Rachel Carvosso

Rachel Carvosso is a poet, freelance writer, artist, curator, teacher and book arts enthusiast. She is currently co-organising the U.K. based 2010 Bath Japanese Festival in collaboration with Haiku Poet Alan Summers. https://sites.google.com/site/bathjapanesefestival/welcome In 2007 she worked with DJ Infinite Scale on a spoken word track featured on the Rednex compilation Album 1.2. She has also worked with Tokyo based Ambient band Equator and studied Butoh with Performers Itto Morita and MikaTakeuchi or GooSayTen. In 2008 her work was selected to appear in the Shanghai Foreign Press poetry Anthology "Our Common Sufferings: An Anthology of World Poets in Memoriam 2008 Sichuan Earthquake" dedicated to the victims of the aforementioned tragedy. She is currently researching therapeutic and preventative applications of arts and poetry within the context of assisting and empowering victims of human trafficking.

After the Disaster

Nearly a year ago I moved to Fukushima for three months. Fukushima used to be famous for its beaches, hot springs and nature. Now, if remembered at all, it is most synonymous with the post tsunami nuclear situation of 3/11, Tepco, and the events that unfolded in March three years ago.

I was in Yokohama and Tokyo during the earthquake and tsunami, but I vividly remember being glued to the television watching footage of the Daiichi plants on the news. Newsreaders with hard hats delivered updates on the state of the reactors. Nobody knew what was going to happen. I remember noticing the non-computer-generated graphics. It is strange what details stay clear in your mind on the 12th floor of a friends apartment, occasionally swaying, contemplating the possible outcomes of a large scale nuclear meltdown.

Two years later, having visited Tohoku twice, I had been praying hard for Fukushima and wondering, really, what was the situation there? News of Tohoku was on the news in Japan, but it was not really clear what the current situation was. Sure, people had protested in 2011, and there were regular stories of leakages, but how were the people? Many had been displaced and were not able to gather much before having to leave. I hoped living there for a short time would give me more of a chance to talk to people.

IMG_4858

I lived in Motomiya, a small town built on a road about 30 minutes from Fukushima city. Hanami or “Cherry Blossom” season was fast approaching. Usually, during the brief week of blossoming, people have outdoor picnics with parties continuing on late into the night. Hanami happened as usual— there seemed to be no obvious fear about radiation in the air: teenagers walked to school every morning; mothers took their children outside. Local people shopped, but depending on whom you talked to, it was not safe to eat certain foods. The supermarkets had big signs encouraging people to shop and buy local produce.

I borrowed a friends’ geiger counter to check the levels. In the building where I worked, the reading was lower but still only 2.1 on the Sv scale. I also took advantage of the offer of a free radiation check that was conducted at the community center 5 minutes from my house. Sitting in a medical paper dress, I was scanned and then moved to a small room that was covered in plastic sheeting. Here I watched cartoons for 5 minutes trying my best not to fidget. My level was very low, (unsurprisingly having only lived there for about a month). I was told that the amount of radiation in the air is in general, very low and that I am likely to be exposed to more by taking frequent aeroplane flights than by living there. He seemed like a smart, nice man, but I wasn’t sure I believed him.

IMG_5044

Other days I would go and grab coffee from the center café run by a house for young adults with learning disabilities. At the community center, people could come in and sit in the massage chairs, watch a big screen tv, chat. I got talking to some friendly “Obachan’s” (old ladies). They had lived in Motomiya all their lives and considered the nuclear accident zone to be something in a “different place.” Their sense of locality was much smaller than in the sprawling mass of Tokyo.

