'Requiem' for Hiroshima, a timely artistic warning, to go on display in Baltimore

Kei Ito was a boy when his grandfather died, so his memories of the old man seem like fleeting images on a snowy TV screen: the electric organ he played, the travel photos he kept, the sugar he ladled into his coffee.

But one thing stands out in his mind — the way Takeshi Ito described the formative event of his life, the detonation of the nuclear bomb “Little Boy” over his hometown of Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

“He said it was like thousands of suns lighting up the sky,” Ito says. “I’ve been trying to sort out what it means ever since.”

Andrew Paul Keiper also has a family link to Hiroshima. His maternal grandfather, an American engineer named Lovell Cardenas, worked on the Manhattan Project, the Allied military program that produced the first nuclear weapons.

Art lovers, history buffs and others will soon learn how Ito, a Japanese-born new media artist, and Keiper, whose aesthetic medium is sound, have made sense of the bombing, an event that directly killed at least 70,000 people and lethally irradiated much of southwestern Japan.

Their new installation, “Afterimage Requiem,” opens Friday at the Baltimore War Memorial. The visual-and-sound display juxtaposes 108 life-sized photograms of Ito’s body, each formed by exposure to sunlight in a way that evokes the souls of the lost, with continuous loops of sound captured at sites essential to the development of the bomb.

The exhibition is the site’s first visual art show. It continues through Jan. 31.

It opens at a moment of global nuclear brinkmanship unlike any seen since the height of the Cold War.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un boasted this month of the “nuclear button” on his desk. President Donald J. Trump responded by tweeting that “his” button is “bigger” and “actually works.”

Each has also escalated his nation’s military actions, with North Korea firing a string of ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan and Trump authorizing U.S. military exercises on the Korean peninsula.

Though Hiroshima might strike many as something that happened long ago and far away, Ito, 26, says the threat of a repeat is real in the here and now.

“What I’m most concerned about is that, whether Trump or Kim Jong Un launches a missile or not, it’s a possibility,” he says. “This is not sci-fi or history. This can happen. It’s today. And art can reflect that.”

Ito and Keiper grew up worlds apart, in rural Japan and suburban New Jersey. They met as graduate students at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Their family legacies and approaches to art brought them together.

Takeshi Ito was 15 years old and working in a Hiroshima munitions factory on the seemingly ordinary summer morning of Aug. 6, 1945.

The U.S. military had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, and inflicted more, in the Pacific Theater in the preceding months. Even as its leaders planned an invasion of Japan, President Harry S Truman decided instead to hasten the nation’s surrender by unleashing on its public a weapon unlike any he world had ever seen.

Takeshi never forgot the flash that engulfed his workplace that morning or the shock wave that followed. He awoke under a pile of smoldering rubble and crawled out into a city in ruins.

What he saw — fellow citizens charred but still alive, others with throats so badly burned they drowned seeking water in a shallow stream — inspired him to become one of Japan’s premier advocates for nuclear disarmament.

A nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, he died of metastatic cancer in 2000, at age 71.

Kei Ito, 9 at the time, took part in the cremation ceremony.

For his part, Keiper has spent a lot of time trying to help his family unravel the mysteries surrounding Cardenas, a man so secretive he managed to live as father to two families at the same time for years.

His children never knew exactly what he did for a living. But they did know he was a trained engineer who lived in the Philadelphia area, who never served in the military, and who once let slip in conversation that he’d worked on the Manhattan Project.

The U.S. government did task a Jersey City chemical engineering company, the Kellex Corporation, with conducting research into how best to enrich uranium, starting in 1942.

“All I have is his claim, but it syncs up with many elements of his background,” says Keiper, an adjunct faculty member at MICA.

Though both men started out working as representational artists — Ito as an amateur photographer and Keiper as a painter — each eventually became interested in “materiality,” the idea in contemporary art that aesthetic materials can in and of themselves be arranged in such a way as to engage and challenge audiences.

Each put it to work in his most successful piece to date.

As a “third-generation survivor,” Ito believes he carries the materiality of the Hiroshima blast in his genes — one reason he created Sungazing, a collection of photographic prints that gained national attention two years ago.

Ito exposed photographic paper to sunlight in a darkened room for the project, leaving his aperture open just long enough to exhale a single breath, and repeated the process 108 times.

Japanese Buddhists believe human beings possess 108 “defilements” — failings that cause hatred and war — and take part in an annual ritual to expiate them.

The images appeared as 108 backlit views of the sun, evoking the light Takeshi Ito saw in 1945 and, Ito says, carry an essence of the blast into the present.

He used a similar technique in the new installation. This time he lay down in a variety of positions to create 108 impressionistic images of what appear to be a radiated human form.

“When the A-Bomb exploded, it insinuated itself into my grandfather’s genes, which he passed on to me, and so I’m using my body as a camera to expose that on paper,” he says.

Keiper, a woodworker and percussionist as well as a painter, explored materiality, installation art and digital audio over the past decade; at MICA, he has gravitated toward the newer discipline of sound art.

For his 2015 piece “Rough Ride,” he recorded neighborhood sounds, street voices and media coverage during the Freddie Gray riots and replayed them through eight loudspeakers in a way that required audiences to choose which of many “narratives” they were hearing.

For “Requiem,” he and Ito traveled to “atomic heritage sites” such as Los Alamos. N.M., where Allied scientists developed the first A-bombs, and Chicago, the site of the world’s first nuclear reactor.

As visitors walk through rows of Ito’s photos spread out on the floor, they will hear natural and industrial sounds meant to evoke the “tension” Keiper sees between the natural materials used in producing nukes and the technological expertise needed to develop them.

The proposal for “Afterimage Requiem” won a coveted Rubys Artist Project Grant, a competitive award of up to $10,000 from the Baltimore Cultural Alliance.

The program, established in 2013 with start-up funding from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, supports project-based works by emerging or established local artists.

Jurors unanimously awarded Ito and Keiper the full amount.

Sonja Cendak, a program manager for the alliance, calls the artists “talented in their own right” but says their collaboration “has a life of its own beyond what either does” individually.

“They have a gift for powerfully combining message and meaning through what would seem like two disparate mediums,” she says. “Combining photography and sound allows for multiple entry points for audiences to engage with the work.”

Mina Cheon, a media artist and MICA professor, is a native of Korea who knows the co-creators’ work — and follows developments on the Korean Peninsula.

She says part of the beauty of “Requiem” is that Ito’s and Keiper’s grandfathers — one who helped create the A-Bomb, the other who survived its detonation — “could never have imagined” that their grandchildren would meet, become friends and collaborate on such a project one day, let alone one that so dramatically reflects the power of art in its evolving forms.

“They are using the ephemeral elements of their work to talk about history, almost a forgotten history that needs to be brought back to light. It’s going to be very powerful and beautiful,” she says.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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