Two canary yellow stratocasters, mounted on stands to face each other and wired into squat black amps, buzz with a tentative open string drone. Next to the guitars hangs the shell of a radiation-proof suit. The stage is set for a band that never arrives: Fuyuki Yamakawa’s Atomic Guitars – recently on display at the Tokyo Art Fair – are played by decaying atoms.
At the base of each guitar is a Geiger counter and a pot of radioactive soil. The counters are plugged into tactile transducers – sound-to-movement converters most often used in home cinemas – that shake the guitars whenever the counters click, making the strings vibrate. The first time Yamakawa exhibited Atomic Guitars he used soil taken from the grounds of the Tokyo National University of the Arts in Toride, a small city 118 miles away from the burnt-out reactors of Fukushima Daiichi. For the Tokyo Fair he took soil from the Imperial Gardens. Radiation doesn’t stay still, it follows the weather. Yamakawa’s guitars are the same colour as the yellow rain that reportedly fell in Tokyo a couple of days after the Fukushima meltdown.
Radiation is invisible. As Rebecca Solnit writes in the latest LRB, ‘you can clean up after an earthquake or hurricane but you can’t see what may be inside you.’ Nor can you tell by looking whether a vegetable has been contaminated, which is why half of Fukushima’s municipalities are testing school dinners. ‘Since the accident,’ Yamakawa told me, ‘Japanese people are living with numbers and abbreviations: Sv, Bq, Gy, CPM. They think that numbers are a scientific and concrete way to know about radioactivity. But numbers are abstract, we cannot perceive numbers.’ We can perceive guitars.
Tokyo has gone from being dependent on Fukushima for electricity to being poisoned by it, though not as badly as areas nearer the power station: ‘The Tohoku region took grave risks for the sake of the metropolis,’ Yamakawa says. His eerily empty stage evokes the 12-mile evacuation zone around the stricken plant. The empty radiation suit on the wall could stand for suits that should have been filled, the authorities who didn’t provide the level of support that they should have: the government’s first reaction to the crisis, as Solnit says, was to raise the exposure safety limit to twenty times its previous level.
The guitars are symbolically loaded too. Several Japanese contemporary artists have invested electric guitars with curative properties. In Shinji Aoyama’s 2005 film Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani? exposure to guitar noise is used to treat suicidal depression. Keiji Haino, a godfather to Japan’s young musical avant-garde and one of Yamakawa’s collaborators, has compared his guitar to a kind of magic wand that can convert negative energy into positive.
Yamakawa’s work before Atomic Guitars explored both electricity generation and the possibility of playing an instrument without physically playing it. He makes drone music by shaking and rubbing his guitar. He also performs with an amplified stethoscope, using the pulse of sound that comes from his heartbeat to switch a ring of lightbulbs on and off. Yamakawa controls the speed of his heart using ‘khoomei’, a style of Tuvan throat-singing (he won the Avant-Garde Award at the 4th International Khoomei Festival in Tuva in 2003).
He clearly likes the idea of himself as a kind of battery: ‘My body’s phenomena are outputted as sound and light, which stimulates the eyes, ears and skin of audiences.’ He is now sufficiently radiation-exposed, he believes, to stand in for the little pots of soil, though is unsure whether this would make his work more or less powerful. Because he knows what it’s like to use his body to generate electricity he says that he feels ‘a strong connection between my heart and the nuclear plant in Fukushima. My life is nuclear-powered.’ Unlike Japan, which from tomorrow will have no working nuclear reactors for the first time in nearly fifty years.