Antimonument as Modus of Continuous Inquiry

By Shuhei Matsukubo, Mariko Mikami, Maika Nakao, and Shinpei Takeda (Antimonument Research Collective)

After traveling the exhibition “Antimonument” from 2015 to 2018 from Nagasaki Art Museum all the way to Mexico, my project has taken me back again to Nagasaki in the summer of 2020. I was to make a public art intervention at the hypo center park, literally right at the heel of the monuments. The rather ambitious project was carried out with positive reviews. Nevertheless I felt the need to address the contradictory nature of making projects at the monumental locations even though I have been advocating antimonument. I felt a particular sense of self-warning because there was not a single public criticism over my project, but rather only superficial media coverages that lack any sense of critiques and insights. Obviously there must have been a mixed feeling and reaction to an experimental art project in such an emotional and politically loaded site. It is then either I was never allowed in that conversation, or that such a dialogue is not allowed in Nagasaki. 

So in my desire to not let the project end up becoming monumental, and to create space for a critical dialogue, I have decided to ask other scholars, curators and producers from different disciplines to participate on this continuous inquiries by forming a group called Antimonument Research Collective (AMRC). Throughout a year, monthly discussions were held with guests, with whom we discussed the antimoument from multiple perspectives. We inquired what it means to be antimonument - from figurative to abstract, physical to metaphysical, and contextual to philosophical, as I believe that the most essential thing is to continue the activation of the conversations. 

Below are both personal and critical reflections by the members of the collective in order to highlight the array of diverse perspective.

by Shinpei Takeda
Shinpei Takeda is an artist and filmmaker based in Düsseldorf and Tijuana. The memories of atomic bombs and Nagasaki have been recurring themes in his films, books, art projects.

August 9th 2020, 6pm Nagasaki. The rain has just ended, and the countless candles flickered in the hypocenter park. This was “Memor(y/i)al: Voice and Light Performance” as part of Memory Undertow (Seimon Genba in Japanese) orchestrated by artist Shinpei Takeda (1). The night became filled with the voices of recital volunteer group “Towa no kai” reciting the experiences of the atomic bomb survivors(hibakusha) living abroad and the sound of snare drums played by percussionist Satoshi Nagasawa. All over the ground below is the “Memory Undertow,” the “voiceprint” of the Hibakusha transcribed by Takeda.

Overlooking the monument literally at ground zero - the center of the atomic bomb explosions, the voiceprints of A-bomb survivors covered the area over 800 square meters, more than half the surface of the ground at the hypocenter park. These voiceprints, which were transcribed by Takeda's hand, are computer-generated visualizations of the voices of 12 Nagasaki natives exiled in North and South Americas, whose stories Takeda collected over the years. Naturally, it is not possible to trace back to the content of the stories from the voice prints. Therefore they are only traces of the amplitude of the voices and emotions of hibakusha who recount their very specific experiences.

 In this project, an AR (Augmented Reality) application developed in collaboration with the University Applied Science in Duesseldorf complemented or rather emphasized the use of the voiceprint sequences. By scanning the markers placed in various spots on the ground covered with voiceprints using a specially designed app installed on a smartphone, a flag-like motif appears in the augmented reality and one can hear the voices of the Hibakusha, the source of the voiceprints through their app (*2).

 As viewers, we literally enter into the work physically, wandering over the voiceprint and listening to the actual voices of the Hibakusha. When both the voice and the voiceptins mix on the surface of the hypocenter, we feel as if the voices of the Hibakusha are echoing through the voiceprint at our feet from the the deeper layer of the hypocenter

 It should be noted, however, that these white voiceprints were transcribed by Taketa’s “hand.” In a sense, this anachronistic, analog use of hand has been persistently repeated in Takeda’s previous works. Takeda’s series of works, starting with the “Alpha Decay” series of installations using voiceprint motifs, began with his “daring attempt to somehow try to understand and to touch” (*3), based on his acceptance of the inherent impossibility of understanding the essence of the A-bomb experience.

 When Takeda spent an enormous amount of time under the blazing sun, perhaps foolishly but yet sincerely transcribing voiceprints, the amplitude of the voiceprints was not only the fluctuation of the emotions of the Hibakusha and their recounting of their horrifying experiences, but it was also an expression of the “fluctuation” of Takeda’s own body and mind at that moment (4). Through this ritualistic process, Takeda makes an attempt to understand the Hibakusha. However at the same time, he embodies the memory of the atomic bombing as an issue of his own “individuality” in the present. In parallel with creating works using voiceprints, Takeda has been working to archive the stories of the atomic bombing survivors that he has collected. The two seemingly different approaches of expression and preservation are the two wheels that define Takeda’s positions (5). Takeda continues to weave a thread that connects 1945 to the present, and to the future as a matter of his own “individual” within the the single axis of time (*6).

