Utatsu, Japon, 2012. Pont brisé par le tsunami. Tiré d'un travail sur la réhabilitation après le tsunami à Tohoku./ Utatsu, Japan, 2012. Remains of a bridge damaged by tsunami. From a series on pots-tsunami Tohoku.
Utatsu, Japan, 2012. Remains of a bridge damaged by tsunami. From a series on post-tsunami Tohoku.

Artist talk
Moderated by Aurélie Lacouchie
Thursday May 5 2016, 6-7 PM

Thursday May 5 2016,  7-9 PM

May 5 – June 12 2016


Campbell House Museum
160 Queen St. West Toronto, ON M5H 3H3
In co-presentation with Campbell House Museum

Gallery hours: Tuesday to Friday, 9:30 am – 4:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 12:00 – 4:30 pm

Post Tohoku – The Spirit of Place

by Guylaine Tousignant

« We’re both looking at the same moon, in the same world.

We’re connected to reality by the same line.

All I have to do is quietly draw it towards me »

Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart

It is said that the concept of impermanence is deeply embedded in the mind of the Japanese people. It’s what they call the « mujo ». Everything that is born dies and everything that exists constantly changes. It is all transitory. That is how life is.

Since this idea of temporality is rooted in century-old traditions influenced by both Shintoism and Buddhism, the Japanese accept and welcome this impermanence with what could be described as serenity instead of being plagued by it. Whatever dies is reborn. Whatever is destroyed is to be better rebuilt.

Maybe it is this serenity in the face of the ephemeral that explains the fearless relationship the Japanese have with their restless territory. The Japanese archipelago is situated on four large tectonic plates that meet and collide. Earthquakes are part of daily life on these vaporous islands. Following each disaster, as is so well put by artist Michel Huneault, one must « renegotiate peace of mind » in a land of constant turmoil. Even if life is ephemeral, this renegotiation takes time and goes through ups and downs.

On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by one of the greatest disasters in its history. An underwater earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale shook the country for six minutes. Less than an hour later, the first of many waves, some reaching over 20 metres, flooded the coast of the archipelago up to 10 km inland. 15,894 people lost their lives, 6,152 were injured and 2,562 were reported missing.  Over a million buildings were completely destroyed or damaged. More than 300,000 Japanese found themselves homeless overnight. In the hours that followed, three nuclear reactors in Fukushima exploded. All those living within a 20 km radius of the blast had to evacuate their homes.

In spring 2012, one year after the disaster, Michel Huneault visited the pacific coast of Tohoku. He returned early 2016 and is already planning to go there again. His travels in the Japanese region enabled him to capture in image and sound the damage caused by the triple catastrophe and the evolution of the renegotiation the Japanese have with their land – a complex and shifting renegotiation.

When we are half a world away, we often have the impression that the duration of a disaster is limited to its media coverage. The first story is released; it moves readers, creates dialogue. What follows is a repetition of the same images in the hours and days following the disaster. Then the images gradually disappear until the memory of the disaster dwindles. The scale of the present moment is at the heart of this process and is part of the rhythm of our lives. If time passes, we have to quickly grab it.

In his work, Michel Huneault adopts an approach that in some way challenges this eagerness. His project, Post Tohoku, is part of a series of projects that seek to document the passage of time following geographic and human trauma with the aim to better grasp the subtleties and curves of its evolution. It’s a humanist approach, humble and essential, that provides fresh perspectives and in a certain way, is part of the slow and perilous road to rehabilitation. The artist spent months on the north-east coast of Japan, and left often to reflect, to allow the people and the land to breathe, to come back to it all better. Sometimes, we must take our time even if it takes a lifetime.

It is a work that is time-consuming and that comes with a sense of responsibility regarding representation. It’s a responsibility that Michel Huneault takes seriously since the images contribute to the mental representations that we make of our space and the space of others. People who survive a tragedy have to recognize themselves in its representations just like the public exposed to them. And that is when the images translate the spirit of place and in effect, create a common place where we can meet to better understand and capture the world we live in, despite the geographic and cultural distances that separate us. As the artist says, an intelligent work, a well done work, regardless of the subject, can provide us with an experience that touches the universal. It is at this moment that our collective imaginations come together.

In Tohoku, five years after the disaster, there are signs of renewal. In certain areas, brand new villages are erected, often on higher ground. Other communities are building future plans that take them elsewhere. Fishermen return to work even if in certain locations the infrastructure is not fully rebuilt.

In Tohoku, there are also devastated sectors that are stuck in time and remain abandoned, ruined schools where students and teachers lost their lives, a father holding a photo of his son who died March 11, 2011 at the Okawa School. There are mausoleums that remind us of what is no longer and that give meaning to the past in order to better see the future.

There are debates, the invisible threat, and great uncertainty. There are villagers who do not agree on the ways to rebuild the future, citizens that oppose government decisions.

On the Tohoku coastline, there are new all-concrete protection walls, much higher than the ones previously erected and that were unable to withstand the force of the waves.

In Tohoku, as elsewhere, there are the waves of life constantly coming and going, the cries of birds in the wind, and the passing of time which haunts and celebrates the spirit of place.

About the exhibition

On March 11th 2011, the Tohoku pacific coast of Japan was devastated with a triple catastrophe: earthquake, tsunami, nuclear incident. More than 15 800 people died, 6100 were injured, 2600 went missing, and 128 000 buildings were destroyed. How to live near or within such a traumatized landscape, a year after and for the years to come? How to represent the long term impacts of such a catastrophe in order to comprehend and move forward? Will Tohoku rebuild itself both physically and in our minds?

In 2012, fourteen months after the events, Huneault went to Tohoku with these questions in mind, dividing his time there between volunteering for rehabilitation projects and documenting his experience through photographs and videos. Late 2015 and early 2016, almost five years after the tsunami, Huneault went back to the same 250 kilometres of Japan’s coast – from Fukushima to Kesennuma – believing that a view developed over a longer period of time is essential to understand the subtleties of how trauma and rehabilitation evolve, how a scared territory and its population can negotiate a new common future.

Post Tohoku – at the crossroad of documentary photography and more contemporary visual art forms – is part of Huneault’s long term commitment to look at how communities deal with large scale traumas. This cycle work includes his project on Lac-Mégantic, which won the CONTACT portfolio review award in 2014 and the Dorothea Lange – Paul Taylor Prize in 2015. Post Tohoku has received the generous support of the Canada Arts Council and of the Centre Sagamie.

About the artist

Before devoting himself full time to photography in 2008, Michel Huneault worked in the international development field, a profession that took him to over twenty countries, including one full year in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He holds a MA in Latin American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a Rotary World Peace Fellow, researching on the role of collective memory in large scale traumatic recovery. At Berkeley, he was a student and the teaching assistant of Magnum photographer Gilles Peress. He, then, became his apprentice in New York. Currently, his practice focuses on development related issues, personal and collective traumas, and complex geographies. Early 2016, he co-received the R. James Travers Foreign  Corresponding Fellowship to continue his work on migration. Michel lives in Montreal.

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