The brainchild of Tokyo-based art troupe Chim-Pom, “Don’t Follow the Wind” is an international group exhibition located inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, the roughly 300 square miles of land near the Daiichi Power Plant that the Japanese government has deemed too “hot” for people to inhabit. Short-term permission to enter the area is granted only to former residents, their guests and certain types of workers. Organized by curators Kenji Kubota and Jason Waite and artists Eva and Franco Mattes, “Don’t Follow the Wind” comprises newly commissioned works by 12 artists and teams installed inside homes and structures loaned by former residents of the zone. Though the show opened in March 2015, the general public will not be able to physically see the work until the government increases access to the area, which will be years or decades.
Between September and November 2015, a “Non-Visitor Center” was open at the Watarium Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, where one could get a sense, and in some cases a decently full picture, of the work through video clips, performance props and descriptions on a portable audio guide. This was, in my opinion, a bad play, since the project’s aura depends heavily on the mysteriousness of an “invisible” exhibition inside nuclear “ghost towns.” Giving in to publicity might have been OK had the revealed works been as interesting as Chim-Pom’s starting concept. But “Don’t Follow the Wind” looks like just another passingly “concerned” group show, distinguished only by being spiced with real radioactive fallout.
Among the better works were Ai Weiwei’s Ray of Hope, a comment on post-human environments in the form of a solar-powered lighting system installed in an abandoned house that comes on for five hours in the morning and evening. Kōta Takeuchi went with a writer into an abandoned home inside the zone, where they photographed themselves wearing clothes left behind by the former residents, and later returned to install the printed photographs in the house. Taryn Simon is creating, according to the audio guide, a “database of the last digital photographs captured by Fukushima residents” before they evacuated in 2011.The images are reportedly available online. The punch line is that they are stored on a small server powered by solar energy inside the zone, where telecommunications signals are weak, making access to the images iffy.
Among the poorer contributions was Trevor Paglen’s, represented by a photograph. The work consists of a lump of trinitite (a glassy radioactive mineral formed in the 1945 nuclear weapons tests in New Mexico and embedded with bomb fragments) encased in a cube made of melted glass from shattered windowpanes found inside the exclusion zone. “Paglen brings together the debris of the origins of atomic histories and the disaster in Fukushima,” says the audio guide approvingly, though smashing together bombs and reactors obfuscates as much as it reveals about nuclear energy in Japan. Eva and Franco Mattes took photographs of surfaces inside the zone—roads, floors, walls—and shared them on the Internet as “texture packs,” figuratively contaminating the world. At Watarium, two pairs of protective Tyvek coveralls were ironically printed with these images of invisibly irradiated surfaces. Ahmet Ögüt went whole hog for the stereotypes by fabricating “a suit of armor for the nuclear age” that crossed samurai armor with a yellow hazmat suit. A video showed Ögüt “testing” his cartoon getup by reading, swimming and bicycling in it while inside the exclusion zone.
So simple and familiar was everything on view that being a “non-visitor” to the exhibition felt like access enough. Also typical (and more boring than offensive) was the narcissism. Occupying most of Watarium’s top floor was a multi-monitor installation by film director Sion Sono. The segment I caught showed Paglen and the Matteses discoursing over a spotty Skype connection about “risk society” and related topics in a telegraphic manner that would appeal only to an insider art-world audience (which is miniscule in Japan). More embarrassing is the roundtable in the catalogue, in which six of the exhibition’s Japanese participants pat each other on the back over how hard the show was to put together and how their names will be etched permanently into history thanks to their sojourn into the exclusion zone.