While we were chatting they were interrupted by an older man, one lady told me after he was one of the people living in the supported housing complex. She said it was hard for them, people who had lived all their lives in the exclusion zone having to leave. There seemed to be a distinction between those who had been in the exclusion zone and those who had not. She told me that she felt that the people in Tokyo had forgotten about them, or didn’t care.The Japanese phrase “kankenai” meaning “it’s nothing to do with us/it was used.” I could sense a genuine anger, but below that a sense of sadness. As is often the case in Asian countries,  the well-being of the group usually takes precedent over that of the individual. With this disaster, a clear distinction has been made between those from the affected area and those outside of it. Invisible lines were drawn and people felt it. And most people felt that people in Tokyo and the international community simply did not care: that the government was covering up the truth, or at the very best avoiding it.

IMG_4836

As a writer, artist and teacher, I was aware of different responses to 3/11. Japanese contemporary art is not best known for its political concepts, but some young artists have been creating work addressing the issue. Artist Kota Takeuchi stood pointing at the cameras inside the plant while video footage was streamed live. The fashionable and controversial performative art collective Chim Pom’s work in Minami Soma and Shibiyu has been well publicized.

An artist I had met the year before, London-based Japanese artist Kaori Homma (associate lecturer at London University) joined by Tokyo-based art critic/social commentator Dr Mouri and Meryl Doney (curator/director of Wall Space) started an artist-led Art Auction meant to encourage emerging artists from the Fukushima area with support from ACH and Morphe Arts. They’ve  completed two residency programs as well as exhibitions, film screenings, and performances.

Three years later, after much of the press is long gone, the residency program is going strong. This year’s residency will take place in May and June and will feature the work of collaborative artists Haruka Komori and Seo Natsumi. Known as Komori +Seo they have been mainly working in the Tohoku area living and working with survivors of the tsunami.

Previous participants include Kaya Hanasaki (2012) who created photographic and performative work inviting people to wear a face mask. In itself, this is an everyday item in Japan, however her work transforms this into a visual question. The mask becomes a larger political symbol, as according to the government it is not necessary. For non Japanese people wearing the mask, it is a physical reminder of the current situation.

In 2013 Hikaru Fuji, filmmaker and artist, worked in the studio Departure, limehouse. At one of the events hosted by the Japan Foundation, he debated with Turner Prize nominees the Otolith Group. These kinds of projects are ongoing and bring together a larger audience in the U.K. and provide a space for ongoing evaluation of the situation. While the media moves on to the most recent “disaster,” the communities and the artists within them continue to question, to share, and to mourn the loss of normalcy. But out of the ashes of Fukushima is a spark of hope— the hope of ongoing dialogue and friendship born from the ability to be in and respond to crisis.

photo by: "KIUKO"

Paper Gives Peace

Sengoku is not a place you would find in any usual Tokyo guidebook. The nondescript metro stop is crammed with commuters passing through to Sugamo. But take exit A2, turn right, and walk ten minutes in a straight line, and you will find the Paper Nao shop, opened by owner Naoaki Sakamoto in 1984. Much of the initial stock was given as a gift, and in his book about paper, Sakamoto recounts the generosity of three paper makers who allowed him to take a lot of initial stock on good faith.

In a city where buildings seem to change as often as fashion, the shop is one example of attention to detail designed to last. The inside shelves and stairwell are handmade by a craftsman from Nagano. There are papers of many sizes, colors, and textures gathered from across Japan. Often traveling extensively to remote regions of Asia and the world, Sakamoto san has a deep knowledge and appreciation for the craft of paper. His answer when asked why he is in the paper business is succinct and genuine: “Paper gives me peace.”

Photo: Hideyuki Kamon

I wonder how many businesspeople can say the same thing about goods they sell. The separation of the maker and the receiver, or even the maker and the mediator, is something that is no longer strange. Yet we often want to know the origins of our purchases, or at the very least what they stand for as a brand. Ours is a post-industrial world with an inherited attachment to objects; as the twinges of economic recession pinch, people are returning to the desire to buy things that have been made with more than a buck in mind.

