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Memory, Fear and Fallout

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Stanislava Pinchuk, Fukushima (detail), 2016, pin-holes on paper, 75 x 101 cm. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery

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Like you, I am endowed with memory. I know what it is to forget.
no, you are not endowed with memory...

Stanislava Pinchuk [Miso]’s delicate works line the walls of Hugo Michell Gallery. Within the white frames a hint of detail catches the eye, a series of intricately placed pin holes have been hammered into watercolour paper, hauntingly tracing the topographies of sites within the nuclear exclusion zone in Fukushima. The works are uniform and organised. Meditations on beauty, skill and tradition are punctuated by photographs of the contaminated remnants of the 2011 Fukushima disaster site. The story begins with the wall text:

I keep thinking about when we first got out of the car in Fukushima, and right at my feet were those fish nets drying on the ground, tracing the topography of the dead earth. That’s exactly what the whole nuclear evacuation zone felt like.

This huge operation, putting an entire landscape into bags, like you can contain something like that. But it was just fallout, falling out through the holes.

Text Message: Sent to I.S.
15.1.2016 - 2:36 am: Tokyo

These mapped geographies illustrate more than just sites of tragedy; they serve to map a memory of events to ensure these abandoned landscapes are not forgotten. A quiet and delicate mirror, Miso’s works are polite in the face of disaster, arguably akin to the Japanese governments initial response to the situation in Fukushima. There is a subtlety to the works which reflects the way hard truths were communicated. Armed with the knowledge of the disastrous series of events which began in Fukushima in March 2011, a dark and foreboding feeling accompanies the work.

This delicately expressed fear of the nuclear, reminded me of the opening scene of Alain Resnais’ 1959 French New Wave film Hiroshima Mon Amour. Two bodies locked in embrace are softly showered with what you assume is the ashy snow of nuclear fallout. This simple and beautiful imagery is accompanied with a dialogue on memory, false memory and forgetting. Miso’s pin prick topographies, created using a method which the artist describes as "making memories physical" (2), and Hiroshima Mon Amours poignant opening scene, for me evoke the same feeling of tension between; nuclear disaster in Japan, remembering history and the uncomfortable beauty of artists’ depictions of nuclear fallout. Miso’s works illustrate an ability to see the beautiful remnants left by disaster and destruction. Alternatively, perhaps they directly illustrate the holes in both memory and landscape which the fall out, fell through.

The photographs in the exhibition punctuate but also distract from the delicacy of the message. The strongest and most coherent of the photographic works are the bags of contaminated soil. The idea that nuclear contamination can be collected, stored, categorised and accounted for is reflective of the order and control prevalent in Japanese culture. An attempt to contain something within boundaries which are arguably invisible and indefinable is a futile exercise. Yet this tedious process of collecting the land and storing it in uniform bags is culturally significant as it facilitates a sense that the situation is able to be controlled.

In the centre of the gallery sits a small shrine to a destroyed home. The assemblage is personal yet simultaneously anonymous and public. A shared memory made up of a collection of the type of strange objects you might come across outside any Japanese home, soda bottles from a vending machine, chrysanthemums and the central motif of the exhibition; a fishing net. As a group of works, one could view the exhibition as conceptually heavy handed. The topographies alone would be beautiful and obtuse, however the combination of the text, the shrine and the photographs come together to create an installation which functions like the components of a distant memory, a memory of an event which we didn’t witness and which the artist has pieced together from the fallout alone.

To enter Miso’s work, you cannot avoid touching on the nuclear debate. It is five years since the Fukushima disaster and sources state that the plant is still leaking (3). Yet the discussion around Nuclear energy is one we are currently confronted with on our own shores. The government is running a ‘lets discuss’ nuclear energy advertising campaign, coupled with a calm and serene backing track and a gentle soothing female voice (4). This attempt to normalise and create a feeling of serenity around, in SA’s case the potential storage of nuclear waste, is a strange dichotomy. Fear of the nuclear is tied up in the fear of the bomb, something so powerful and so destructive. This conceptual relationship between the bomb and nuclear power plants is one that is hard to shake.

Once when you thought about Japan and nuclear disasters you thought of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, now Fukushima is often the first name to come across someone’s lips. The fallout from Japan's nuclear history has become a defining part of the culture, so much so that survivors of Hiroshima "are called in Japanese hibakuska – ‘those who have seen hell’" (5). That is why the reflection on the displaced personal histories of residents of Fukushima bears so much weight. While it was natural disasters which triggered the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, the occurrence highlights the dangers inherent in using nuclear energy and the accompanying personal and cultural ramifications of contamination.

Nuclear fallout leaves us with the problematic reality of how to live in a contaminated landscape and the painful challenge of remembering what once was. In one sense Miso’s exhibition is a shrine to the destroyed and abandoned physical and conceptual landscape of Fukushima. The fishing nets being the thread which ties past, present and future together. There is a simplicity which has been lost, has fallen through, give a person a fish and they will eat for a day, teach a person to fish and they will eat for a life time, but if technology fails and contaminates the waters, what then? The more you reflect on the themes of Miso’s Fallout the more poetic it becomes, like the simple homemade shrine, Miso’s work delicately reminds us to remember.

Stanislava Pinchuk, Fukushima VIII, 2016, pin-holes on paper, 75 x 101 cm. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery
Stanislava Pinchuk, Fukushima VIII, 2016, pin-holes on paper, 75 x 101cm. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery