A magnitude 9.0 earthquake is something that—thankfully—most of us will never experience first-hand. Add to that the cataclysmic aftermath of a nuclear meltdown, hot on the heels of a devastating tsunami, and you have the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and Fukushima disaster of 2011. It was an event powerful enough to knock the planet from its axis. Five years later, Japan is still mending.
As is often the case in troubling times, artists responded. Powerful exhibitions and tributes erupted around the world, and continue to gather support, hope, and hands on the ground for the Tōhoku region. Artist Manabu Ikeda is the latest artist to add to this powerful story of destruction and recovery. In a spectacular end to a multi-year residency at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin, his ink on paper masterpiece, Rebirth, was unveiled last November. Ikeda’s intricate tale seems to shapeshift on approach. A world, seemingly made of tranquil blossoms, ocean spray, and birds, warps into an endless field of throbbing wreckage as the details clear. The longer you look, the more you see. After 9,520 hours of work, 400 pen tips, and 20 bottles of ink, this 130-square-foot slice of sublime fairy tale horror is now touring Japan starting on the island of Kyushu in Saga prefecture, Ikeda’s childhood home.
When I first encountered Rebirth, I didn’t know much about Manabu Ikeda, or his inspiration for this stunning masterpiece. I had imagined taking an afternoon stroll through the Chazen’s halls—a decompression strategy of mine—before heading home, calmer for my introspection but perhaps not deeply changed. Instead, I lingered long enough in Rebirth’s crowd to miss my bus back home. I edged my way forward to look, and re-look; to see and re-see. And, to watch over and over in an accompanying documentary, the moment Manabu finally finished this monumental work, looked up at its first hanging, and collapsed into wracking tears.
I was changed. And I returned two days later, braving the first snowstorm of winter, to meet with Rebirth again. This time, in my capacity as a storyteller. We spent several hours together. We talked, exchanged stories and compared notes—spoken, and unspoken—and listened, together to the other voices in the room. Below is the conversation we had.
It melts, she says. It’s like there really is light, inside that cave.
I arrived early today to greet you, after sipping tea as the snow fell. The first grey fingerless-gloves-morning of winter; the fate, the falling, the blossoms to come. But already they were crawling like ants in this gallery, gathering to watch the world unfold, and then unfold again like history not repeating, like pages not quite done. Like destruction, and recovery. Your recovery. And we stand here, sit here, look, while you cling to your wall and watch us. What are you thinking?
I thought it started with the universe—this creation story—exploding out forever from the center. But it was your oceans that came first, with their wastelands—rolling walls of the old world—the detritus of destruction. Actually, I saw the whale shark first, his back peppered with salt. But when I saw that speed-boat crossing your mighty reefs, I thought I’d realized my mistake.
This reef really is a whale after all, plunging away forever at the foot of the world, kissing the toes of the sire.
The whales are turning into birds! She says.
Scratch those ants, they’re fish. And these people are swimming around me as I wade in deeper—as we wade together. This debris field is life; that’s not… oh, I guess it is! And it grows like a raging fever into the skies; fervent overseer of Tenmyouya Hisashi and his Neo-Nihonga that hang on your neighboring wall. The gulls are missing from your empty spaces. Bringing extinctions. Providing light in the darkness. This ocean is unending; your ocean, giving us life, bringing us hope, and harboring death. The rise.
And the fall.
Your blossoms become empty, become white cranes. The past is lurking like this whale at the fringes of the future, huge, but not now insurmountable. Thanks to you.
Train cars hang like teardrops not quite dropped. His tears.
A mini planet swells like a gall, and splits and burns and erupts. It is reborn in lava and fire and limpid waters, and steams like the hot springs of Jigokudani.
The pen scratches on. His pen.
Your cattle, or horses, or bears are upturned, bloated and white and floating. Or, your hazmat humans, picking through the wreckage; they’re cherubs, he says. Others are pitching emergency tents, lashed to your gnarlings like aphids. A swaddled body is blasted out into your slate-blue rage; a red pod. Schindler’s pupa. Mermaids are whipped from your leaves that have blackened. And if they’d looked up they would have seen the camels topped with riders, strung white like pearls, following their leopard king to the steppes.
And if they’d looked down, they would have seen the wreckage, folded into your tale like treasure.
A plane is wrecked, sliced and bangled.
It hangs from a twisted branch, its tail like the fluke of a whale split to the belly.
Propellers swing heavy, like necklaces; become orchids, purple and pink.
The higher we climb the deeper we sink. And the gulls are rising in shoals, becoming fish, folded under your freezing glass, and boat bottoms. Blossoms bloom into butterflies, and anemones, in defiance of your frigid storms. They snake and creep and weep into nooses, slipping from petals, from life, from webs. A thick, bronchial coral reaches from the sky; it’s all become pelagic, this tragic mess. This beautiful life. This hanging in webs. You think it’s a cluster of flowers, she says. And then it’s a cluster of fingers, of beetles, of bodies, of praying hands, clasping the whole world at once. Skulls become frogs and spawn–become life again. The fish are swimming faster, in circles, becoming roses, and rising into filmy silk.
I look down, from my outcropping.
A decomposing water tower has exploded beneath me like a collapsed and terrible jellyfish. The bracket fungus is dripping. The elephants are on the move across their lichen desert.
In these high ocean mists, your forests are dense; your mosses and chasms and creases sprout mushrooms. Mountain climbers are pick-axing their way up towards me. Your snow slips, like sea foam, splitting and reforming. Your ocean pours, like guano.
In this cave, hollowed like an emptied hermit shell, an entire village is settled. You have sheathed them in light while the world beneath us splinters.
He’s overwhelmed, he says. His hands are spent.
And we drop, through your infinite depths, through your heartbreak and labor
Featured image: Rebirth, 2016, Manabu Ikeda. Pen & ink, 13 x 10′. Photo courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art.
Helen J. Bullard is a CHE Graduate Associate and research-based storyteller, currently completing a special committee Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Arts & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focused on the horseshoe crab. Contact.