There is a longing for the human touch, for authenticity and affordable utility.This balance was celebrated just over 80 years ago by the champion of the Japanese folk movement, Yanagi Soetsu (Muneyoshi). His definition of folk craft, known as the Mingei theory, declared the best examples of craft to be those that were anonymous. The less the personality was there, the more the true beauty could be seen. Folk artists were categorized according to how little known they were, producing affordable and available functional items from specific regions. By this definition of craft, the paper-makers selling at Paper Nao are a dying breed. They work using ancient techniques and often remain anonymous. People buy their goods because of their quality, but the techniques they use require extensive knowledge and are not fast.

For artists with a capital A, working in mediums defined as “neo-craft” (using techniques and materials that require skill, dexterity, and a lot of practice), the question becomes less one of function versus form, obscurity versus fame, and more about how the work speaks to a viewer. The recent show “Stitch by Stitch,” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Tein Art Museum, featured contemporary needlework pieces by Japanese artists that were both sensuous and intelligent. Materials were being explored to reveal something new, put together to not only delight our faculty for appreciation of decoration, but to get us questioning our expectations of gender roles and the notion of beauty. They simultaneously set up questions but could also be described as decorative. This is “craft” where the artist’s personality or ideas are not rejected, but celebrated.

As a student in Oxford, I used to love visiting the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers Museums. Glass cabinets were lined with exquisitely carved, painted, and sometimes strange objects whose functions seemed to belong as much to the world of mythology as to any contemporary world of daily use – relics of a former world. But these relics of today are things which have become irrelevant and disconnected. We reject them in favor of something new. And as the speed of new production increases, we exist in a space of dislocation.

William Morris, father of the British craft movement, deeply lamented the loss of the joy of creation, or as he writes, the “pleasure in labor.” This is what links a craftsman and an artist, and what has been taken away for many. In the U.K., an increasing number of artists are aligning themselves to the slow movement. The movement crosses boundaries – between farming, arts, conservation, and food consumption. Aiming to highlight the value of traditional techniques and local produce, its ethos nurtures a sense of connection between consumer and buyer. For the person making neo-craft, objects become a way to cause people to stop for a moment. Artist Amy Houghton, who specializes in animation and porcelain, participated in the touring show “Taking Time: Craft and the Slow Revolution,” curated by CRAFTSPACE and Helen Carnac. She writes that objects, specifically antiques:

…create a physical connection to the past, and because they are outside our sphere of objects that have a ‘use value,’ they offer a pause in the fast pace of contemporary life, as well as a connection to a different pace of time associated with a nostalgic past. Antiques can offer a connection to a feeling of reality in a culture of manipulated imagery.

Neo-craft work engages us with the object in a way that we easily forget when we “use” it. Handmade things require attention, and sometimes reverence – a reverence not only for the object, but also for the care that has been taken to make it. The slow movement as a whole seeks to highlight our tendency towards a habitual lack of attention.

But technology is not the enemy. Search the Internet and you will come across a new breed of D.I.Y. makers, independent designers who are selling pieces to shops and online. Deanne Tonkin – co-creator of online store Tokyomade – champions the clothes and wares of independent Tokyo-based designers. Deanne said in an interview that she was inspired to set up the web site after attending Tokyo’s Design Festa and seeing how many things the rest of the world didn’t have access to. Here, craft finds its feet in the technological world. It is a different facet of a worldwide awareness that consumerism cannot be sustained at its current levels.

In a multi-platform, cross-continent society, perhaps craft should not be only valued for its ability to preserve history, but also for its role in the mediation of relationships. Both Morris and Soetsu speak to us of the value of the characteristic of skill. Neo-craft can happily sit between labels and mediums as a bastion of the individual’s attempt not to impose a personal vision on an already-saturated world, but to rediscover the dignity of labor that is for love. It is an embodied art that slows us down and grounds us in what is. Let’s hope, as consumers of the arts as well as crafted objects, that we can do more than hoard. Let’s learn to see the process of exchange as an ongoing conversation with each other.