The University College London Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction Annual Conference is not the first place you’d think to look for Japanese art, but for two days last week the conference offered a rare opportunity to see Yuki Yamaguchi’s Fukushima kimonos, in the South Cloisters at UCL. When I arrived the conference tea break was in full swing, and I had to dodge between the participants to get a look at the artworks. They were fascinating (the kimonos, not the participants) – made, not of cloth, but of ceramic tiles.
Yuki had come over from France, where she has a studio in the Dordogne, for the exhibition, so I was able to ask her about the kimonos and her reasons for making them. She told me they’re her response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. She was in France when the disaster happened and felt guilty that she was so far from her country and could not help. The kimonos are a personal expression of sympathy and identification with the victims.
Yuki chose the kimono as an image because it symbolises traditional Japan and reflects her sense of being part of Japanese culture. The set of three kimonos represent the past, present and future.
The kimono representing the past is decorated with falling cherry blossom, the quintessential image of Japan – the petals even lie at the foot of the kimono as though they had fallen off it.
The kimono representing the present has the radiation warning symbol set against the colours of the Japanese flag, reflecting the damage the Fukushima disaster has done to Japan.
The kimono representing the future is made with tiny mirror in the upper portion, inviting us to reflect on what is to come, and to try to avoid making the same mistakes in future.
It’s fascinating to see something normally made in fluid cloth represented instead in baked and glazed clay. The construction of the kimonos, in long strips hung together, give them a flexible quality, a suggestion of the ability to wave in the breeze like a real kimono. They don’t seem at all heavy, a tribute to the artist’s skill.
UCL has a long and proud history of links with Japan, ever since the Choshu Five risked their lives to come to the UK to study at UCL in the years of turmoil following the fall of the shogunate (More about the Choshu Five here). I was glad I managed to catch this imaginative contribution to an academic conference – and I got a cup of tea too!