Category: Aichi Triennale

The Thing I’ll Be Doing



This Sunday, the 30th of June marks the start of our epic new project in Nagoya as a part of the Aichi Triennale, The Thing I’ll Be Doing For The Rest Of My Life.

I am on my way there right now, at Helsinki airport.

This truly is an adventure for us.

With the amazing support of the Triennale and the help of volunteers, we will pull a fishing trawler out of the water, drive it through the streets at night on a lorry, crane it off and then push it into position in central Nagoya. A boy will tell a story on the deck through a megaphone. A film will be made to be seen in the Triennale and an audio piece will be available for you to listen to as you walk around the boat when it sits in its final position.

Above is our boat, it has been gifted to us, she is called Eight Prosper Circle and as soon as I land I will go to meet her for the first time in the flesh.

There is a lot to tell and describe.  But I will leave it there for now.

And if you want to take part, take part, we would love that – come watch, come help, come film, watch remotely, comment away and keep an electronic ear out for tweets etc.  I will let you know what is happening or not, what changes and developments are occurring and when the key events are.

To awakening, and the spirit which resides between order and spontaneity.

If you want to come help or know anyone who might, on the 30th June, please look here for when and where. This link is in Japanese, so we recommend using Google Translate if needed.

Disaster utopia

The next day I did an interview with Daisuke Oono, a journalist with NHK who is from the Sendai area. He was on the scene immediately after the tsunami struck. He spoke honestly and movingly about the tension between being a journalist and a human being in that situation.


Most strikingly, he described the immediate aftermath as a “disaster utopia”: a period when everyone transcends their daily troubles and comes together, finding their true values and living them out. One of the notable differences between the coverage of the March 11th earthquake in Japan and, say, that of Hurricane Katrina in the US was the identification of the stoic and calm Japanese response versus the chaotic and violent one of the Americans. Having done further research since the interview (thanks, Meiko!) I have discovered Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built In Hell which shows the fallacy of this stereotyping. In fact, there is widespread evidence that the typical response to disasters is calm and generous. Communities pull together. Events that are reported as looting might actually involve citizens taking food and basic supplies from destroyed supermarkets: hardly evidence of chaos.

In my previous post I mentioned Zeitoun which provides a vivid example of this trend. This is a fundamental and far reaching observation. How can we find ways of engendering this behaviour without a disaster prompting it? Can we make a piece of work that responds to that challenge?

To Kesennuma: ships out of place and fishermen

Up at 5am today to head north by car. By 8.30 we were at the port of Kesennuma to see the most surreal and vivid expression of the force of the tsunami. A large freighter rests at least 500 metres from the nearest water.

For the first time today – but not the last – I struggled to imagine the forces at work. Just how much water is  required to float a ship of this scale, then to smash it through every single building in its path for half a kilometre before setting it down?


Having watched a few documentaries and a host of videos online of the tsunami I had a good sense of what a tsunami might look like. But no media can cope with the scale of a disaster like this. We drove back south for hours. Every single cove had a village or a town wiped clean. Imagine your favourite seaside town: now imagine the first few hundred metres nearest the sea scraped clean down to the foundations. Every house, every shop, every restaurant. Now imagine that for five hundred kilometres of coastline.


In Miyagi prefecture the impact was made worse by the funnelling of the water as it came ashore. We visited a three storey emergency centre which has become legendary. 30 workers were sheltering on the roof, one woman in particular, calling out the alarm as the water arrived. The water swamped all three floors and then the roof. She, and most of her colleagues, were swept to their death as they struggled to cling to the mast on the roof.


We looked up at a hospital high on the bluff above the devastation all around it. It had to be 30 metres above where we stood. On the 11th March, the ground floor had sea water running through it.


The main focus of the day was to conduct interviews with two fishermen. I asked them about the sea and about their boats. I wanted to find out about moments when they had felt fear or lost control. Those moments when the sea surprised them. I wanted to connect their livelihood, their metier with the tsunami. And I asked them about how the events of 2011 had changed their view of the government. Both men spoke generously and openly, sharing the horror of what has happened but displaying an admirable focus on the future, on what has to be done.

