Neoliberalism and the Aftershocks of Natural Disasters

By Hannah Slater (Department of Art History)

The virtual conference Worlds in Contention: Race, Neoliberalism, and Injustice featured a range of discussions that about the correlations between land use, global supply chains, food systems, and disaster capitalism, among others. Scholars presented a series of case studies that prompted ideas on how individuals and groups respond to, and resist, the imposition of neoliberal logic upon cultural traditions and everyday life. These subjects are of particular interest within my own research in the Department of History of Art at OSU which focuses on how contemporary artists have responded to the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster that occurred in Japan on March 11, 2011. My interest is in artists who not only visualize the inseparability between natural disasters and their many causalities, but also emphasize localized moments to poke holes in global neoliberal structures that enable the undoing of communities.  

In the 10 years since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, artists in Japan have explored ways to address the triple disaster that occurred in March 2011. To say that “3.11” as it is commonly known, created two zones of disaster – one natural, one man-made – is an overly simplistic description that glosses over the ways that the two seemingly separate zones overlap and inform one another. What this means for artists is a constant negotiation between sets of overlapping questions, overwhelming in scope perhaps, but constantly prompting new approaches to the topic, new ways of seeing, and new spaces for alternative voices to be heard.

My research examines how visual artists address issues surrounding 3.11, engaging in dialogues that weave back and forth between questions around natural disaster, nuclear production, the geopolitical history of the Tōhoku region, the postwar occupation of Japan by the U.S., and postwar urbanization. In the works by the contemporary artists I study, there is no clear delineation between topics of the past and present, local and global, or natural and man-made. Instead, artworks are indicators of how such issues are intricately connected, turning the scholarly task from one that seeks any single solution to one that reveals increasingly complex nodes of connectivity. This was a predominant theme at the conference and one that reaches across geopolitical borders and scholarly disciplines: for example, Amy Offner described the construction of the Salvajina Dam in Columbia as marking a dynamic relationship between natural resources, political ambition, and regionalism; Thea Riofrancos discussed the “political risk” of lithium extraction; Charmaine Chua highlighted how the shipping industry relied on – and still does – unseen labor in order to sustain the global supply chain; and Hyun Ok Park discussed how the 2014 Sewŏl ferry disaster, as a symbol of the structural failings of neoliberal capitalism, prompted social activism that addressed the processes of memory and memorialization against a backdrop of conflicting notions of democracy, solidarity, sociability, and disaster capitalism.

Throughout the conference, I was prompted to think about how contemporary artists are particularly adept at making responses and resistance visible, specifically in the case of artists who address 3.11, but in circumstances outside of Japan as well. For example, while power relations may stand at the forefront of conversations about disaster (whether natural or man-made) what messages about racial injustice exist below the surface of disaster images? In what ways are gender identities challenged or confirmed through conversations about food safety, local organizing, or economic recovery?  How are the unequal systems of global capital made visible in images of a ruined landscape after a tsunami? What precedents are in place, and how are such precedents maintained, that displace cultural landscapes in favor of constructing industrial ones?

Especially since the bursting of the economic bubble in the 1990s, neoliberalism has been a topic in scholarship concerning contemporary Japan. It has not only been a way for scholars to address inequality of labor, capital, welfare, and gender but also as a point of criticism for artists whose work addresses the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters of 3.11.

My own case studies include the performance and video work of the artist collective group Chim↑Pom and photographer Hatakeyama Naoya (b. 1958), artists whose works create dialogues that move beyond the disaster itself. For example, in the video piece 100 Cheers (Ki-ai 100) the five members of Chim↑Pom huddle side-by-side with five unnamed volunteers amidst the destruction of Soma City. Over the course of approximately ten minutes, and interspersed by shouts of “ki-ai” (a shout practiced in judo and aikido) participants take turns vocalizing expressions of individual desire such as “I want a girlfriend!” (彼女ほしい!) and expressions of community support such as “Keep it up Tohoku!” (都北頑張ろう!). Located directly within the disaster zone, these expressions echo across uncertain physical and psychological surfaces, conflating the anxieties that come with unresolved choices between life and livelihood in a post-disaster landscape. Through such voices, viewers may question whether they are viewing statements of unity or dissent.

In another example, photographer Hatakeyama Naoya captures the immediate aftermath of the tsunami at Rikuzentakata, giving some sense to the scale of topographical destruction and also addressing directly modes of reconstruction and the use of natural resources in rebuilding the disaster area. When these images are examined alongside his previous works, Hatakeyama demonstrates a preoccupation with land excavation, prompting discussions of how unequal relationships are (re)forged between landscape and corporate industry, energy production, and state ambition. Hence, the recovery in Rikuzentakata continues precedents of industrial ambitions that began in the earlier postwar period, and even earlier when the Meiji government (1868-1912) identified Japan’s northern region as coveted territory for industrial development that would serve the Tokyo metropolis and even further-reaching political ambitions for national production and security.

What artists like Chim↑Pom and Hatakeyama do, in other words, is conflate past, present, and future into single moments and thus engage viewers in interdisciplinary dialogues that reach beyond the disaster and beyond any single discipline. Of course, these are only two examples of artists who seek to problematize overly simplified narratives of disaster in favor of ones that prompt difficult questions about less seen or even ignored, systems of neoliberal engineering. Like the presenting scholars at Worlds in Contention, contemporary artists are prompting nuanced and cross-disciplinary ways of challenging global capitalist systems in ways that do not bypass the local aftershocks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.