The Beginning of Sendai in Progress

In 2016, when I was exhibiting a work called Under the Water at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France, I was approached by someone from sendai mediatheque about doing a project in Sendai. The installation Under the Water came into being from ideas I got from an article and photos in a newspaper about all the debris that was set adrift after the destruction wreaked by the tsunami. It drifted across the Pacific Ocean, with vast amounts appearing near the coastline of Canada. There had been reports in France on the damage suffered in Ishinomaki and along the Tohoku coastline, but until then, I had not known that Sendai also had places that were hit by the tsunami.

The following year, in 2017, I visited the coastal areas of ​​Sendai and met various people. With this as my starting point, I created ideas for the project. The first thought I had was that a project that happens as a temporary event would be meaningless here. The city had an uninhabitable zone along the coast, approximately 10 kilometers long and extending inland about 700 meters. No activities worthy of mention had been decided for this part of Sendai. Therefore, starting from Shinhama, I decided to focus on three areas within the zone—Shinhama, Arahama, and Idohama—and considered a long-term plan which would focus on each area for a few years.

I made no concrete decisions. But I did decide that I would avoid one thing—building something here in a simple way. The problems faced by this part of the world were too complicated for that. Above all else, I did not want to bring to this place a temporary art event that would draw crowds.

The stories I was told about the tsunami were raw. With close to seven years having already passed since the disaster, we decided to get involved in our position as outsiders. Had it been any other way, I felt we would have been crushed by the raw things we were hearing, and we would have found ourselves unable to do anything new at all. As we were outsiders, I thought we could create an assumption that we were foreigners who do not know much about the damage caused by the tsunami, but who happened to be here in Sendai. I was teaching at an art school in Paris at the time, so I invited some of my students to take part in the workshops in Sendai. They were French, and knew nothing. They took part, excited just at the idea of being able to visit Japan. Even after learning about the tragedy that had been experienced, they still did not quite get it. They were more hoping to build something with the local people. They were very much in the present moment.

Meanwhile, the local people were hoping to rebuild the bridge that had spanned the Teizan Canal before the tsunami washed it away, and to be able to walk to the beach again. Negotiations began with the government in the second year of the project, with a focus on the restoration of the bridge. At the same time, we decided to work together and build a boat in order to be able to participate in the footpath event at the Teizan Canal, which is held regularly in the Shinhama area. As ours was a boat made by foreigners, it came to be known as the “kuro fune,” a reference to the black ships that used to arrive from the West between the 16th and 19th centuries in the hope of opening Japan up to trade.

What set this project apart from others was the way in which different things happened, moving forward at the same time. We had on-site production taking place during the summers, but at other times of the year, we would meet with the government or work out our work schedules for the summer.

Looking toward the future, I would like to continue working with the local people here each year on production as artwork, working everything out, however trifling it may be, even though this is a process that takes time.