On the way home we passed the elementary school where every child was waiting for their parents to pick them up and evacuate them. A few wanted to climb the hill behind the school. The teachers told them to come back down. A few minutes later the handful who had disobeyed watched every person in the school washed to their deaths. And so it goes on down the shoreline, through driving rain, story after story of courage, shock and horror.

It is not easy to digest a day like this. We drove for 16 hours and never loitered anywhere. But I feel more confident of my ability to engage with these events. The idea of using a boat in our project for Aichi needs to be handled with delicacy but is an appropriate metaphor. The vessel as country, as destiny, as moral framework all come into play. I’ve been thinking a lot about Joseph Conrad’s writing. Lord Jim uses a disaster as the beginning of a dread filled meditation on guilt.

And over dinner we discussed Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. The book describes the true story of the false imprisonment and abuse of Zeitoun, a good samaritan who uses his canoe during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to help neighbours. Then the paramilitary security forces turn up, accuse him of looting and of terrorism. The crystal clarity of the moral compasses of everyone I’ve met today stands as a heart lifting rebuke to what happened in New Orleans.

Trip to Sendai

Some days make me realise all over again what a privilege it is to be an artist. I’ve spent the day being shown around the tsunami impact zone just outside Sendai. We are researching a new project for the Aichi Triennale in 2013 and I’ve come to the area to learn more about the wider impact of the disaster on Japanese society.

Starting early in Tokyo, I met with Manami Yuasa and Chika Sudo at the British Council before taking the Shinkansen north to Sendai. Meiko Sano and Masahiko Haito have been my guides all day. At the train station we met with Hiroyuki, an architect and Sendai resident, and Izumi, a student who experienced the earthquake first hand and drove out of the city towards the coast. As we crossed the main motorway running north to south, suddenly the damage could be felt. Lines of electricity pylons are out of kilter. And the paddy fields are brown where the salt water has reached.

When we came to a lone school building I asked to stop and take some photos. As I walked through the long weeds across the road, I realised that I was, in fact, inside the foundations of someone’s house. And once we climbed to the top of nearby shrine I could see that the foundations were continuous in every direction.

Then we arrived at the long straight shoreline. Jagged concrete shapes off shore mark the defences that were already in place but it’s easy to see how a wave almost 10 metres tall would sweep directly over the sea wall. A small shrine is within earshot of the diggers working. Otherwise it is quiet and still.

Later we travelled to the bank where Izumi was waiting to get some money when the earthquake struck. I wanted to film her as she described what happened inside the bank. But despite the best efforts of Masahiko, the staff member deferred to the manager, the manager deferred to the regional man and our permission to film was denied. So I recorded sound only as Izumi described holding on to the legs of the table to stop it jumping around as she cowered beneath it. Then we walked outside as she showed me where the traffic lights were out as she tried to get home. People had spilled onto the street in shock. Once she got home, there was no electricty, no water and no phones; she and her mother waited through the afternoon as each member of her family finally made it home.

There are many other moments I could have picked to illustrate today. All forms of media seem unable to represent scale; certainly nothing I had seen prepared me for the scale of this. But alongside my sense of shock was another constant unsettling feeling. As an artist and an outsider, how do I dare to engage with this?

In The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein draws out the ways in which a disaster or crisis provides an opportunity for those with financial or political power to advance their agenda. She uses Hurricane Katrina as one of her examples, showing how neo liberal orthodoxies powered the approach to reconstruction. While the community was reeling, the profit motive unpicked long standing social contracts.

Here, it seems less ideologically divisive but fundamental questions have also been raised. Protests are taking place every week as the government restarts the nuclear plants. The first one came back online at Ohi on 1st July. The government insists everything is safe. That so many people are openly sceptical of those claims is a significant change in society.

The theme of the Triennale is “Awakenings”. Tomorrow, at 5am, we head north to Kesennuma.