The eye that articulates belongs on land
by Karen Kramer
Shot in Shiretoko National Park and within the radius of the Fukushima nuclear reactor, Karen’s experimental film invites us to step into a liminal space, a threshold between the material and the ethereal, between life and death, reckoning, as we go, with the uncertainty of the forces playing in our lives.
ANCHORS IN TIME
I am seated in an auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia after catching a 6 am train from Penn station. I’m here for a 2-day symposium at PennDesign—In The Terrain of Water (1). It is April 1st 2011 three weeks after the Great Tōhoku earthquake.
I’m a water person, I grew up on boats. Some of my earliest memories are of the eerie smoothness of sand after a passing wave wicks away into the grains, or nighttime transits on my father’s boat, lying on my stomach peering over the side into black water at the bioluminescent ctenophores scintillating through the bow-wave. The curiosity that has brought me here, however, comes from 4 years of living on Cape Cod, watching the Atlantic cut the shoreline anew every winter season or after a Nor’easter (2). The event is a reflection on living with water—the ‘problem’ of water. In the extended aftermath of hurricane Katrina the failure of levees is on everyone’s mind but the event’s introductory remarks are overshadowed by the more recent disaster: The Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and consequent meltdown of the Fukushima power plant.
Prior to this event I was unfamiliar with Anuradgha Mathur and Dilip Da Cunha, who delivered the keynote. Broadly speaking, they challenge a falsely divided topography where one side of a line is water, the other dry land: a blue that meets a brown. They propose thinking of settlements as anchors in time—moving with water, not trying to problematize it. Introduced at this talk was the practice of mound building by indigenous communities of the Mississippi river delta. These mounds served as a place to retreat from flood—versus the modern concrete levee to hold it back.
There is a carved stone tablet in the town of Aneyoshi, Japan (3). Its inscription reads:
‘Do not build your homes below this point!’
One of many ‘tsunami stones’ these markers were put up to mark high water points from previous tsunamis. These monoliths are mementos, warnings from past disasters to the present. After WWII and Allied occupation, the expansion of building in Japan meant those warnings often went unheeded. Faith in the experience of ancestors was replaced by a foreign modernity’s promise of dominance through feats of engineering. Water came to be seen not as something to retreat from but to be brought to heel. I’m transported to a memory of exploring flat coastal plains south of Sendai littered with fishing boats keeled to one side some distance inland, the only indication that something terrible has happened here. I look down and realize that, at my feet are what remains of house foundations, half hidden in beachgrass. I pan out, imagine an elevated vantage point and realize I’m standing in what was once a densely populated suburban neighborhood now washed off the map. I’m struck by how much it resembles the town I grew up in—the plants, the quality of light, the residential planning, the briny air.
The journey in the film (4), in as much as there is one, follows a little shape-shifting fox as they travel from the Shiretoko peninsula in Japan’s Northernmost island of Hokkaido to the Tōhoku region, of Honshu. They find themselves in a town called Namie, in the Fukushima prefecture. The fox, Sasaki, shifts from human to animal, living to dead. Sasaki’s voice is performed by an older man, their human form by an androgynously dressed woman. In Namie, Sasaki wanders into a ruined planetarium, lamenting the dangers of concrete delineation between things. While looking at a star projector, Sasaki falls, now as a desiccated mummy, into a dark fluid underworld.
Here, debris comprised of everyday objects, left behind by the now receded tsunami waters, floats and spins. In this underworld, things are presented almost museologically, objects as specimens, lost to display, disarticulated from place, time and the cultures that made and cared for them. There is an object I used to haunt at the Met in NYC, a small silver Mesopotamian figurine of a human-bull hybrid which kneels with its legs bundled, holding out an urn. Looking at it always made me profoundly sad.
‘A clock isn't time; it's just numbers and springs. Pay it no mind.’* (5)
When my brother died I took to walking the foreshore of the Thames. I consulted tide charts seeking an exit from the industrial time of the city—walking with the flow of the river. I was ostensibly ‘mudlarking’*7— a common enough pastime—but really I was, and still am, angrily grieving. As a colleague once said to me— shocked and momentarily forgetting the accepted ways of acknowledging a death—my brother had gotten half of a life.
In Jean Cocteau’s Orphee there is a scene where the title character passes through a liquid mirror into the underworld. ‘You don’t have to understand, you just have to believe’, he was told. I believed if I walked in tide time, a time of planetary forces, I could possibly cross the liquid surface and retrieve something of my half brother who got half a life out of that sad river whose fine sediment anaerobically entombs things lost in its waters. Sometimes you find Rose Farthings (6) on the foreshore looking as though they’ve only been there a few days. They haven’t been used as Thames crossing ferry fares since the 17th century.
This year, seven years after my brother died, I held up a screen to wave at my dying father, who mirrored me by waving back.
I’m seated at my desk in London ‘walking’ the streets of Namie with google street view, near the train station, near the chain link fence that delineates the exclusion zone. Beyond the train station is the plant some 13km to the south. I’m looking for a newsagent. It's a left turn from the station when facing the direction of the sea. Working from memory, I never get it right on the first try and I look for landmarks—a peach colored apartment building, a red awning, a mascot with an open newspaper for a head.
Visible through the glass shopfront are piles of newspapers, still bundled in plastic, same as they were the day they were delivered, the day after the earthquake. A paper is pulled loose from a bundle—8.8 printed in big characters on it. The capture dates, when the location was photographed, are recorded on street view. I Scroll through those dates—March, 2013, July 2013, August 2014, September 2015—and the height of the stack diminishes. People have been taking mementos. I’ve stood in this exact location but when I revisit it like this, mediated through a screen, I get a feeling like a part of me that lives in memory is still standing there, an anchor waiting to be pulled up or cut loose.
Published in November, 2020
Volume 4, Issue 7
The Eye That Articulates Belongs on Land was commissioned for the Jerwood/FVU Awards: Borrowed Time, a collaboration between Jerwood Arts and FVU, in association with CCA, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. Supported by The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. FVU is supported by Arts Council England. Field research in Japan which resulted in Karen Kramer's proposal for The Eye That Articulates Belongs On Land was supported by Arts Catalyst and NPO S-Air.