The Materiality of a Natural Disaster

23 October 2012

For her 2012 degree project at the Royal College of Art, the designer Hilda Hellström created The Materiality of a Natural Disaster, five radioactive food vessels made from soil taken from the exclusion zone surrounding the Daiichi nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan: the nuclear facility left badly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011.

Below, Hellström writes exclusively for Disegno Daily about her experiences in Japan, and the time she spent with Naoto Matsumura, the last man still living in the nuclear exclusion zone.

A chronological definition to our present geological age is Anthropocene, which defines human impact as the most significant recent geological development. This might sound obscene, but each time a natural disaster occurs I imagine that it is nature's revenge on that same upper hand.

I am fascinated by natural disasters. Our planet is a large smoldering ball with a cracked skin and an unreliable atmosphere. That disasters are occurring more frequently has only intensified my interest.

But what happened in Fukushima is different to other natural disasters. When Haiti was hit by an earthquake in 2010, aid organisations were competing to take part in the restoration. In Fukushima, it is barely even possible to enter the disaster zone.

One year after the disaster and the area still looks the same as it did just after the tsunami hit. Like many other designers, I find non-places and altered realities engaging, but I am also drawn to places and people with strong narratives. When I heard about Naoto Matsumura, the only person who still lives in the exclusion zone, it felt natural to make a project with him.

Not speaking Japanese and lacking a driver license, I made contact with two young designers in Tokyo, who would accompany me into the zone. It was clear that the Fukushima region was charged with a lot of emotions for them; the closer we came to the border, the more high-strung and loud they got. From what they said, it became evident to me that too few projects – creative or not – had sprung from the accident.

We met Matsumura at a petrol station near the exclusion zone. Getting into his car, I sat quietly in the backseat, hiding my Scandinavian head to avoid suspicion from the border guards. The few people that have acquired access to the zone from the Japanese government have a registered license plate and a note on the front window of their car. I tried to keep out of sight as Matsumura drove us over the border.

Once inside the zone, the two Japanese designers started to shout, flap and point in all directions. I saw orange-blinking lights, deserted streets, empty shops and beautiful hills. Initially I was confident that Matsumara was a madman to live here. I discovered rather quickly that there is nothing mad about Naoto Matsumura.

Matsumara is a soft, silent and determined man who likes animals, smoking and talking about Samurai honor. Originally, he was a rice farmer who lived with his parents on a small farm in the city of Tomioko, Fukushima. When the disaster hit, his parents and the rest of the local population fled the area. Matsumara stayed.

Now, he spends his time as a kind of shepherd of Fukushima. Taking care of all the animals – pets and cattle – left behind in the wake of the disaster, has become a full-time job for him. To my delight, he was very recipient to my project and did not think it remarkable that I wanted to make pottery from the clay in his contaminated rice fields.

Driving through the zone, we made our way to a small port where the tsunami had destroyed an entire neighborhood. A demolished car was standing inside of a house that had been split open. Another house had been moved a few meters onto the street and now stood intact as a road block. Seawater made ponds in the hollows and, like a crime scene, everything had been left untouched.

We also visited Matsumura's family grave, which had been badly damaged by the tsunami. At another grave, a family kitted out with protective gear had organised a one-day pass inside the zone to honor a relative on the anniversary of his passing. Standing together, they faced a tomb whose stones and ornaments had been left scattered around.

I joined Matsumura on his daily tour of houses to feed the abandoned pets. You could tell that his strong affection for the animals was requited. During the trip, I had a few different thoughts about his reasons for staying. One was that he prefers the risk of death than adjusting to another type of life. Another was that he actually prefers the company of animals to the company of people.

The rain started to lash down as we approached a stable and inside I caught sight of 50 cow skeletons. Most likely the cows were tied to their boxes and left to starve in the aftermath of the disaster. The smell of death was penetrating. That day I forgot to eat, drink or go to the toilet for 11 hours.

The project wasn't an attempt to help or to save Matsumura: the last person I know who would want to be saved. Instead, going there was a kind of anthropological case study; a way to relate to the reality we live in. I wanted to tell the story of one man’s fate, and investigate whether this was possible to realize through the medium of objects.

The project is rather literal in the sense that I was making rice bowls that you can't eat off, from soil you can't grow rice in, to facilitate the much more daunting discussion about the agriculture. Just in the same way as religious symbols make concrete abstract thoughts, I wanted to look into how a concrete manifestation might provoke something more profound in people than what is achievable by words alone.

It is impossible for me to speculate about the health of Matsumura, but I would think that he suffers a greater risk of dying from lung cancer due to his smoking, than to any other disease inflicted by radiation. Yet leaving him in the exclusion zone when it came time for me to leave was hard. It is a peculiar feeling to say good bye to someone with whom you have shared such a poignant time, and whom you know you will probably never meet again.