'Our desire to remember has been fragmented into a thousand slices.' - Takashi Arai
Seventy years ago, humanity used a nuclear weapon on a city for the first of two times, effectively altering the world as it was known in unrecoverable ways. Civilisation entered its Atomic Age, ushering in a post-traumatic era that has resulted in an technological race to develop ways to desensitize our way of living. Like the gun in the first act of a Chekov play, thinking about a nuclear weapon means thinking about it being used to wipe out lives in an instant and contaminating the landscape for lifetimes.
Let's not think of that, however. Let's think of something else.
Over the course of the afternoon of 11 March 2011, the artist Takashi Arai was making a photograph. It was taking an afternoon to do so as it was one of his 'Daily D-type' routines: using one of the earliest photographic processes known as daguerreotypy once a day to improve his own proficiency. It's an arduous act, taking up to a couple of hours from polishing and sensitising the silver plate to developing with mercury vapour and finally fixing and 'gilding' the result. As well as the image, Takashi also makes an audio recording while the plate is exposed. Depending on the light, exposure could be a few seconds or several minutes. There is no decisive moment when taking a picture this way, he says, and the audio recording helps to show a sense of integrated time.
Takashi's life is rather routine, he admits, and many of his daily daguerreotypes are of his hands, the neighbourhood view, his cat, even the remains of his lunch. On this day he was photographing a petri dish. In the petri dish was a collection of 'Death Ash': the radioactive dust collected from a wooden tuna fishing boat, the S. S. Lucky Dragon 5, which was exposed, along with its crew, to the fallout from 1st March, 1954 Bikini Atoll test of the nuclear device Castle Bravo. This dust was formed of the calcination of coral blasted in the thermal detonation. Involved via friends in the anti-nuclear movement in Japan, Takashi was working on documenting the boat in the Tokyo hall where it has been exhibited since 1979.
Takashi's D-type image for this day in March is not easy to make out, as the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake took place while the petri dish was being exposed. The background abstracts into smears and blurs, and the dish is almost a mirror, held in his steady hand. The sound recording is of a stern voice warning of the tsunami in Japanese, echoing through the city. Less than an hour later, in the Fukishima area on the north east of Japan's main island Honshu, the tsunami hit the plant, easily breaching the seawall and flooding the generators, leading to chemical explosions, thermal reactions and other radiation leaks that continue to this day.
Takashi began travelling to Fukishima and photographing the displaced farmers in the area, the empty spaces, stray dogs, an 800-year old cherry tree in blossom with no one else around to view it, and persimmon trees with their dark bark stripped off for decontamination looking like a white bones in his picture. A monk in the area now spends his life decontaminating school routes, filling up barrels.
A remarkable process Takashi now uses is to take multiple daguerreotypes of a place or object to make a composite photo. Somewhat connected to the Polaroid collages of David Hockney's Joiners, these works of up to 300 plates can take days or weeks to complete, and force him to truly contemplate the object or place. He has now visited and documented several sites and objects leading up to the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster.
This project includes among others:
a triptych of the Trinity site of the first atomic test. It is only open twice a year due to the still high amount of radiation. While he was taking his photographs, behind him people barbequed while their children played in the sand. He asked tourists why they were there, and they answered, 'Because it is rare that it's open'.
a stopped wristwatch at 11:02 from Nagasaki, composed of 11 by 11 plates. This is the main symbol of the 9 August, 1945 event apart from the flash-burned human shadows, although Takashi discovered that the hands are but painted lines on the face of the watch. Takashi wonders if showing the object makes the memory of the event true, even if the object isn't true.
the Atomic Bomb Dome or Hiroshima Peace Memorial, which was the only building left standing within the bomb's epicenter, representing the Genbaku Dome in 265 plates. As he photographed he saw visitors approach, take a snapshot and leave hurriedly, as if they were taking pictures as a way of forgetting something difficult.
and a remarkable collage of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant taken from on a boat, and thus resulting in an explosion or collapse of a portrait.
At a talk Takashi gave recently he showed an old daguerreotype of a woman, with the right side of the portrait's case containing a lock of hair, a sprig of rosemary, and some writing. These old portraits were one's content of a memory of someone. He said 'Nobody knows her, but we can remember her.'
While his projects highlight and help make us more aware of issues around nuclear use, his choice of medium also looks at what we remember when we see something, even if it is the positive or negative slant of looking at a daguerreotype, or at several of them breaking up their subject into dozens or hundreds of plates, or how humanity now takes pictures, now billions of them a year, each one a sliver of a memory we will never quite remember.