Shimpei Takeda Makes Art Out of Radioactive Dirt
Shimpei Takeda was born in Japan and spent a lot of his youth in the Fukushima, hanging out in the shadow of the reactor that would later meltdown and cause one of the worst nuclear disasters of recent memory. Shimpei now lives in Brooklyn but his artwork still has strong ties to his homeland. He is currently working on a project entitled Trace: Cameraless Records of Radioactive Contamination, which deals with the unfortunate aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi. For Trace, Shimpei creates visually abstract images by collecting contaminated soils from the affected landscape surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. He then exposes the soils onto large sheets of film for extended periods of time, resulting in physical records of the disaster and its remains within the culture. This sounded right up our alley, so we spoke with Shimpei about his art.
VICE: What was your initial motivation for the project?
Shimpei Takeda: At first, when I found out the nuclear disaster occurred, I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Or perhaps I didn’t want to believe what was going on. I had been reading a lot and teaching myself about what was going on, about the nuclear industry, and about the effects of radiation exposure. I was also learning more about the politics behind the nuclear industry. I started to feel that I had to do something in response.
At the same time, I wanted to visualize the invisible disaster in some way. Seeing data visualizations of radiation in the air, soil and ocean didn’t feel real. I needed to see a physically solid record of the disaster. Then I started to realize that radiation, such as gamma rays and visible light, basically work the same way on photographic materials. On the surface of light-sensitive materials, silver halide darkens when exposed to electromagnetic radiation.
Also, there is the fact that I was born in the area around Fukushima. Doing an art project like this, while having a strong connection to the place, I believe, automatically makes a political message—even without saying too much. At the end of May 2011, I decided this was what I was going to do.
How did being from Fukushima affect the work? Do you still have family there? How have they been affected?
Well, I was ignorant about the nuclear industry before March 11, and I never thought a nuclear disaster would happen in Japan.
I grew up in the suburbs of Tokyo. While growing up I would go to Fukushima every summer for New Years with my parents to visit my grandparents. We would go to the lakes and mountains to ski or to the hot springs. All those kinds of activities happened in Fukushima. Because of my history, I recognized a lot of the names of cities and places that I heard on the news. When I was listening to an NPR interview with a victim living in temporary housing in Fukushima, I noticed the dialect. It is the same as my grandparents. That kind of thing can really affect you. I think if it had happened somewhere completely different, some other location, I’m not sure I would have done this project.
My parents and sister are living in the suburbs of Tokyo. Both of my parents are from Sukagawa, 40 miles east of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. It’s outside of the mandatory evacuation zone. My grandparents and a lot of extended family are in Sukagawa and Koriyama. There was a lot of air, land, and water contamination, and subsequent food contamination, you can imagine how it goes. There’s a lot of stress and local businesses are heavily affected.
When and where did you collect the soils and make the exposures?
In December 2011 and January 2012, I collected 16 soil samples in 12 locations. I selected distinctly different locations in five different prefectures, all which contain a strong memory of life and death, such as temples, shrines, war sites, ruins of castles and my birthplace. Then I placed radioactive soils on 8x10 sheet films in a light-tight container, for a month. Every soil sample was in a separate container. Radioactive substances in the contaminated soil sample emit radioactivity to expose gelatin halide on the surface of photographic film.
How has each soil differed in terms of aesthetics?
I wanted to see how different soil textures could affect the image making. At the end, it didn’t really affect the results aesthetically, but some soil textures such as moss contain more radioactive substances than others. That is something that I realized after the first attempt.
Certainly, the more contaminated the soil is, the more the photographic materials are exposed. For each location I measured radiation level in the air and ground’s surface.
How much do aesthetics drive which exposures you choose to show?
Except for two locations, I only collected one soil sample from each location. So, I show every image from all the locations. My initial set of prints is complete with twelve images from twelve locations. Half of the images are almost black, but still something invisible is recorded, I believe.
How has this project transformed conceptually for you from its inception to now?
Conceptually, the project was developed within a day or two from the beginning. I wanted to create conceptual abstract photography work about the physical documentation of the nuclear disaster, with minimalist aesthetics.
When I was selecting where I was going to get the soil, I realized the history of the land is filled with wars and catastrophes. So I added this element, the memory of precious ancestors’ souls by selecting specific locations.
Is this work seen as controversial by any of the people in the Fukushima prefecture?
People in Fukushima found this project meaningful to them. They have been very supportive and thankful, which I found somewhat surprising. Of course, the fact that I have roots there helped.
How long do you plan to keep working on this project?
I am working on publishing a book. I will collect more samples to create work using the same process. I have a few other things that I would like to try, too. I’ll work on this for a while, a year or two at least. Who knows how long I will keep working on it? As much as I’d like to move on to the next project, I need to keep working on Trace until I feel it’s done.
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