Two artists cook soup with produce grown in their hometown, the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

By Rachel Corbett
Updated May 24, 2017
© Rachel Corbett

Would you eat vegetables from Fukushima, where a 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan caused the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl? That’s the question two artists known as the United Brothers asked this past weekend when they served soup made from Fukushima-grown daikon radish and shiitake mushrooms at an art fair near Los Angeles. The artists had the vegetables tested for radiation at a lab in their hometown of Iwaki, Fukushima, to ensure vegetables were safe to eat before bringing the soup to the Paramount Ranch fair as part of a project they called “Does This Soup Taste Ambivalent?”

“We eat the soup,” said Ei Arakawa, who, with his brother Tomoo Arakawa, formed United Brothers a few months after the disaster. “But you still always have this dilemma” about the possibility of contamination, he said. The artists say they're less interested in whether people eat the soup than in how they came to their decision. It is a psychological experiment, and “the perfect piece for an art fair because you don’t expect this sort of dilemma to be presented when you are in the mood for shopping for art,” Ei Arakawa said.

© Rachel Corbett

At lunchtime on Saturday afternoon, a long line had formed at the stand where the Arakawas’ kindly Japanese mother ladled the clear soup into Styrofoam cups. The lab results of the mushrooms and radishes were posted, in Japanese, behind the stand (the water, potatoes, carrots and other ingredients were sourced from California). Otherwise, there was no clear disclaimer, and many of the visitors appeared blissfully unaware of the contents of their free soup. When Arakawa learned that 50 servings had gone in the first 30 minutes, he admitted, “I’m not sure how many people understand the concept.”

“I had five,” said one happy customer. “There’s no atomic contamination sign or HazMat equipment, so there’s no reason for me to believe there’s any kind of threat.”

Others were not so blithe, however. One woman told Arakawa that she could not make up her mind about the soup’s safety, so “she decided not to decide.” Another consumer opted out because he “had a preconception of where the food comes from.”

© Rachel Corbett

In past iterations of the project, the Arakawas dyed the broth a radioactive green as a way to more clearly “visualize ambivalence.” But in California they anticipated “people might be a little more health-oriented” than in other cities, like London, where they served around 100 thick, brown soups each day of the 2014 Frieze Art Fair. It turns out that perhaps wherever one goes, free trumps fear.