Images and sounds draw us back to the past with a warning for the present
How do you capture the sound of Los Alamos in New Mexico? Or the Trinity Test site? Or the quiet headstone that marks the original location of the Fermi nuclear pile in Chicago?
Can you hope to evoke through symbolic photographic images the sorrow and the agony that was the Hiroshima atomic bombing while conveying to contemporary audiences just how grave the peril of nuclear war remains?
These were some of the intriguing challenges facing two installation artists who have collaborated in a project they call Afterimage Requiem. It is a partnership that came out of a discovery made by American sound artist, Andrew Paul Keiper, and Japanese-born photographer Kei Ito, as they uncovered a shared history.
Ito’s grandfather was a Hiroshima survivor who lost his mother, brother and a niece to the attack along with his home which was incinerated. Keiper’s grandfather had worked on the Manhattan project, although he could never divulge in what capacity and his secret life extended to having a second, contemporaneous family with his first.
Keiper and Ito were roommates when they learned of their eerie connection. They knew immediately that they should make art together on a subject that was profoundly important to both of them.
What emerged was a moving, transporting and utterly original installation which found a perfect space inside the giant central hall of the War Memorial in Baltimore, also Keiper’s home town. There, 108 of Ito’s images were laid out across the floor, some lit, some in semi-darkness, each one Ito’s own body, captured in a flash of red and white against a dark background.
The images are created with sunlight, photosensitive paper and no camera. The figures are profoundly reminiscent of the vaporized silhouettes of the many who perished in Hiroshima on the day of the bombing.
Emanating from four speakers at each corner of the room, are the sounds that Keiper captured when he visited the U.S. nuclear sites that developed and tested the bomb.
Serendipitously, Keiper was present at the exhibition the day we made our visit and admitted that the search for sound in the desert silence of New Mexico had been elusive. Eventually, leaves rustled in trees. Birds sang. Recalling the rainfall in the early hours before the dawn Trinity test on July 16, 1945, Keiper recorded a downpour that plays like music. There are also the dissonant sounds of technology, but no explosion, just at one point an ominous, muffled rumble.
Each photo is anchored at four corners by a neatly placed rounded stone, reminiscent of a tranquil Japanese garden. You remove your shoes to walk between the images. A poster at the entrance reminds us to recall the past horrors but not to ignore the present threat. It reads: “In an era of overt nuclear crisis unlike any seen in decades, Afterimage Requiem asks the audience to reflect on the ramifications of our current course, and to learn from the past.”
The exhibition in Baltimore has now ended but the artists hope it may be installed in other venues. For more on their work, see www.kei-ito.com and www.andrewpaulkeiper.com.