From the archive
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.