Once upon a time, in the mid-’90s, contemporary art and more academic fine art were still on good terms in Japan. Mono-ha and abstraction were living traditions, allowing artists to wax metaphoric about materials and process without sounding precious. Grand philosophical themes like mankind’s relationship to nature and technology were mused upon expansively. Art was humanist, and without a market or much of an audience. Then came the callow mirth of Superflat, which needed a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown to occur before it could put on a socially concerned face. Only now, after five years of post-disaster anxiety and weariness with the easy “interventionist” art that proliferated after 2011, are people willing to reconsider a romantic like Yamaguchi Keisuke.
The Toyota Municipal Museum of Art must have sensed that visiting Yamaguchi’s midcareer retrospective would be like stepping back through time, for they hung the show (for the most part) chronologically backward, from 2015 to 1990. In the first gallery, you were surrounded by a series of towering, roughly thirteen-foot-high canvases, each featuring a painted Matissean cutout of a giant heart, the aorta and arteries flaring out like the fronds of a staghorn fern. Building on Yamaguchi’s twenty-year exploration of analogies between biology, technology, and archetypal forms, one of the canvases, Heart Reactor / Whereabouts of Wings: Landscape Structure 1 (2015), shows this life-supporting organ sunk below distant green hills representing the rolling landscape of Fukushima. Bloody pink and lemon custard apparitions stain the earth in between.
On March 14, 2011, Yamaguchi began a sketchbook diary documenting the unfolding disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. Twenty-nine volumes were on display inside a case at the Toyota Museum, with color photocopies of additional pages available to read in a clear file on benches nearby. In fastidious handwritten detail, they record the meltdown, the evacuation, and the officialdom’s disingenuous responses as reported on television and in newspapers. Accompanying pen and watercolor drawings begin by depicting area maps and the Fukushima reactors in naturalistic detail. As the days pass, the visuals loosen into colorful abstract shapes and topographies, which led to independent watercolors, hanging on nearby walls. Two of the watercolors (from 2012) are titled after Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, and look like a cross between WPA-style modernist abstraction and a ’60s science-museum display. Three others (also 2012) show the Fukushima reactors enclosed within a giant sarcophagus, its surface design modeled after the speckled white and gray-blue pattern decorating the mangled reactor buildings. Stylized radioactive releases in the shape of dotted towers rise into the sky and burrow into the ground.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Yamaguchi focused on plant and insect motifs. A series of tall canvases (2002–04) show orchids in a close-up “bee’s eye view,” the imagery distorted under thick layers of dripping, honeylike resin. Some fifty thousand plastic audiocassette cases, each holding a single dried flower or other vegetation, lined a two-story translucent wall, maximally exploiting Taniguchi Yoshio’s building design. But as beautiful as many of Yamaguchi’s botanical works are (some are unsightly attempts at emulating Sigmar Polke’s style), art history will better remember the grimier prints and paintings he made in the ’90s relating to nuclear contamination. DU Child (2005) is a multi-block woodcut and monotype on washi paper depicting a child with congenital deformities caused by American bullets whose depleted uranium shells littered Iraq after the Gulf War. Atomic Power Plant No. 6 (1995) is a messy, nine-by-twelve-foot, iron oxide–colored painting with white hive/lotus pod forms, inspired by footage of North Korean nuclear sites. Transporting Plutonium (1993), another large painting, was occasioned by news of the dangerous shipment of reprocessed nuclear fuel from France to Japan. It shows a long cargo ship, equipped with cooling towers like those at Three Mile Island and Calder Hall, surrounded by the same eerie pods. Rendered in oil paint, asphalt, and resin, the painting is dark and dirty and Anselm Kiefer–esque. “What are these works if not prophecies?” asks art historian Okada Atsushi in the exhibition catalogue, as if the entire world wasn’t frightened of nuclear power after Chernobyl. But for once, because of the recent shock of Fukushima, the cliché of the artist as seer doesn’t sound so absurd.