Trace: An Interview with artist Shimpei Takeda
10.08.2012, 8:51 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

  Trace #7 Nihonmatsu Castle (Nihonmatsu, Fukushima), gelatin-silver print, 2012 © Shimpei Takeda

Shimpei Takeda is a Brooklyn-based artist born in Fukushima prefecture, Japan. His ongoing project, Trace – cameraless records of radioactive contamination is featured in smudge studio’s forthcoming edited collection of visual essays, Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary LifeFor Trace, Takeda, exposes soil contaminated by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to photo-sensitive materials for extended periods of time to create profound visualizations of the radiation existing within the material of affected landscapes. The imprints of light generated by radioactivity on photographic paper take on the appearance of stars and constellations in the night sky. Takeda describes Trace as a, “physically direct record of the worst man-made nuclear accident in history.”

In early September, we had the pleasure of hosting Shimpei at our studio to discuss his project. He had just returned from Fukushima, where he exhibited Trace in the 5th Contemporary Art Biennale of Fukushima and began work on a large-scale mural version of the project to be exhibited in 2013/14. Shimpei’s first iteration of Trace was funded as a Kickstarter project in 2011.

* All the photos this page © Shimpei Takeda, unless otherwise noted.


FOP:  Can you say what your primary motivation was for making Trace?

SHIMPEI TAKEDA:  At first, I couldn’t comprehend what was happening exactly in Fukushima. Or perhaps I didn’t want to believe what was going on. I had been reading a lot and teaching myself about what was going on—and about the nuclear industry—and the effects of radiation exposure. I was also learning more about the politics behind the nuclear industry. I started to feel that I had to do something in response.

At the same time, I wanted to visualize the invisible disaster in some way. Seeing data visualizations of radiation in the air, soil and ocean didn’t feel real. I needed to see a physically solid record of the disaster. Then I started to realize that radiation, such as gamma rays and visible light, basically work same way on photographic materials. On the surface of light-sensitive materials silver halide darkens when exposed to electromagnetic radiation.

Also, there is the fact that I was born in Fukushima prefecture. Doing such an art project while having a strong connection to the place, I believe, automatically makes a political message— even without saying too much. At the end of May 2011 I decided this was what I was going to do.

Then, endless research and experimentation began. As pre-experimentation before physically going to Japan, I started to expose photographic papers to radioactive materials that I could buy online. Also, I researched historical sites in the Kanto and Tōhoku regions for collecting soil. That was how I spent last summer. I can’t believe that am still working on this project…

Pre-experimentation #2: Crushed Radioactive Red Fiestaware (U-235 & U-238). September, 2011. For more information on the experimentation stage of Trace, see Shimpei’s website.

FOP: Yes, you are still doing it. In many ways, the events are not over.

ST: Yes, it is still leaking every day…

FOP: Was that usual for you, to take on a project for that long of a span of a time? When you say you can’t believe you are still doing it, is it because you usually do shorter projects?

ST: Often I work on a project for a long time, but slowly. On this project, since Day 1, I sort of knew that this was going to be a long project. Since I started working on this I haven’t really stopped. That makes me feel like it has been a long journey so far.

FOP: It is very challenging subject matter.

ST: It is not a fun project, but seeing the results for the first time in the darkroom… that was, yes, some kind of unspeakable experience.

Hand-processed B/W film exposed by radioactive particles in contaminated soil. February, 2012.

FOP: Seeing the image take form on film must have been some kind of undeniable proof—given all the uncertainties of the events. Seeing it in front of you does make the material reality indisputable. You have said it is important to you that the project not be simply understood as a photography project. Why?

ST: Certainly it goes beyond a photography project. It is more of a scientific documentation of the disaster, which is still ongoing. Using radioactive particles in the soil, exposing them to photo paper or film, that process is more like a science experiment. Actually, the process, exposing photographic film to radioactive materials is called autoradiography—a scientific term. At the same time, there is a little room for artistic decisions that I can make. Such as the choice of soil as the material I use, the length of the film’s exposure, or places that I collect the soil. But I have tried to not over control the project and let it become more of a representation of how things are on their own.

A soil sample was placed in a light-tight box with B/W sheet film for a month (*actual work was done in the darkroom) January, 2011.

My background of working with photography was easy to transfer to Trace. I have been focusing on a series of conceptual photographs with abstract aesthetics over the years. So initially this project started as one of those in my mind. But now I have started to see photographic materials as a receptor for radiation rather than visible light.

Takeda in his Brooklyn studio working on his photogram series Salt Terrain, April 2011. Photo by Michiya Hirata

FOP: You say on your website that the resulting images from Trace will, “perhaps be a valuable asset and documentation for future generations.” Can you say more about how this project is intended to serve future audiences, through time, and carry a message forward? Or do you think of it more as being a project that helps people who are alive today think more about the potency of nuclear materials?