 Initially, the “Memory Undertow” was to be erased by Takeda and his volunteers without waiting for August 9 (the anniversary date), as if to suggest that the memories of all disasters, including Nagasaki, would fade away with the passage of time. However, due to the wishes of the Nagasaki citizen, the exhibition was extended until August 9, and a performance was held on the final night. Although this may have been contrary to Takeda’s original intention, the performance was a successful way to conclude the month-long project.

 On the night of the event, the stories of Nagasaki and the Hibakusha were summoned to the hypocenter, through the bodies of the reciters functioning as devices. The sound of the drums resonated with their voices, echoing like a call. At the end of the performance, they formed a circle and all the reciters read at the same time. Each voice mingled with the other, and the waves of sound spread out like an ocean. When I immersed my body in this sea of sound, a swell of vibration, my body resonated as if it was being drawn to the “vibration” of the hibakusya, the reciters, and Takeda.

Takeda, standing beside the reciters, uses a small projector to project their own voice patterns from their feet to their hearts. It is as if the voices of the Hibakusha, called in from the deeper strata of the hypocenter, are downloaded through their feet touching the earth, into their bodies, and released through their throats into the air of Nagasaki.

 -Shuhei Matsukubo
Shuhei Matsukubo is a curator at the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum. His main focus is on modern and contemporary Japanese art.

Nagasaki is a place where one can feel and connect with the dead. One of the things that I was fascinated with while living in Nagasaki was the relationship of the living and the dead. During Obon (mid-August), when the dead are supposed to return, fireworks are set off and families are eating and drinking at graves. In the last day of Obon, Shoro Nagashi is held in which the spirits of the dead are sent off. Countless of firecrackers are set off, and the dead are carried off on spirit boats in a lively atmosphere. By investigating more about the history and culture of Nagasaki and its connection between the living and the dead, I began to relate much more personally to tombstones and became attracted to the stone monuments.

In this context, I believe that a monument is something that connects, or at least was built to connect, the dead and the living. As a historian of the atomic bombing, I am interested in the monuments representing the victims of the atomic bombing. The most famous in Nagasaki are the monuments in the Hypocenter Park and Peace Park. The art critic like Nodoka Odawara (*7) and others have claimed that these monuments are inappropriate for the place. Rather than these well-known monuments, I would like to think about the myriads of monuments that are not well known.

There is a book titled “The Monument Appeals,” listing up many memorial monuments, both known and unknown, to the victims of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki(*8). With this book in hand, I walked through the streets and mountains of Nagasaki. These monuments were erected out of mourning for the victims by the people left behind. However, they have faded away with time, and often stand in secluded places without much attention. It became important for me to trace the fading monuments one by one and ponder upon the context with which these monuments were built.

Therefore when I first heard the term antimonument and the thoughts associated with it seemed to belittle history. Although through monthly discussions with Takeda and others, I have gained a lot of inspiration. Monuments have been created by the politics of their time, as a result of negotiations between people living at the time. The meaning of a monument changes depending on where it is placed and who sees it. If the meaning of a monument is something that changes, what is the point of protecting it? A monument leaves behind an intention, and with that can trigger violence just by its continuous existence. After talking with Yoshio Shirakawa (*9), it somehow became clear to me that monuments themselves have no meaning.

        Monuments don't tell us anything by themselves. There are those who create monuments, those who try to preserve them, those who question them and those who try to dismantle them. It is a negotiation - a negotiation over history, and story. Therefore monuments serve as the mediator of the negotiation.  If they were not left in some type of form or shape, we would not even have a chance to think about what this something means. Therefore, I see monuments as something that facilitates our thinking.

To think about the monuments is also to think about how we deal with the people and events that we do not have direct memories of. The memory of the atomic bombing will fade away. But I would like to keep the memories and records of those who left them behind and those who are trying to leave them behind – in a hope that they, along with the monuments, will inspire and invite the people of the future for further negotiations.

Maika Nakao
Maika Nakao is an associate professor at Hiroshima University. She specializes in the history and culture of the nuclear age, and was formerly at Nagasaki University from 2018 to 2021.

Antimonument is about the dynamism of erecting and destroying monuments; an alarm to our collective numbness that prevents us from thinking beyond the surface; and a critical attitude that seeks to update the narratives of monuments that have been recorded and remembered. Shinpei Takeda points out a paradox in his antimonument manifesto in 2015 that the concept of antimonument becomes monumental when it becomes static, and I believe that this state of suspension is its essence.

