French photographer and scholar on Japanese visual culture Claude Estebe returns to Bangkok for his third exhibition at Toot Yung Gallery, which recently moved to Ekamai Soi 2. The revamped space is clean and simple, but his close-ups of iconic Japanese robots and merchandising toys stand out against the neutral grey walls more than ever.
Strikingly cute and a bold embodiment of popular culture like his previous exhibitions, this time the inspiration comes from the devastating substance the island nation has had to deal with again and again: radioactive pollution.
Started in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the photos in Estebe's "Radium Girl" exhibition depict the lingering radiation behind his subjects, including plastic monsters, seemingly doe-eyed innocence and glow-in-the-dark techniques.
Godzilla figures in this exhibition and was also the star in your previous exhibitions. Why is this icon so significant?
The problem with radioactive pollution is that it's invisible, odourless, tasteless and the full impact on the environment and humans takes years to develop and appear globally. Hence, it's really easy for Tepco [Tokyo Electric Power Company] to play down the volume of pollution and its impact. And for the media too, a subject without strong images is less attractive. It's always a challenge to visualise radioactivity.
Godzilla is a metaphor of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but was mainly intended to be a protest about the huge radioactive pollution poured into the Pacific by the numerous American tests of H-bombs on Bikini atoll. I still use the old Godzilla figure because the Fukushima disaster still doesn't have its own strong visual representation.
Can you tell us more about how Japanese subculture and popular culture embody disaster?
Many anime and manga characters were created just after World War II. Godzilla, Ultraman and Astroboy manifest the opportunities and dangers of nuclear energy in the context of the Cold War. Giant robots like Gundam or Grendizer were directly inspired by the superior military technology used by Americans at the end of the Pacific War, namely the B-29 Superfortress. The name of the first giant robot, Tetsujin 28-go, reflects it directly. A strong point about Japanese subculture is that the theme of atomic disaster in many stories refers to something that hasn't happened yet. Therefore, young readers are kind of accustomed to imminent disaster and it finally happened at Fukushima.
Why are you interested in subjects that relate to radioactivity?
I'm concerned about the subject because as a researcher in Japanese studies, I used to live in Tokyo and the lives of my Japanese friends were, and still are, deeply impacted by Fukushima. I'm French, and France and Japan have the highest density in the world of nuclear plants. And the most dangerous element in the Fukushima complex is the plutonium contained in the MOX combustible which was provided by the French company AREVA.
What techniques have you used to visualise radioactivity?
I wanted to produce pictures without any exterior light, only with the faint phosphorescence radiating from glow-in-the-dark plastic toys and from objects sprayed with glowing snow. For Sleeping Beauty, I tried to give the impression of a burnt body still radiating from inside. I wanted to show a metaphoric image of a hibakusha [survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings]. Obviously it's not realistic and the composition is more inspired by the petrified victims of Pompeii's eruption and the popular imagery of radioactivity.
For Funky Town, I used the crest of a Godzilla toy which I sprayed with luminescent snow and took the picture without any outside lightning at a very high capture sensitivity (6400 ASA) to emulate the feeling of a scientific imaging probe. The shape is reminiscent of a deep sea mountain range [where earthquakes are born] or of coral bleaching which is affecting places like the Great Barrier Reef due to ocean pollution and global warming.
Which photograph means the most to you?
The most emblematic for me is the one called Thoradia which was inspired by an old 1930s advertisement for a line of "radioactive quackery" beauty products by a French brand called Tho-Radia. In the original advertisement, a beauty cream enhanced with thorium and radium is supposed to revitalise/whiten the skin. The ad shows the face of a young woman oddly lit from below by the crude glowing of a pot of "radioactive" beauty cream _ fortunately it was a scam, as radium is lethal even in very small quantities. This kind of ad recalls the blind faith in science and technology that prevailed at the beginning of the 20th century.
Some of the pictures are very pop culture and at a quick glance, people probably don't see your underlying messages. What are some of the things you want to say with these photographs?
For me, an exhibition should not be the end but the beginning of a path of thinking. I do a kind of reverse propaganda about the problems created by nuclear plants. The nuclear industry is definitely not "cool" _ like we can see in the AREVA ads. However, like the nuclear industry advertisements, I use vivid colours and kawaii [cute] aesthetics. But my difference from state and corporate propaganda is that I don't want to impose my point of view. I just give hints to the viewer and if I arouse their interest on the subject they can find more information on the internet to form their own view. My message is that just because the main media no longer talk about Fukushima doesn't mean the problem has gone away.
'Radium Girl' is on display at Toot Yung Gallery, Ekamai Soi 2, Sukhumvit Soi 63, until Sunday. The gallery is open from Tue-Sun, 11am-8pm.