ST: Trace is both for people who are living right now and for future generations. Radiation is not visible at all. People alive right now need better ways to see these materials, and need to see more than the broken nuclear reactors and people wearing masks. Also, geiger counter numbers are so abstract.

So, in some way, Trace is a direct physical documentation that helps us to understand—helps me to understand these numbers. I think doing this as a conceptual art piece serves as a better way to show people who come after us. As an artwork, I think it has a better chance of showing future generations than other formats.

Seeing Chernobyl and the health effects, this is very difficult to look at. After the Fukushima disaster, seeing things that happened in Chernobyl as a near future reference of Fukushima is totally shivering.

FOP: It is hard to make work about things that you yourself aren’t even sure you understand. But it does seem important to try. For us, it has been an ongoing negotiation of how to make such projects shareable and interesting to others. It has become necessary to keep finding new angles, while continuing to draw on past experiences, to even keep things interesting to us.

Alison McFarlane is a geologist who was just confirmed as the new Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner in the United States. This is a big change.  It is the first time a geologist has been granted such a position. For us, her appointment exemplifies, and solidifies, the relationship between radioactive materials and the geologic (very long-term) design challenges they pose. As a result of Fukushima, do you think people in Japan have new understandings of time or are returning to old conceptions of time?

ST: I think that those who are actively trying to understand and are aware of what is going on, yes, they realize the enormous time frame. But for those who are ignoring the nuclear crisis and the aftermath, they can only see a short span of time. I don’t know how many people can think about the enormous time frames involved. They are so vast. Nuclear waste may need to be taken care of for 100,000 years. It may be hard to think about 1000 years ahead or even 100 years, but at least you can care for the next few decades, to try and make the world a better place or at least try to keep it the same way for the next generation.

After I collected the soil at the hospital where I was born, I thought, “Ah, I am not going to forget this day… and even after I die this mess will still be around.” I started to feel really bad. The next generation, and the next, will have to put up with the mess that we created. It is very irresponsible. Once you realize these things, it is hard to go back. Once you begin to think about it, it is hard to think about other things.

Monument for 80th anniversary of the Iwase General Hospital where Takeda was born. The hospital opened in 1872 and the monument was built in 1952. January, 2012. Photo by Shingo Annen.

It is very hard to speak for all Japanese people, especially because people around me are heavily aware and active in this issue. But I feel there is a majority that includes a social atmosphere of just living along with what has happened and thinking there is nothing that can be done. Certainly, things are changing, but I get overwhelmed by this overall feeling of just accepting.

There is an example from my experience last summer. In Fukushima Prefecture, and perhaps nearby prefectures, television and radio now report radiation levels along with the weather forecast. I had heard about this, but listening or watching it in real life was a very creepy experience. The radiation report is brief, they say something quickly like, “Here is the report of today’s radiation level. The unit is microSv per hour. In Minami-Soma city, the lowest is 0.09 and the highest is 4.89 ….” It is just crazy like that (reference link).

Also, there is this commercial all over Japan (at least in the Tokyo metropolitan area) right now featuring a new smart phone that has a built-in radiation detector.  There is a pop star on the commercial advertising it. I feel this suggests that we should prepare for a “worst event” by ourselves, because the government won’t tell us anything. Since March 2011, a lot more affordable radiation meters were available on the market, which I appreciate. But at the same time, it is disgusting to accept what has happened so nicely, instead of trying to change why it has happened—and why it continues to happen.

FOP: Yet, now that non-scientists have access to these tools, such as the new smart phone, they can also report radiation levels. When people do this, they become part of a network of citizens. “Legitimate” or “professional” media have to start listening and reporting on these topics when citizen efforts actually surpass the efforts of journalists and professionals.  

ST: Yes, it works both ways.

FOP: Were you ever concerned for your health during the production of this project? If so, is this risk an important part of the project, and can you talk more about why it was important that you physically go to Fukushima and work with these potentially dangerous materials?

ST: I was definitely concerned about it. But practically speaking, when I retrieved the soil I was wearing a mask and gloves and avoided direct contact to minimize my exposure. I can minimize the effect by reducing the handling time, avoiding direct contact or inhalation by protecting myself with the right gear. I don’t feel great about this part of the project, but somebody has to do this dirty work.

Going to actual locations in Japan is the only way to get this work done. Raw soil is not transportable beyond national borders, so the processing, collecting and exposing of the soil to the photographic materials had to be done in Japan.

My first attempt was just exposing 8×10 inch sheet films. The amount of soil that I dealt with then was a very small amount. This summer I set-up to expose 60 sheets of 4×8 feet photographic paper for creating an installation. At some point earlier this year I figured that showing a 1:1 life-size reproduction of radiation exposure is important to present as documentation of the disaster. This commitment certainly made things much harder to figure it out, such as finding a place to work, and where to get the soil, etc.

