By Siri McGuire
“The radiation is a tattoo on my body.” Upon looking at Eiko Otake’s exhibit “A Body in Fukushima,” it is clear how that tattoo got there. Whether at a devastated train station or a tsunami-wrecked and radiation tainted field in Fukushima, the artist connects with her environment despite the dangers of doing so, placing a body in a space in which very few individuals still go, making the unimaginable imaginable for the viewer.
Environmental and humanitarian disasters like the one that occurred in Fukushima, unfortunately, are all too common- as Eiko said during her guest lecture, “Fukushima is not unique.” What is also not unique about this situation is how people in other parts of the world may respond to it- with sadness, but also with a certain degree of unimaginability. This inability to fully imagine the reality of Fukushima, or other places of environmental disaster, is not just the result of the tragedy occuring far away. Rather, it also results from an unwillingness to factor in our own responsibility for environmental issues on a global scale. As we find ourselves unable to fully imagine it because of these reasons, we disconnect ourselves from the suffering of those experiencing it directly. This is one of the more straightforward meanings I found in the exhibition. By including a person in photographs of Fukushima that we almost always see as empty and abandoned, we can begin to reimagine the suffering that took place and continues to take place there.
In this way, viewing the exhibition makes it possible to recognize the link between environmental disaster and human suffering. However, the exhibition also made me connect not only those elements, but also the elements of environmental disaster and human responsibility. To me, Eiko is avoiding the avoidance of responsibility; she is purposefully tattooing herself with the disaster of the place, so as not to ignore the human responsibility implicit in the disaster. She seemed to be inflicting herself with the consequences of a disaster that was not only caused by environmental factors, but many human ones as well. Images of her in the exhibition are contrasted with photos of abandoned homes, piles of contaminated bicycles and appliances, and bags upon bags of topsoil tainted with radiation, in all of which Eiko is absent. This contrast made me think of the ways in which we leave behind or abandon certain things after a disaster as opposed to the things we carry with us and hold close to us, with these photographs being the intersection of the two.
Viewing the photos I was reminded of the ways in which I bear responsibility in times of disaster. Eiko Otake carries her “radiation tattoo” around with her wherever she goes now, which to me illustrates not only her connection with the human and environmental suffering of the Fukushima, but also her sense of profound responsibility and willingness as a human to bear the consequences of the tragedy. It is a willingness and responsibility that I hope someday I can also have the courage to pursue, and I thank Eiko for presenting “A Body in Fukushima” so that I and others are reminded of that responsibility.