A Human Desert, Made By Humans
About the Fukushima-series by Hana Usui
by Konrad Paul Liessmann (philosopher)
Philosopher Günther Anders, who, unlike any other thinker of the 20th century radically made the “nuclear threat” the centre of his philosophy, once noted in this context that there are events of such magnitude that they cannot be reached by art. The annihilation of millions of Jews he considered to be one of them, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki another. Such practices of obliteration he referred to as “historically supraliminal”, since our imagination cannot encompass their terrible dimensions. He was therefore sceptical towards aesthetic attempts to address these horrors; the fundamentally playful aspect of any artistic expression, for him, moved even the most radical efforts into the territory of trivialisation. In the face of the severity of nuclear threat, following his provocative thesis, every aesthetic approach must be lacking in seriousness.<
This fundamental objection to art was primarily motivated by the insight that the aesthetic representation or commemoration of the nuclear disasters falls short of that which is most notable about these events, which is the self-threatening of humankind that they signify. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Günther Anders, were not only atrocious war crimes, but established that humans themselves had developed a technology that could obliterate humanity in one fell swoop and render the Earth uninhabitable. This, however, eludes our power of imagination.<
The so-called peaceful use of atomic energy is not excluded from this supraliminality. Of course: the atomic bomb is a weapon of mass destruction, the obliteration of all life on this planet is part of its innermost logic. The disasters in nuclear power plants are rare accidents, that yet owe their monstrous dimension to the same source as the bomb: an unleashed chain reaction, which will elude humanity’s controlling grip for all time. The fact that an accident like that of Chernobyl cannot be forgotten after several years, but that the reactor will continue to emit dangerous radiation for thousands of years, exceeds human imagination and sense of time. We, after a few decades at the latest, want to perceive the site of the accident as a tourist attraction and not a warning sign of a hybrid technology.
In spite of that, can, may, must art not take up the subject? And how can it measure up to the challenges that arise in that context? One point must be conceded to Günther Anders, up to this day: The bold, spectacular, pathetic and aesthetically negative presentation of the horror degrades it to a cultural-industrial event and thereby mistreats it thoroughly. If at all, then approaching the sites of a nuclear catastrophe requires a sensitivity that only reveals at second glance that the dreadful is fighting to be expressed. The works of Japanese artist Hana Usui show in a haunting manner what it means to use the sparest means of fine art to approach phenomena that in every way touch the fundamental aporias and conflicts of a self-endangering technological civilisation.
In 2014 the artist had dealt with the subject of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 2019 she dedicates a series of works to the reactor accident of Fukushima. What is surprising about these art pieces is their delicateness that feels strangely inappropriate considering the subject. Hana Usui, who has gone through the strict school of classical Japanese calligraphy, the “way of writing”, might have left that approach behind, the precision, mysteriousness and poignancy, however, has remained. Only when looking more closely, the traces of horror, of destruction, of obliteration will be recognised.
In the Fukushima series the artist overlays photos of the contaminated place with a semi-transparent sheet of paper. On it, delicate lines strangely overlap the picture, trembling and bold, dominant and yet restrained: the implied and broken nerve fibres of an energy current that has been abruptly disrupted by the disaster. In contrast, in the half-hidden, in the interplay of photograph and drawing, in the hinted-at, in that which is schematically thrown on paper is revealed the artist’s mastery of a subject that has desertion at its centre. Radioactively contaminated areas must be evacuated and cleared, for humans it is dangerous, eventually deadly to remain there – warning signs everywhere. And yet the documentation of such a contaminated area must not be reminiscent of landscape photography or simple industrial ruins. This can be avoided only through a stretching of the media and materials, the methods and the forms; only through the renunciation of all that is spectacular and dramatic the terror can, literally, show through.
Nothing about these works is straightforward, and the series is not to be seen as a direct political or ecological statement. This is not committed art that wants to warn against a technology that, paradoxically, is being rediscovered by many ecologically conscious consumers in the fight against climate change: nuclear power plants do not emit CO2. In their restrained intensity, the Fukushima works by Hana Usui function more as a contemplative commentary on the current debates; nothing about them is shrill or alarmist, but in their precise restraint, in their melancholy beauty they pave the way for a reflectiveness that is maybe more necessary than ever.
And so – with a sad beauty – in these works the contours of hills and trees, industrial buildings and warning signs, utility poles and naked trees emerge, and the artist’s delicate lines gives them not only an accent, but a drastic counterpart. The lineament in the foreground gives the underlying photos their beautifully terrible significance: they are documentations of a human desert, made by humans.
(Note: The work no. 8 can only be purchased together with the entire 13-part Fukushima series. Price on demand.)