TOKYO – A Japanese artist has used augmented reality and the spectrogram of the human voice to bring to Nagasaki the testimony of the nuclear bombing survivors who went into exile after the atomic attack on the city 75 years ago.
Discrimination by their neighbors or the precariousness of post-war Japan led dozens of Japanese to emigrate to the Americas between the mid-1950s and 1960s because “there was not much hope in Japan and in other cases because they didn’t want to remember what happened in their city,” Shinpei Takeda told EFE.
The 41-year-old visual artist, currently straddling life between Düsseldorf in Germany and Mexico’s Tijuana city, has been gathering testimonies of hibakusha – atomic bomb survivors – based in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Canada, and the United States, to whom he has given voice in multiple projects.
The most recent is “Memory Undertow,” in which he has drawn on the floor of the Hypocenter Park, marking the epicenter of the bomb in Nagasaki, the spectrogram of the voices of 12 of the over 70 hibakushas he has interviewed and whose testimonies had not featured in any of his earlier exhibitions, books, and documentaries.
The spectrograms are complemented by an augmented reality application called Ground Zero, developed in collaboration with Prof. Jens Herder’s Lab at the University of Applied Science, Düsseldorf, which allows visitors to listen to the testimonies and see images of the destruction by placing their mobile phones over some codes.
To immerse oneself in these memories, “one has to walk on top of these paintings of mine, of those voices,” explained Takeda, who sought to evoke the memories we experience when we return to places that are meaningful to us, such as that of the first kiss.
“If you go back there, maybe you’ll remember the same thing. We can say that a part of us stays in that place,” the artist said.
In a place like the epicenter of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, where “something so strong and intense” happened, “some memory must remain” and he aimed to evoke those voices coming out of that land.
“Memory Undertow” is one of the few official events held in the city to mark the 75th anniversary of the bombing as the official program has been greatly reduced on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Takeda also found it difficult to complete the project due to the weeks of quarantine he had to comply with during his travels these past few months between Mexico, Germany, and Japan, and the translation work has remained incomplete for that reason.
“We were going to cancel, but it is a project I have been working on for three years and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity,” he said.
It took the artist a long time to get permission for the installation.
“Many groups of survivors did not want me to use this kind of artistic project at that place, because beneath that park of the epicenter there are still many houses, ruins and bones that are underground. For many people, it’s like a cemetery,” he explained.
On the night of Aug. 9, the day the bomb was dropped over the city in 1945, an event will be held at the venue to honor the victims, during which candles will be lit and the testimonies will be readout.
The next day, the spectrograms, which have been on display since July 13, will be erased by the artist and a group of volunteer residents of the city.
The ephemeral nature of the work responds to the artist’s conviction that public monuments only strengthen a selective narrative of the past, suppressing the personal stories that were dispersed by the flow of history, such as that of these exiled survivors.
Takeda wants to continue expanding this project, for which he also spoke with survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and help in some way to allay the concern of survivors concerning passing on their legacy after they have died as well as evoke interest in younger generations about what happened in August 1945.
The Japanese have made three-dimensional scans of his work and want to move it to the realm of virtual reality.
“My idea is to create some kind of environment such as in video games that you can be in, virtually, and I’d like to invite other artists to participate,” Takeda said.