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In Nagasaki, New Art Exhibit "Antimonument" Rethinks The Bomb

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Visual artist Shinpei Takeda stands in front of his exhibit titled "Antimonument." Photographs By Ari Beser.

“What is Antimonument supposed to mean?” I asked Ryuta Imafuku, cultural anthropologist at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

“There is no such thing as ‘supposed to,’” replied Imafuku, partner of visual artist Shinpei Takeda, whose new exhibit, "Antimonument," is on display at the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum until September 13th. “What do you think Antimonument means?” he asked.

“A monument is permanent,” I said. “'Antimonument' is traveling around the world. You can take it apart, move it from city to city, and still send a permanent message.”

He shook his head at the simplicity of my explanation.

“There is no right, and there is no wrong. The monument is a public collective symbol of the memory. However, our relationship with the past should not be singularly communicated by the symbols of the monument. The monument has power related to some sort of political motivation. So 'Antimonument' questions that ideology.”

On August 13, a week after the anniversaries of Japan's atomic bombings, both Imafuku and Takeda led a public tour of Nagasaki—itself a living extension of Takeda’s "Antimonument."

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The view of the atomic bomb dome from across the Motoyasu River, where a plaque rests showing what the industrial hall used to look like.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced the unimaginable disaster of atomic bombs, but they commemorate the events in philosophically different ways.

They say Hiroshima is where people go to protest, and Nagasaki is where people go to pray. Tweet this It reflects on the Christian background of Nagasaki. Christianity was banned in Japan under the shogunate, punishable by severe torture and death until the late 19th century.

When the ban was lifted in the Meiji Restoration, the St Mary's Cathedral, or the Urakami Cathedral as it is commonly called, was constructed. On August 9, 1945, the atomic bomb called Fat Man blew up 1,600 feet (500 meters) away, completely destroying it and killing everyone inside who had gathered for morning mass.

The Christian community and city officials wrestled with the idea of preserving the destroyed building, but the religious community wanted to rebuild their new cathedral on the same site. The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall was preserved, and forever referred to as the Atomic Bomb Dome. Hiroshima kept their icon of atomic devastation, but Nagasaki did not.

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One of the original bell towers still rests on the property of the reconstructed Urakami Cathedral. It sits on the same plot of land as the original which was destroyed by the atomic bombing on August 9.

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Nagasaki's Remembrance Hall, was crafted to be a symbolic tribute to the victims of the 2nd city to ever be attacked with an atomic weapon.

Nagasaki commemorates in a more symbolic fashion. A plaque in the Remembrance Hall states:

“The pillars are positioned so that they form a line, which points toward the place where the atomic bomb exploded. Their illuminated forms symbolize calls for peace going out to the skies of the world. The concrete of the walls were hand-pressed with cedar panels, giving the surface an uneven and varied texture. The cedar rings are meant to convey a sense of history and the passing of time."

Indeed Nagasaki is riddled with symbols and monuments all with their own special, less than overt meanings, and some are more obvious in their definition. “Go up to the monument, have a conversation with it,” Imafuku suggested on the tour. “Try to decide for yourself what the monument is suggesting.”

At the museumTakeda explained how his exhibit "Antimonument" is part physical installation, part visual storytelling.

He has taken over three rooms in the sprawling art museum. One room is filled only with a string structure that Takeda describes as the unraveling of the understanding of the atomic bombs. Another room is draped with the voiceprints of survivor testimonies, all playing at once to an inaudible mess that sounds more like noise than anything intelligible, another room plays Takeda’s documentary Hiroshima Nagasaki Download. What does it all mean?

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Shinpei Takeda stands in front of a section of "Antimonument," designed by the voiceprints of Atomic Bomb Survivor Testimony, all of which play at once in the hall with a video of him drawing the forms in an airtight glass case.

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Hiroshima Nagasaki Download plays in a theater attached to the exhibit. The documentary centers on a road trip from Vancouver to Tijuana interviewing atomic bomb survivors who live in North America. The movie itself is a play on the lack of difference of the Japanese R/L, both describing the films journey down road from Canada to Mexico, and referencing millennial's affinity for downloading information.

“That’s up to you,” says Takeda. He is cautious to define his own work that some describe as an emanation of his own struggle to understand someone else’s horrific experiences he himself did not witness.

"I try hard to understand the true horror of the surviving an atomic bomb," I told him. "Even listening to the story of one witness is impossible to fathom, but there are thousands of people who lived through this. Thousands who are still alive, and have unimaginable experiences. Hearing it all at once shows the immensity of it all.”

“That's one way of looking at it,” he said. “That's your way. But your name Ari Beser, in a way even that's a kind of monument, or at least your grandpa's name was,” he said. “You are not Joe Smith. Remember that. 'Antimonument' for you is breaking your own monument, whatever that may be.”

I've embarked on a dark journey, with little understanding as to why. Am I here to find my voice? Am I here because my grandfather was Jacob Beser? The answer isn't clear to me yet. Takeda may think my name can be taken as a "monument," however his work proves you do not need a family relation to this history to dedicate your life to it.

Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.

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