“Pika” in the sky, a controversial work of art

On the morning of October 21, smoke trailing from an airplane in the sky above Hiroshima formed the Japanese word “pika.” This word, which refers to the flash of light from the atomic bomb, was apparently used by a group of artists from Tokyo as an artistic expression appealing for peace. Some residents, however, including A-bomb survivors (hibakusha), have reacted with displeasure, contending that the act made them feel “uncomfortable,” even “frightened.” The fact that a staff member of Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) was involved in observing the group’s work has also drawn criticism from the community.

According to those who witnessed the event, a small airplane was spewing trails of smoke and the word “pika” then appeared in the sky. “I thought of ‘pika don,’ the A-bomb,” a woman, 28, complained. “It was really eerie.” The Chugoku Shimbun fielded a number of calls of concern about the incident.

The group of artists which employed the word “pika” in their expression of peace is called ChimPom. The group chartered a plane which flew over Hiroshima starting at 7 a.m. For the next five hours it continued intermittent flights above the city to create the word five times. The group took photographs and filmed the word “pika” against the backdrop of the A-bomb Dome in Peace Memorial Park. These activities, the group explained, were undertaken to create a work of art for their exhibition at Hiroshima MOCA in November.

“I know what we did for our art is controversial and it upsets me if this has hurt the feelings of hibakusha. Our aim, though, was to capture the attention of young people, who haven’t experienced war,” stressed Ryuta Ushiro, 31, the leader of the group.

When the group photographed “pika” in the sky from Peace Memorial Park, one of the curators from Hiroshima MOCA was observing their activity. “I believe the group did this purely to create a work of art; it wasn’t some kind of amusement. I don’t think it’s my place to judge whether the act itself is right or wrong,” commented Yukie Kamiya, chief curator at Hiroshima MOCA. “Art is intriguing because it raises debate from various sides,” she added. “The opinion expressed by the hibakusha groups is not the only point of view.”

In response, voices from the Hiroshima community have spoken out with sharp criticism. “Their way of expression is self-serving. It’s hardly an appeal for peace,” Sunao Tsuboi, 83, chairman of the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organizations, remarked indignantly. “Hiroshima MOCA should have given proper guidance to the group,” he added, offering his own frank advice to the museum.

“I get the impression that the city of Hiroshima will accept any work from artists in Tokyo or overseas as long as it deals with ‘Hiroshima’ or ‘the A-bomb,’” said Tadayoshi Irino, 68, a painter who experienced the atomic bombing at the age of five.

A freelance curator, 56, who has wide knowledge of contemporary art, questioned the method employed by Hiroshima MOCA, saying, “If the artists were nevertheless determined to convey a work that might offend some citizens, the museum should have made an effort to explain the group’s intentions to the people of Hiroshima beforehand.”

Takao Shimamoto, Director General of the Citizens Affairs Bureau for the City of Hiroshima, commented, “This work of art, a jarring reminder of the atomic bombing, is distressing to many citizens of Hiroshima, and particularly the A-bomb survivors. Such works must not be tolerated and must be apologized for sincerely. We will also direct the staff of Hiroshima MOCA so they can share this view.”

ChimPom is a group of six young artists who live in Tokyo. They once caught a brown rat, stuffed it, and painted it yellow, like Pikachu, a popular animated character. This work attracted significant attention. In 2007, the group entered another piece on landmine removal in Cambodia for the “New Art Competition” at Hiroshima MOCA and was awarded first prize.

(Originally published on October 22, 2008)

Hiroshima MOCA apologizes for “pika”

On October 22, Yasuo Harada, the director of Hiroshima MOCA issued an apology for the controversial work of art created by a group of artists from Tokyo on October 21, in which they hired an airplane to form the word “pika” in smoke over Hiroshima. “The museum would like to apologize on behalf of a staff member who failed to stop the artists from an act that went too far while she was involved in observing it,” said Dr. Harada. He also urged the group of artists to apologize themselves.

In the morning, representatives of Hiroshima City, the Hiroshima City Culture Foundation, which deals with cultural affairs in Hiroshima and oversees Hiroshima MOCA, and Hiroshima MOCA discussed their response to the incident. Both Takao Shimamoto, director general of the Citizens Affairs Bureau and Yoshinori Sakai, board chairman of the Hiroshima City Culture Foundation, gave Yukie Kamiya, chief curator of Hiroshima MOCA, a verbal reprimand. “You should have paid more attention to the feelings of hibakusha,” they said. Mr. Sakai and Mr. Shimamoto then pledged to deliver apologies to A-bomb survivors’ groups in the near future.

After the discussion, Dr. Harada brought the members of ChimPom to the museum and urged them to apologize to the people of Hiroshima for their actions. The group’s leader, Ryuta Ushiro, 31, agreed to the request. “We would like to carefully consider how to best express our regrets to the Hiroshima community,” he said.

In addition, representatives of Hiroshima City and the Hiroshima City Culture Foundation have begun to discuss whether they should cancel the exhibition by ChimPom scheduled to open at Hiroshima MOCA on November 1. The group was also planning to display new work using paper cranes that were folded by children and students.

A representative of Fukuromachi Elementary School, which had intended to support ChimPom’s exhibition, explained, “We need to give careful consideration to the group’s work to determine if it truly reflects our students’ wish for peace before we give them the paper cranes we have made.” At the same time, Hiroshima MOCA and the Hiroshima Municipal Board of Education have received several phone calls from other schools about the exhibition. Mr. Sakai added, “We will draw our conclusion on whether the group’s works can be exhibited based on our complete confidence that the citizens of Hiroshima can accept these works without any sort of reservations.”

