Theatre artist Akira Takayama has teamed up with artist Meiro Koizumi for a joint exhibition at Ginza Maison Hermès Le Forum.
Guest-curated by Fumihiko Sumitomo, Demarcation runs from July 31st to October 12th at the eighth-floor gallery in the Hermès flagship store in Tokyo. It consists of a duo of separate, yet thematically linked video installations.
Takayama’s contribution is Happy Island: The Messianic Banquet of the Righteous, whose name is derived from a literal translation of “Fukushima” and the title of a miniature (pictured) in a thirteenth-century Hebrew Bible found in the Ambrosian Library, Milan.
Under the shade of paradisiacal trees and cheered by the music of two players, the righteous, with crowned heads, sit at a richly laid table… Beneath the crowns, the miniaturist has represented the righteous not with human faces, but with unmistakably animal heads. Here, not only do we recognize the eschatological animals in the three figures on the right — the eagle’s fierce beak, the red head of the ox, and the lion’s head — but the other two righteous ones in the image also display the grotesque features of an ass and the profile of a leopard. And in turn the two musicians have animal heads as well — in particular the more visible one on the right, who plays a kind of fiddle and shows an inspired monkey’s face.
Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (2004)
From this obscure image buried inside an ancient manuscript in Europe, Takayama has fashioned a haunting installation about the so-called Farm of Hope, a ranch located in Namie inside the Fukushima exclusion zone. There the owner Masami Yoshizawa refuses to stop farming. He knows he cannot sell his cattle but in protest at the government and TEPCO continues to tend to his animals on his property, rather than evacuate and start a new life. Defying the authorities, he moved back to his home inside the no-man’s land and raises cattle left behind — bovine beasts as much victims as the human refugees from the disaster. The rancher even brought a radiated bull to Tokyo in an extraordinary protest at the agriculture ministry in 2014, leading to a police scuffle (after all, all protest is partly performative).
The animals left behind to roam and starve in the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant also served as an important departure point for Elfriede Jelinek’s Kein Licht. series of texts. Likewise, Takayama has consistently created projects exploring the effects of the Fukushima disaster ever since 2011, including Referendum Project (2011 and ongoing) and Kein Licht II (2012).
Takayama borrows this Christian menagerie and creates a “performance” with it: five video screens on the floor show the cows innocently chewing food and resting on their ranch. Yoshizawa’s cows have white specks on their hides, the result of contamination. They are safe from the slaughter and free from the burden of labour, yet they are also doomed by radiation. Caught in this bind, they live on in permanent limbo — just like the thousands still residing in temporary housing as evacuees in north-east Japan. Not so much lions led by donkeys, as farm animals neglected by absentee masters.
The performance is also called a “banquet”, which is accompanied by music: another screen shows a local school child’s hands playing Sheep May Safely Gaze on a piano keyboard, with the music piping serenely into the space.
Yoshizawa appears in a second video in a neighbouring booth, where he leads a cow through eerily deserted Fukushima streets (Namie today is effectively a ghost town). The camera is mounted on the bovine’s back, so it looks like the cow is leading us. Yoshizawa wears a monkey mask in a nod to the original picture.
Takayama’s work is quietly angry and chilling, but also hopeful. The “happy island” is not just ironic, since in a sense the cows are content. The question is for how long, since the lives of nuclear evacuees will be shorter than normal. Or is the island Japan herself, stuck in the Galapagos syndrome with her head in the sand? The choice by Takayama not to use the full title of the miniature, though, is telling: this is The Messianic Banquet of the Righteous on the Last Day sans its final four words, and thus its apocalyptic tone. There is a possibility of a future.
Koizumi’s work on the other side of the gallery consists of two videos about amnesia. The subject matter is different and, literally, more human, but the theme is ultimately the same: we are forgetting what happened, replaced by daily banalities and other national crises. But the victims remain. As Fumihiko Sumitomo asks in his curator’s note: “We are said to be animals with self-recognition, but do we really know who we truly are?”
There is a strange contrast between the exhibition and its location; a poignant, mnemonic work intended to remind us of Fukushima’s proximity installed in a high-end brand’s flagship store in plush Ginza (that being said, Le Forum is consistently one of Tokyo’s best art spaces). Go downstairs into Maison Hermès proper and you will be met by the blast of the store’s extreme air-conditioning, reminding you that Tokyo’s setsuden power-saving days are well and truly over, whether cows remain in the exclusion zone or not.