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Out of Tokyo

229: Quakes and Arts IV
Ozaki Tetsuya
Date: August 11, 2011

What confused me when visiting the Venice Biennale was the fact that right after the event I couldn't help but be reminded of the recent earthquake even by totally unrelated things I saw. In their performance at the Arsenale, the members of the group "gelitin", for example, were wearing heatproof suits while melting glass bottles in reference to the local specialty product, and to me those suits didn't look any different from those worn for radiation protection. The furnace, likewise, looked like a containment vessel. That’s perfectly natural of course considering that reactors are furnaces after all, but as a matter of fact the entire performance reminded me of restoration work at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

 

Out of Tokyo 229 | REALTOKYO

It was a similar effect with Thomas Hirschhorn’s "Crystal of Resistance". Vast amounts of furniture, dishes, bicycles, mannequins, TV sets, cell phones, bottles, cans and broken glass were scattered all across the interior of the huge Swiss pavilion. There were magazines reporting on – guess what – the Great East Japan Earthquake, and photographs documenting conflict and suppression in Libya and elsewhere. There was also a "Vagina dentate" made of cotton buds. Most of these items were randomly wrapped with packing tape, aluminum foil and vinyl sheet, out of which objects were sticking out here and there to make the whole thing look like crystal as suggested in the title. All that looked pretty much like rubble in the tsunami-stricken area.

 

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This year’s Biennale was not the first occasion for Hirschhorn to showcase this kind of style. As far as I know, he used the same formula also for "24h Foucault", shown at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2004. The same goes for the rather small-sized "Spinoza-Car" (2009) that is currently exhibited as part of the "French Window" show at Mori Art Museum. Hirschhorn got close to perfection in the exhibition at the Gwangju Biennale 2010, so one can say that it has become a well-honed theme and technique. While reminding me a bit also of the Nazi-incited raid on Jewish people in what has become known as the "Kristallnacht", it is the consistent "crystal" concept that brilliantly penetrates this work. Beyond that, the sheer volume of mass-produced consumer goods gathered and put on display is absolutely persuasive.

 

Back to earthquakes and nuclear accidents, I'd like to point out that many people are speaking of a déjà vu experience regarding the present state of things. As a matter of fact, the list of movies, plays, anime, manga, novels and other works illustrating a "world in ashes" after the outbreak of a nuclear war or other catastrophe is endless, resulting in a vast collection of "apocalyptic (and post-apocalyptic) sceneries" in our imagination. However it is not only in the nuclear arms race during the cold war era that we should look for the origins of these images, and besides, the recent disaster in Fukushima is of course not an isolated accident that occurred independently of past cold war structures (caused by an "unexpected" earthquake and tsunami for example).

 

"Speed philosopher" Paul Virilio has been claiming since the late 1980s that "technology 'invents' accidents." According to Virilio, "The shipwreck is the 'futuristic' invention of the ship, the air crash the invention of the supersonic plane, and the Chernobyl meltdown, the invention of the nuclear power station." ("The Original Accident"). He further suggests that the pursuit of technological advancement is synonymous with a pursuit of speed. "Speed" in this case is probably the same thing that Murakami Haruki was talking about when speaking of "efficiency" in his speech at the Catalonia International Prize awarding ceremony on 6/9. After all, we are living in an age of speed and efficiency. Speed and efficiency inevitably invent accidents. In other words, it is an age where accidents are unavoidable.

 

The problem is that the "accidents" we are talking about here are not locally limited. Let me quote Virilio again: "Today, the new technologies convey a certain type of accident, one that is no longer local and precisely situated, like the sinking of the Titanic or the derailment of a train, but general, an accident that immediately affects the entire world." ("The Cyberworld, The Politics Of The Very Worst"). He reminds us of the possibilities of Internet technology-based real-time communication and financial engineering, as well as of financial crises (such as Lehman’s fall) that may be triggered by such things. This probably also applies to contagious diseases like bird flu that spread around the globe in no time.

 

From such civilization historical point of view, Hirschhorn’s works are reflecting the current state of things in a truly accurate manner. His assemblages of daily commodities are accurate visual and haptic renditions of the vague or exposed anxiety that characterizes the situation we are in now, at the beginning of the 21st century. That "situation" is nothing else but what is being referred to as "globalization". Since the end of the cold war era, the world has been rushing headlong toward globalization in pursuit of speed and efficiency. The results are economic disparity and a concentration of capital and profit; civil wars, conflict, suppression and battles for resources; environmental destruction and a decrease of cultural diversity. The recent nuclear accident is a logical consequence of this trend that we have to interpret as an accident that was only waiting to happen. To quote Virilio one more time, "globalization is the ultimate accident of political economy that has just reached the geophysical limits of its sphere of activity." ("The Original Accident")

 

A distinguished artist senses and warns of critical situations like "a canary in a coal mine" (Kurt Vonnegut). In Venice, not only Hirschhorn but many other artists presented works inspired by issues related to globalization. Even if they didn't deal directly with nuclear energy, I think it is fair to say that these various problems have been predicting a nuclear accident in a civilization historical framework. A distinguished artist is supposedly sensing that now – and in fact even since several years – that "all roads lead to Fukushima."

 

(July 01, 2011)

Ozaki Tetsuya / Editor in chief / REALTOKYO