Kei Ito builds an exhibition space around his grandfather’s survival of Hiroshima

The Japanese visual artist explores the event’s horrific legacy through a multimedia solo exhibition.

3 September 2021

What happens when an atomic bomb obliterates your family’s heirlooms, memories, and even your family members? Kei Ito is a visual artist who hopes to explore the nature of global trauma through a multitude of experiences originating in his grandfather’s survival of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In Our Looming Ground Zero, he’s created a space within which he hopes visitors can experience and contemplate on ideas of ‘invisible threats’.

The project emerged during the pandemic, which Ito considers to be the closest to what could happen in a post-nuclear attack in regards to “invisible threats, isolation, and a looming sense of dread and hopelessness,” he tells us. “The whole experience of 2020 really influenced me to conceptualise this piece.”

Takeshi Ito, Ito’s grandfather, passed away from cancer when Ito was nine – his grandfather witnessed the traumatising Hiroshima atomic bomb. 108 framed photograms fill up the gallery – they’re created by exposing light sensitive paper to sunlight and are juxtaposed with 108 black plumb bobs, “reflecting my grandfather’s statement that the day in Hiroshima was like hundreds of suns lighting up the sky,” Ito tells It’s Nice That. Traditionally, plumb bobs are used during construction in houses to measure the flatness of the floor. But here, they take on a more insidious meaning, to echo the flattened land of Hiroshima in World War II.

The painted plumb bobs are suspended from the gallery ceiling, with each one pointing directly to the framed prints – thus, they act as both markers to the words on the prints and as impending ominous threats. The words in the frames are meant to be ordinary such as “Chair”, “Mother”, “Tree”, “You”, and “Me”. Ito hopes that the mundane words together with the overhanging pointed plumb bobs create a “monument to all the things, from small and forgotten objects, systems, and to more personal items such as body parts that we stand to lose in the wake of impending nuclear annihilation.”


Kei Ito: Our Looming Ground Zero, 2021

Also included on the back wall of the gallery are selected prints from Ito’s Burning Away series. The work references the bomb releasing a roaring fire ball that matched the temperature of the sun itself, leaving many burns on victims that were not immediately vaporised. With a scarcity of even basic medicine, the survivors treated their burns with honey and various oils such as cooking and motor oil. For decades, few knew of the true horror laying beneath their flesh as the invisible radiation consumed their bodies years after the war.

The exhibition was the result of Ito's three years as an artist-in-resident at Creative Alliance. On the back wall of the exhibition, he has hung two large pieces from his Burning Away series, “which reference that roaring fire ball released by the bomb that left many of the surviving victims with a massive amount of burns”.

These two large-scale pieces utilise honey and various sun-fused gelatin papers in “a recreation of the numerous stories from the survivors.” The pattern of the print depends on the type of oil used on the paper, creating various microscopic-like images that Ito thinks may remind the viewer of cancer cells.

“I always consider my artwork, especially installation pieces, to be temporal monuments,” claims Ito. The artist explains that whenever a visitor enters the space and walks among the rows, a large shadow is cast onto the piece and the wall, making them part of the installation. “This inclusion reflects the idea that the nuclear issue is not a thing of the past, but rather an ongoing issue that even you might become a part of this monument.”

A challenge to this work, among other challenges such as funding, was if anyone “actually cared”. One of the frustrating parts, as Ito puts it, is that unless nuclear tensions are high and public figures are threatening to release them, the nuclear issue as a whole is shifted into the background, even though it could happen at any time. “To me,” he continues, “the urgency is present. From witnessing my grandfather’s passing to inheriting this nuclear legacy, the idea and reality of nuclear arsenals either being used or falling into disrepair is not an imaginary scenario.” The artist’s main aim with this exhibition is to get people to contemplate the nuclear question and to start the conversation of: “What can we do?”

Kei Ito: Our Looming Ground Zero is at Creative Alliance, Baltimore until 18 September.

GalleryKei Ito: Our Looming Ground Zero, 2021

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Kei Ito: Our Looming Ground Zero, 2021

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About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.

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