For the day, the city of Hiroshima received four calls objecting to the group’s actions. The Chugoku Shimbun also received a total of four calls and messages, typified by the following remark: “I don’t think the group appreciated how much pain they could cause by employing such a form of expression.”

(Originally published on October 23, 2008)

Art expert reflects on “pika” controversy
by Naoki Tahara, Staff Writer

Hiroshima citizens, including A-bomb survivors, have reacted with dismay to the use of the word “pika” shown in smoke above Hiroshima as part of a controversial work of art that was observed by a curator from Hiroshima MOCA. To what extent is art that deals with the atomic bombing acceptable to A-bomb survivors, many of whom have experienced deep suffering, including the loss of family members? I spoke with Kenji Oi, a professor of art history at Hiroshima City University (HCU) and an expert on modern art, for his impressions of this incident.

What is your reaction to the way the artists chose to express themselves?
I think the artists lacked compassion for the older A-bomb survivors. They should have kept in mind that Hiroshima is a special city, a “sacred place.”

Why has this work of art become controversial?
The word “pika” was produced in the sky over Hiroshima without offering any advanced warning. This sort of act will just provoke fear in people. In fact, it could even prove deadly because older A-bomb victims who were traumatized by the bombing might have suffered a heart attack at the sight or may develop other disorders.

Some argue for “freedom of expression.”
If, instead of using “pika,” they had created a message such as “NO A-BOMB,” this could have conveyed a clear anti-war message. But it’s hard to understand what the group intended to convey by writing “pika” in the sky. It’s no wonder, then, why some people think the artists were merely being provocative.

What should be expected of artists?
Artists should be held accountable for their works of art if they produce this art in a public space. Many artists have succeeded in creating art about Hiroshima by making efforts to communicate with citizens about their work beforehand to gain their understanding, particularly the A-bomb survivors themselves. For example, the project by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang in 1994, displayed in downtown Hiroshima, was very successful. The group that created “pika” apparently lacked this careful forethought.

A curator from Hiroshima MOCA was observing the artists during their activity.
This means that Hiroshima MOCA had accepted this mode of expression employed by the artists and they should be held accountable, too. There are many ways the museum can support artists in their work and they could have given the group better guidance at an earlier stage of developing this idea. The group’s work might have been accepted by the people of Hiroshima if the museum had acted more wisely. I regret that this was not the case.

Will this incident have an impact on artists working with Hiroshima-related themes?
Works of art about Hiroshima are essential. And I think we should appreciate the fact that the group from Tokyo tried taking up the atomic bombing as a theme in their work. So this incident should not lead to an avoidance of experimental projects. Just as works of art become richer as artists deepen their understanding of a subject, I hope Hiroshima MOCA will learn from this incident and develop better ways to present art to the citizens of Hiroshima.

(Originally published on October 23, 2008)

Artists apologize for “pika” skywriting
by Kosuke Takeuchi, Staff Writer

On October 24, ChimPom, a group of artists from Tokyo who created a controversial work of art by forming the word “pika” in a display of smoke above Hiroshima, met with representatives of A-bomb survivors’ organizations at Hiroshima City Hall and apologized for the act. At a press conference afterwards, Ryuta Ushiro, 31, leader of ChimPom, explained the circumstances which led to the incident and his feelings when he apologized to the survivors.

What have you apologized for?
We apologized for not making more effort to appreciate the feelings of the hibakusha and other residents before we implemented our plan. I regret not doing this.

What did you intend to express by using the word “pika”?
We viewed the word “pika” as a symbol of the trauma of the hibakusha so we thought this symbol should be included in our artwork to convey the trauma of human beings. This is why we photographed “pika” in the sky and videotaped it with the A-bomb Dome as a backdrop. Through our work, we hoped to remind people of peace.

Wasn’t it possible for you to predict that this form of expression might be hurtful to others?
I imagined this as a possibility. But when the project produced such controversy, Dr. Harada, the director of Hiroshima MOCA, explained to me the horrific experiences suffered by the survivors as a result of the atomic bombing. It was beyond anything I had imagined and I then realized that I hadn’t clearly understood the pain of the hibakusha.

Have you considered the fact that, by offending the public through your actions, this may stir a trend where freedom of expression becomes more heavily regulated?
Yes, but I have a strong belief in freedom of expression. Because of this belief, I felt it important to convey our message even though our mode of expression might draw criticism.

What experience have you had learning about Hiroshima?
When I was a child, I had the chance to visit Peace Memorial Museum and hear the accounts of some survivors. However, for this project, I didn’t do any special research related to Hiroshima.

What kind of consultation did you have with Hiroshima MOCA before implementing the project?
At the end of April of this year, I suggested the idea of producing a bright light in the sky. A museum curator, though, told me that the idea would not be acceptable to the people of Hiroshima. Later, I suggested the revised idea of writing a word in the sky using smoke emitted from an airplane. I was told that it would be better to adopt a “guerilla” tactic in carrying this out, implementing the plan without prior notice.

Did you intend to exhibit the work at your exhibition, which was scheduled to open at Hiroshima MOCA in November?
On the proposal I submitted to the museum in October, I wrote that I intended to exhibit the work. I was thinking that I would leave the final decision up to the museum after the piece had been completed.

Why did you voluntarily decide to cancel that exhibition?
Under the circumstances, I think issues irrelevant to the artwork would be raised. I therefore consulted with Hiroshima MOCA and decided to cancel the exhibition.

(Originally published on October 25, 2008)