This [photo below] is where I was staying in August. I set up a room and brought in about 60 bags of contaminated soil taken from Fukushima-city. Each bag is around 30–40 pounds. I built this very big box. Right now the photographic materials are there being exposed to the soil until late-October.

130-year old farmhouse where Takeda is working on a mural-sized version of Trace. August, 2012.

4×8 foot light-tight container for the project. August, 2012.

view of east side of Fukushima-city. August, 2012.

Keishu Wada, a friend of my grandfather, is housing the project. I used his space for working and lodging this summer. He has converted a 130-year old farmhouse into a soba noodle restaurant, theater and gallery.  What used to be silk storage became a café and gallery space for his own work, which he still operates on the weekends. He is an artist and makes pictures accompanied by Tanka poetry (a bit longer poetry form than Haiku) related to what is happening as a result of Fukushima. He has made more than a hundred now and is working on publishing a book. This piece [photo below] is about abandoned animals in the evacuation zone.

Mr. Keishu Wada, an artist based in Fukushima-city. August, 2012

FOP: In your artist book you say scooping the dirt samples in Fukushima felt like scooping someone’s ashes. Japanese aesthetics and philosophies often explore human awareness of  the forces of “inanimate things.” Do such ideas influence your work?  How you would broadly describe Japanese relationships to materiality?

ST: Growing up in Japan automatically means I have a relationship to Shinto to some degree, so animism is always somewhere in my mind. I think a lot of Japanese people think about this. At the same time, a lot of friends in New York understand this and the whole idea of what I am saying. Certainly, you understand this and other non-Japanese people understand what I am saying. And that is something special about New York. I feel in New York, the border between East and West can disappear.

FOP: You were recently in Fukushima sharing your work. How was your work received? Were there any surprising reactions?

ST: People in Fukushima found this project meaningful to them. They have been very supportive. I was surprised by the people who told me it was a great project or thanked me for doing it. Of course, the fact that I have roots there helped.

FOP: Can you talk more about your collaborations, such as with supporters on Kickstarter who funded the first phase of the project? How important have collaborators been to your project and the way it continues to grow?

ST: Close friends, family, and people sharing the same views towards this issue understand my mission and generously help me in so many ways; technically, artistically, and emotionally.

The Kickstarter campaign certainly expanded that feeling. I never feel that I work alone, although on a daily basis, I spend most time by myself. Overall, this project is primarily just physical work with a lot of psychological stress. When the production is difficult, it is very helpful to know there are people out there. That cheers me up. There are some moments I ask, “Ah… why am I doing this?!” Sometimes it just gets overwhelming.

Last winter, going to the twelve locations I was very lucky to have friends come along. Especially Shingo Annen (Shing02) a hip-hop activist. He not only assisted me during the road trip, but also encouraged me mentally.

Shing02 has been actively dealing with nuclear issues in his music for several years. In 2006 he participated in the “Stop-Rokkasho” project to raise awareness about the dangers of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. He also has been working with a filmmaker, Hitomi Kamanaka, to create soundtracks for her documentary films about nuclear power and radiation exposure.  He also published an independent report about the effects of radioactive substances in the biological system with his own info graphics (only in Japanese).

Since I am dealing with very painful subject matter, mentally strong colleagues’ participation and collaboration have been essential to keeping the project moving forward.

Takeda collecting a soil sample in Nihonmatsu Castle, Nihonmatsu city, Fukushima. January, 2012. Photo by Keisuke Hiei.

FOP: US media no longer cover the Fukushima accident regularly, yet there is still so much happening at the plant and in the surrounding areas. Do you have any recommendations for English speakers who want to follow the events?

ST: There is no one single source that is perfect, but people might want to visit This is an energy news site that might be useful.

FOP: We feel there is point of connection between our work and yours, because to us it seems that Trace attempts to invent new ways to talk about, and experience, a topic that typically polarizes people. We think your work helps people invent new ways of thinking—ways that meet the material reality of this moment, the right here and right now.

ST: I never thought I would end up doing this type of work. I never thought a nuclear disaster would happen in Japan. I grew up in the suburbs of Tokyo and I didn’t have much of a connection to the land. While growing up I would go to Fukushima every summer and also for New Years with my parents to visit my grandparents. We would go to the lakes and mountains to ski or to the hot springs. All those kinds of activities happened in Fukushima. So I recognize a lot of the names of cities and places in the region. When I was listening to an NPR interview of a victim living in temporary housing in Fukushima I noticed the dialect. It is the same as my grandparents. That kind of thing can really change you. I think if it had happened somewhere completely different, some other location, I’m not sure I would have done this project—if it wasn’t Fukushima.


* Limited edition silver gelatin prints and books of Trace are available for purchase at Proceeds directly support the production of mural-sized version of Trace currently in production.

1 Comment so far
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Such an amazing project. I am filled with admiration and respect. I am fervently hoping that the mural-sized version emerges soon. M. Ivy

Comment by Marilyn Ivy

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