Japanese artist Tomiyama Taeko (b. 1921) has devoted her life to creating paintings, prints and collages that explore contested histories of war and colonialism in East Asia. Since establishing her one-woman studio, Hidane Kobo (glowing embers) in 1975, she has collaborated with musician and composer Takahashi Yuji to produce powerful audio-visual slide and dvd works that help us better understand untold stories of the past so that we may make better sense of the present; the two artists see themselves as modern day “tabigeinin” (wandering minstrels) who like poets and painters of medieval times, speak through their art to the times.
Given Tomiyama’s passionate commitment to art as a vehicle for both the expression of poetic vision and social responsibility, it is not surprising that she began to work on a news series of paintings almost immediately after the triple disasters (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear) struck northeastern Japan last March 11. Nor is it surprising that the sea should be the stage for her “Revelations” of and reflections on these disasters. In earlier works such as Memories of the Sea (1986) and Hiruko and the Puppeteers: A Tale of Sea Wanderers (2009), the artist has used images of a shaman’s undersea journey to the South seas and that of a puppet troupe traveling across Central and Southeast Asia, and then in small boats along sea routes to Taiwan and north to her native Awaji Island in western Japan. Through these works, the artist links histories of war and natural disaster to our present, turbulent times. When Tomiyama was working on paintings and collages for Hiruko in 2005, the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami struck and she decided to make reference to this disaster in the work.
When the March 11 disasters struck last year, Tomiyama asked herself how she might address the enormity of the loss caused by natural disaster—whole villages washed away—and the ongoing man-made nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Again, the sea is the stage, but to convey the larger-than-human scale of the natural disasters, she would need to find imagery other than the shaman, fox and puppets used in earlier works. From early on, it was also clear that media reports concealed information about the man-made nuclear disaster and that yet another “contested contemporary” history was being constructed before our eyes.
In “Revelation from the Sea: Tsunami,” Shitenno, or Guardian Deities of the gods of the four directions rise up out of the dark, angry sea. Fires burn on water and the sky beyond the horizon glows ominously. The four devas who originated in India and appear as deities in the Buddhist pantheon across east Asia, hold computer parts and other now useless fragments of the civilization presumably lost under the sea. Were they unable to ward off evil and protect the nation from the devastation brought by the tsunami? Or are they rising before us to warn against the frailty of human existence in the face of possible future devastation?
Tomiyama began working on these these large paintings in mid-April. On April 7, a major “aftershock” struck the Fukushima area where desperate efforts were being made to contain the already serious nuclear disaster. In early May, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced his aim to shut down the Hamaoka power plant immediately. In “Fukushima: Spring of Caesium-137,” Tomiyama introduces another deity, this time one from the Shinto pantheon of gods, Fujin, (God of the Wind). This dark, demon-like god rides on the wind and scatters particles of Caesium 137 along with seasonal cherry blossoms over land and sea. What at first glance appears to be a painting of a commonly seen theme, Japan in springtime, comes to have foreboding associations.
It wasn’t until October that journalists were allowed inside the Fukushima Daiichi facility to take more detailed photographs of the destruction. When Tomiyama saw these images, she began and completed a new painting in a few short weeks. In “Japan: Nuclear Power Plant,” we see the artist’s interpretation of a photographic document; the bleak, crumbling frame of the plant, a skeleton against a bleak landscape, speaks more boldly of the fragility and hubris of this man-made accident than photo or words. Tomiyama plans to conclude the series with a fourth painting that features Raijin, (God of Thunder), who often appears with Fujin. Once again the revelation comes from the dark, angry sea; the deity rides on a thunderous wave, perhaps to warn us of unstoppable natural disasters and remind us of that we might just be able to save ourselves from the dangers of man-made ones.
Rebecca Jennison teaches in the Humanities Department at Kyoto Seika University. With Laura Hein, she co-edited “Imagination without Borders: Feminist Artist Tomiyama Taeko and Social Responsibility” (Center for Japan Studies, University of Michigan, 2010). Her publications include “Reconciliation and Remembrance in the Art of Tomiyama Taeko,” in InterAsia Cultural Studies, Routledge (forthcoming).