Art exhibit at Maritime Museum honours tsunami relief effort

Inflatable plastic cones hang from the backpack Daisuke Takeya is wearing; they fill with air using a smartphone-sized solar panel powering a fan inside.

Fake flowers poke out of another backpack. A plush tiger’s head covers a third. On a fourth, there’s a mirror. Inside a fifth, an art set and painted landscapes.

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A sixth has a Google Earth image of Onagawa, the site of a nuclear power plant that withstood the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan, despite being closest to the earthquake’s epicentre. With it, a question: “Where are you now on the globe?” with a GPS locator, compass and binoculars.

The backpacks are among dozens that Takeya invited 70 artists from Japan and Canada to decorate as part of a cultural exchange and exhibition honouring the relief efforts related to the tsunami. Field Trip Project, as the exchange has been named, has already travelled to 20 destinations across Japan.

The take-away message is up to visitors.

“You might take something away about environmental studies, disaster preparation, design. It can be anything,” said Takaya, who organized the show with Onagawa-based art teacher Chie Kajiwara.

Takeya, a Japanese curator now living in Toronto, said he came up with the idea after visiting Japan in the wake of the disaster. He was already organizing disaster-relief activities from Toronto, but thought he could do more by travelling to Japan.

He drove through the country, giving workshops to kids. In the coastal town of Onagawa, Takeya found a gymnasium, which was being used as a collection centre for donations. In the gym, hundreds of surplus backpacks were piled high.

Donations exceeded need, but there wasn’t enough manpower to sort through the excess.

“It ended up occupying a big space and not being touched for a year,” he said.

So Takeya came up with an idea for an art project that could spread a message of optimism.

“We will need to carry on, rebuild and recover,” he said.

Each artist began with the same style of backpack, since the backpacks are part of the uniform for elementary school students in Japan.

Takeya gave artists only three parameters. The backpacks shouldn’t be too fragile, because the exhibition would travel. They shouldn’t be too heavy, because audience members should be able to try them on. And they should be created with a tone of optimism, instead of bringing people down.

“Each artist has different interpretations of the disaster. Some are poetic, some mechanical, some reference Japanese pop culture,” Takeya said.

In addition to the 70 original artists, eight British Columbia artists and four local school groups were invited to design backpacks.

One class each from Christ Church Cathedral School, Campus View Elementary, Cloverdale Traditional School and Tillicum Elementary has a backpack in the exhibition.

The Maritime Museum of B.C. is the project’s second stop in Canada, following the Canadian debut at Idea Exchange Design at Riverside, in Cambridge, Ont.

The backpacks will be on display until Sept. 8.

Executive director Jon Irwin said the exhibition fits with the maritime museum’s other tsunami-related activities, which have included shoreline debris cleanups.

“It’s a beautiful exhibition,” he said. “And it connects Japan with Vancouver Island in highlighting the effects of the tsunami. It’s a happy story for a very tragic event.”

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