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The Radiants

Bortolami Gallery, New York, USA

‘The Radiants’, 2015, installation view

‘The Radiants’, 2015, installation view

In his recent book, After Fukushima (2014), Jean-Luc Nancy draws out the philosophical ramifications of the 2011 catastrophe in Japan: the undersea earthquake that caused a tsunami that led to a nuclear disaster whose effects continue to extend today even further into global social, economic and political spheres. ‘It is the interdependent totality of our technologized world whose truth we must think about.’ Such a world formed the backdrop for ‘The Radiants’, a group exhibition curated by Jacob King and UNITED BROTHERS, which, in taking ‘radiation’ as an open-ended theme, did some of this thinking. Fukushima provided more than a frame for the show; it was the point from which it extended, almost literally. UNITED BROTHERS is a collaborative project between Fukushima-born brothers Ei and Tomoo Arakawa, which was initiated using compensatory funds they received from the power company following the disaster. Together, they founded Green Tea Gallery, a ‘fake’ art gallery that intends to bring international artists, mostly friends, into a conversation around Fukushima. Here, you might already sense one kind of radiation at work, in the form of a discourse projecting out from the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, which gradually implicates more and more people. Their work at Bortolami included a barely there cardboard ‘room’ housing a television (Green Tea Gallery Viewing Room, 2015) screening two of their hour-long science-fiction movies whose lengthy cast lists include mainly artists, writers and gallerists. Set in the international art world, the films tell (badly and hysterically) of UNITED BROTHERS’ struggle against a plot by a group of mad scientists seeking to control the world’s nuclear plants, resulting in occasional battles between art-powered androids.

‘Art energy’ could be said to be one organizing principle of the show, at least in the sense that several of the pieces intertwined meaning with symbolic performances of radiation. For example, on the floor in the centre of the largest room in the gallery was a solo piece by Ei Arakawa, Nuclear Lanterns (Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 to 4), (2015): four small lamps designed after the four broken reactors in Fukushima, which added to the overhead light illuminating the works in the exhibition. Likewise, all of the work in the show was placed within earshot of a piece by Sergei Tcherepnin (Radiation Yield Route 6 (Version 2), 2015), which emitted a dull tapping sound with varying frequency corresponding to levels of radiation encountered during a drive between the homes of the Arakawas’ relatives in the area near Fukushima. A piece by Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda (March Painting, 2015), an understated blue painting made with a special, radiation-absorbing pigment, works like an antithesis to both of these by actually neutralizing radiation, rather than symbolically releasing it.

The exhibition drew artworks out of an international network and aligned them to expand its thinking: if radiation has the potential to alter living bodies at the invisible level of their DNA, many of the works included seemed to undergo a similarly subtle but fundamental transformation as they passed through the discursive zone of the show. For example, seen through its contemporary lens, works from the 1950s by artists Tatsuo Ikeda and Enrico Baj looked portentous, transmitting anxieties surrounding nuclear technology after the then-recent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One dark abstract painting by Baj that frenetically visualizes nuclear catastrophe (Esplosione, Explosion, 1951) found unexpected resonance with a nearby piece by Kerstin Brätsch, who, via the technique of marbling, wrested a crystal-clear image from the totally entropic situation of pigment floating on the surface of water ([Pele’s Curse_Unstable Talismanic Rendering Series] with Gratitude to Master Marbler Dirk Lange, 2014). Other works that may, at first, have seemed entirely unrelated could not escape the show’s pull. In this context, the silver mylar string curtain by Jutta Koether that hung in front of her painting (Untitled, 2008) became legible as an inadequate barrier for the hot-pink picture, which beamed through ominously.

By assembling many practices that are conceptually and geographically disparate, ‘The Radiants’ felt broadly contiguous with UNITED BROTHERS’ project as a whole. In drawing its audience’s attention to Fukushima and mobilizing artworks to amplify its reality, the exhibition makes an intervention into a global system that’s become inconceivably interdependent, while also posing possibilities for thinking about art’s place within it.

Scott Roben is an artist and writer living in Berlin.

Issue 171

First published in Issue 171

May 2015
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