By judging and distinguishing between you and me, this and that, here and there, the history has been written. Such dualistic manner, however, cannot grasp the things that exist between categories and directly on the boundaries. The history is made up of more than just the stories told by what is recorded and visible. The attitude of antimonument, which attempts to question the static nature of what is classified in front of our eyes, encourages us to imagine what has become invisible due to the historical dualistic judgment. This is where art and literature, or their interdisciplinary expression, come into play as powerful tools.

               The works of Erika Kobayashi (*10), which depicts human nature as being enthralled by light, radiant materials, and invisible entities that transcend reason, provide us a clue in considering the attitude of antimonument. In her installation "She waited" (2019/2021), her literary work expands into space, the monumental symbols and events under the fascism regimes in West and in East, such as Olympic torch relay in 1936/1940 as well as the discovery of uranium and the invention of nuclear weapons, reverberate as an underlying tone. The protagonists of the story/work, on the other hand, are unnamed girls called "her", who have been waiting for a sacred fire of the Olympic torch to come. Unlike the imperialist powers that be, who prefer massive, and macho monuments, the works that compose the installation are rather small in size and made of paper, mirror, and projection, which are subtle. Expanding literature into installation, Kobayashi slips these fragile, fluxing voices of anonymous girls into a dark space with lots of blanks that corresponds to spaces between the lines.

              There have been activisms in the postmodern era who have peeled off the masks of monuments erected by those in power as communal memory devices to govern people from different backgrounds in the name of creating a nation-state. (*11) They have questioned the socio-political conditions under which the monuments were erected. However, there is something to be lost if we only see the conflict in its simplified form - one between victims and perpetrators, settlers and indigenous people, or black and white. The unanimous girls from Kobayashi’s installation tell us that what is lost between the lines play a strong role as “invisible monument” without names and entities. This state of suspension is the essence of the attitude of antimonument and this can give us an alternative to reflect the history.  

-Mariko Mikami
Mariko Mikami is an independent curator, project manager and producer for contemporary art and interdisciplinary projects currently based in Dusseldorf, Germany and Tokyo, Japan.

  1. This performance was held as part of the “Nagasaki Evening of Prayer and Pledge for the 75th Anniversary of the Bombing.
  2. An application named “ground-0” is used. The flag-like motifs that appear after scanning the markers are composed of titles given by Takeda and photographs of Nagasaki after the bombing.
  3. “Conversation: Shinpei Takeda and Yukinori Okamura,” Shinpei Takeda Anti-Monument exhibition catalogue, Nagasaki Prefectural Museum of Art, 2015.
  4. For more on Takeda’s transcriptions of “voiceprints,” see also the following Ryuta Imafuku, “For the Second Witnessing of the Atomic Bomb,” and Akira Nonaka, “Anti-Monument: To Remember the ‘Two Times’,” in “Shinpei Takeda: Anti-Monument” exhibition catalogue, Nagasaki Prefectural Museum of Art, 2015.
  5. In this project “Memory Undertow”, “Memory Undertow web dialogue” was conducted as parallel events. The themes of the four dialogue sessions are as follows: “#1 Inheritance (Guests: Masao Asanaga and Ryo Osera),” “#2 Stories of the Public and the Individual (Yuichi Aorai and Maika Nakao),”#3 Disarmament (Fumihiko Yoshida, Haruka Ageo),” “#4: Atomic Bomb and Art (Arata Hasegawa, Akira Nonaka). The implementation of these side events expresses Takeda’s attempt to not let this project remain static or be forgotten as a transitory one, but opening up a path to the next phase of development.
  6. Following “Alpha Decay,” Takeda presented “Beta Decay,” a series of installations using countless threads.
  7. Nodoka Odawara, a sculptor and art critic born in 1985, criticizes the Peace Park for being a “sculpture yard” with no connection to the atomic bombing as a problem of modern Japanese art and sculpture. Odawara joined our monthly discussion on 9th June 2021.
  8. Nagasaki City, The Monument Appeals: Collection of A-Bomb Monuments and Remains (Ishibumi ha uttaeru: Genbaku monument, ikou shu), Nagasaki Kokusai Bunka Kaikan, 1986.
  9. Born in 1948, Yoshio Shirakawa has continued his expressive activities based on local history and culture, rooted in his Dadaists stance. He was invited to the AMRC monthly discussion on 9th May 2021.
  10. Erika Kobayashi is active as a novelist, manga artist, and visual artist based in Tokyo. Radiation is a leitmotif in her works.
  11. For example, a statue of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Charlottesville, which was erected in the early 1920s and became a symbol of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017, was removed in July 2021.