POST TOHOKU : THE SPIRIT OF PLACE
Exhibition text by Guylaine Tousignant
"We're both looking at the same moon, in the same world.
We're connected to reality by the same line.
All I have to do is quietly draw it towards me"
-Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart.
It is said that the concept of impermanence is deeply embedded in the mind of the Japanese people. It's what they call the "mujo". Everything that is born dies and everything that exists constantly changes. It is all transitory. That is how life is.
Since this idea of temporality is rooted in century-old traditions influenced by both Shintoism and Buddhism, the Japanese accept and welcome this impermanence with what could be described as serenity instead of being plagued by it. Whatever dies is reborn. Whatever is destroyed is to be better rebuilt.
Maybe it is this serenity in the face of the ephemeral that explains the fearless relationship the Japanese have with their restless territory. The Japanese archipelago is situated on four large tectonic plates that meet and collide. Earthquakes are part of daily life on these vaporous islands. Following each disaster, as is so well put by artist Michel Huneault, one must "renegotiate peace of mind" in a land of constant turmoil. Even if life is ephemeral, this renegotiation takes time and goes through ups and downs.
On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by one of the greatest disasters in its history. An underwater earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale shook the country for six minutes. Less than an hour later, the first of many waves, some reaching over 20 metres, flooded the coast of the archipelago up to 10 km inland. 15,894 people lost their lives, 6,152 were injured and 2,562 were reported missing. Over a million buildings were completely destroyed or damaged. More than 300,000 Japanese found themselves homeless overnight. In the hours that followed, three nuclear reactors in Fukushima exploded. All those living within a 20 km radius of the blast had to evacuate their homes.
In spring 2012, one year after the disaster, Michel Huneault visited the pacific coast of Tohoku. He returned early 2016 and is already planning to go there again. His travels in the Japanese region enabled him to capture in image and sound the damage caused by the triple catastrophe and the evolution of the renegotiation the Japanese have with their land – a complex and shifting renegotiation.
When we are half a world away, we often have the impression that the duration of a disaster is limited to its media coverage. The first story is released; it moves readers, creates dialogue. What follows is a repetition of the same images in the hours and days following the disaster. Then the images gradually disappear until the memory of the disaster dwindles. The scale of the present moment is at the heart of this process and is part of the rhythm of our lives. If time passes, we have to quickly grab it.
In his work, Michel Huneault adopts an approach that in some way challenges this eagerness. His project, Post Tohoku, is part of a series of projects that seek to document the passage of time following geographic and human trauma with the aim to better grasp the subtleties and curves of its evolution. It's a humanist approach, humble and essential, that provides fresh perspectives and in a certain way, is part of the slow and perilous road to rehabilitation. The artist spent months on the north-east coast of Japan, and left often to reflect, to allow the people and the land to breathe, to come back to it all better. Sometimes, we must take our time even if it takes a lifetime.
It is a work that is time-consuming and that comes with a sense of responsibility regarding representation. It's a responsibility that Michel Huneault takes seriously since the images contribute to the mental representations that we make of our space and the space of others. People who survive a tragedy have to recognize themselves in its representations just like the public exposed to them. And that is when the images translate the spirit of place and in effect, create a common place where we can meet to better understand and capture the world we live in, despite the geographic and cultural distances that separate us. As the artist says, an intelligent work, a well done work, regardless of the subject, can provide us with an experience that touches the universal. It is at this moment that our collective imaginations come together.
In Tohoku, five years after the disaster, there are signs of renewal. In certain areas, brand new villages are erected, often on higher ground. Other communities are building future plans that take them elsewhere. Fishermen return to work even if in certain locations the infrastructure is not fully rebuilt.
In Tohoku, there are also devastated sectors that are stuck in time and remain abandoned, ruined schools where students and teachers lost their lives, a father holding a photo of his son who died March 11, 2011 at the Okawa School. There are mausoleums that remind us of what is no longer and that give meaning to the past in order to better see the future.
There are debates, the invisible threat, and great uncertainty. There are villagers who do not agree on the ways to rebuild the future, citizens that oppose government decisions.
On the Tohoku coastline, there are new all-concrete protection walls, much higher than the ones previously erected and that were unable to withstand the force of the waves.
In Tohoku, as elsewhere, there are the waves of life constantly coming and going, the cries of birds in the wind, and the passing of time which haunts and celebrates the spirit of place.