When an earthquake in Tōhoku began to growl on Japan’s Pacific coast on March 11, 2011, trembling soil was only the beginning: resulting 130-foot-tall tsunami waves stretched up to six miles inland, permanently pushing Japan’s main island, Honshu, eight feet east. The high tide damaged boats and shoreline structures in the Philippines, Hawaii, California, and South America. The Earth shifted on its axis by several inches; the length of a day has been shortened by nearly two microseconds. That night, 20,000 people slept inside Tokyo Disneyland.
The heavy surges went beyond water: three reactors inside the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex bore level 7 meltdowns, a grade reached only once before: in Chernobyl, in 1986. A permanent exclusion zone circles the reactor by a radius of 19 miles, and the city of Chernobyl and its surrounding towns have remained essentially abandoned. The Great East Japan earthquake—the country’s most powerful one ever recorded—has displaced over 200,000 citizens outside the confines of the city’s temporary 12-mile exclusion zone indefinitely, and Tokyo, over 200 miles away, was on the verge of evacuation. Families made a move swiftly, not stopping to pack up very much; footage from inside the emptied areas show homes and offices escaped from at a moment’s notice, kitchen countertops and workstations seemingly frozen midday. Panic drove many to head north, but some people saved themselves with a moment’s hesitation, stopping to feel which way the wind blew, and breaking away from the nuclear drift.
Don’t Follow the Wind is a collective project sheltered—or trapped—within three homes and offices and a farm inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, loaned from their former occupants, initiated by Japanese artist group Chim↑Pom and exhibiting work by Ai Weiwei, Miyanaga Aiko, Grand Guignol Mirai, Nikolaus Hirsch and Jorge Otero-Pailos, Kota Takeuchi, Eva and Franco Mattes, Meiro Koizumi, Nobuaki Takekawa, Ahmet Öğüt, Trevor Paglen and Taryn Simon, and curated by Kenji Kubota, Eva and Franco Mattes, and Jason Waite. Though the uniquely menacing conditions prevented artists from producing work in situ, the installations are site-specific, many created with the expectation that their appearance will have been altered by heavy radiation when, or if, the exhibition opens to the public. The curators and a few artists snuck inside the Exclusion Zone to produce the show, and it officially opened in March 2015.
The project is also part of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, on view until June 5. “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed” is divided into several “embassies of thought”—Embassies of the Real; of Non-Participation; of Stanislaw Lem, a loose library of books by the Polish science fiction writer organized by artist Heman Chong; of Transition, and of Disappearance—as well as a latent network of “In-between spaces.” Within the prismatic, curious, and sensitive show, sprawling into every corner to cover Sydney, DFTW is represented at the Embassy of Disappearance inside Carriageworks, the former Eveleigh Rail Yards complex of railway carriage and blacksmith workshops that now comprise Australia’s largest art space. Recreating the host environment in Fukushima, without its creeping hazards, gives the impression of a ghost town, one propped up by whispered rumors and apocalyptic cautionary tales. A constellation of helmets hanging individually on cables from the ceiling, with a stool positioned underneath each one, sway like abandoned hanged carcasses. The helmets were crafted by members of artist Bontaro Dokuyama’s family, all of whom live at the border of the Exclusion Zone, and have chosen to stay despite their daily exposure to low-level radiation. Made from local material scraps, including brightly painted cardboard panels, tinfoil, and paper shopping bags, each helmet is a viewer for a panoramic film shot by DFTW in Fukushima, capturing the barren neighborhood left to radiation, and eradication. One of the scattered empty tables and chairs set to the side of the helmets, lifted from a café set to open in Fukushima on April 8, 2011, holds a rock of uranium mined in Queensland, Australia inside a thick acrylic cube for close inspection. An “information counter” of printouts tacked to plywood leaning against a wall lays out a grayscale map of Australia’s uranium deposits, Fukushima, and surrounding ocean current circulation swirls.
The surrogate of the Exclusion Zone at Carriageworks doesn’t simulate the experience of walking through a radioactive neighborhood; it isn’t meant to. The sparse area in the center of a cavernous exhibition hall isn’t even contained within any clear boundary, to the contrast of Fukushima’s policed checkpoints and barricades. Witness accounts disclose the Zone to be just as spare and gaunt as the makeshift one 5,000 miles away, in relative safety, but under similar dissection, whose testimony is just as mystifying, and a revelation just as inhibited.