actively used at the beginning of 1945 for training purposes, having received the name “Pumpkin Bombs”.

[3] Rohingya — is an ethnic group living in one of the regions of Myanmar, belongs to the Muslim religion. The Rohingya genocide (Rohingya conflict) has been going on for decades and arose as a result of persecution by the government and Buddhist nationalists. The situation around this conflict provoked not only numerous armed conflicts, but also the outflow of refugees to Bangladesh, the creation of camps for displaced persons. The Rohingya are also banned from freely moving around the country and receiving higher education, while they are subjected to forced labor, deprived of their homes and lands, not to mention the enormous number of sexual crimes against women.

[4] You can read more about the Ayano Anzai case and get acquainted with all the stages of the development of the court case at the link to the site created to support her and record this whole story:

Sign of the Times:

— Sign of the Times # 1. History and disposal container by Yoshinori Niwa
— Sign of the Times # 2. The Trajectory of the Family Past by Aisuke Kondo

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