Reflection (Tonkonow)

By Lydia Tonkonow

Eiko Otake and photographer William Johnston embarked on a journey to document and react to the environmental devastation inflicted by the meltdown of nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan. Eiko uses her body as a medium to convey her grief and incomprehension of the damage, a result of a series of natural disasters exposing man-made folly. What’s more, by returning to the site of the meltdown, both the photographer and the dancer exposed themselves to the penetrative radiation that still sweeps across the landscape. Through this knowledge, the project gains an additional layer of personal impact: while those involved in the artistic endeavor may not have been present in the actual geographic location during the time of the disaster, Eiko and Johnston still physically expose themselves to the consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear destruction.

One example of Johnston’s work is the image Eiko in Fukushima, Momouchi, 25 July 2014, No. 385, which presents Eiko lying in the vegetation overtaking a set of abandoned railroad tracks. Eiko doesn’t face the camera, but rather stares, open-palmed, at the heavy blanket of foliage. Her collapsed pose is in stark contrast to the obvious vitality of the plants; however, through her stillness, Eiko emphasizes the underlying toxicity of the plants as a result of their exposure to residual radiation in the area. The palette of the photograph is primarily limited to warm shades of brown and gray, evocative of drought and death. Through the incorporation of the greenery, an unnatural and almost impossible sense of vitality crawls into the scene, resulting in the development of an eerie tone.

We see another example of the emotional power of Johnston’s photographs through Eiko in Fukushima, Sakamoto, 17 January, No. 210. In this piece, Eiko’s form captures the initial attention of the viewer, from her forlorn face to her body language, which conveys a sense of powerful struggle against the wind in the landscape. The wind appears to represent the invisible force of the unleashed radiation, sweeping over a now barren and uninhabitable landscape. Eiko’s pose simultaneously shows how she is both engulfed by the fallout of the nuclear reactor and determined to face the lingering effects of its radiation. As a subject, she appears both frail and resilient.