Etusko Ichikawa Discusses Her Films and Recent Exhibition VITRIFIED with Sofya Belinskaya
Listen to the full conversation below:
Sofya Belinskaya: I’m here with Etsuko Ichikawa to talk about her new body of work, Vitrified, which is on view at Winston Wächter Fine Art in Seattle. Etsuko has completed several residencies in glass, she has received the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts award. Etsuko, thank you for sitting down with me. I wanted to start at the beginning and have you talk about how you came to create this body of work and what inspired you?
Etsuko Ichikawa: I should mention my experience on March 11, 2011, about 7 years ago, and that was the day a magnitude 9.1 earthquake hit Fukushima in Tohoku area and that caused a tsunami, and the collapse of the nuclear plant. I was watching on the TV and I experienced that from far away, being in Seattle, but it was so vivid and so devastating. I didn’t know how to understand it. I couldn’t understand what I was watching for a while, until I realized that it was live, and it was real, because the images looked like a scene from some kind of movie. That was a trigger, that was something huge in my life, I don’t know how to explain what that experience was. I felt so devastated, because I am so far away from my home country to do anything, at the same time, I had no idea what I could do. How can you understand that?
EI: As soon as the devastation happened, I was into getting artworks donated, and doing fundraising, helping people in Japan. But, it took me about 2 – 3 years to reflect that experience into my work, and that’s where this new body of work slowly started. I didn’t even think, ‘this is going to be a body of work,’ it was more like a healing process. I needed to do something to heal, as well as to understand what I can do as an artist. Before that, I’m a human being, I wanted to be able to create something that may help others, or that may at least convey some message, so that’s how I started this series.
SB: This is when you really started creating film and working with sound, and a large part of this exhibition is the film, Vitrified. I wanted to ask you about how incorporating film into your practice helped you in understanding and processing the disaster, and has it affected the ways you make other work? This exhibition is the film, as well as film stills, two beautiful glass installations, and pyrographs, which you are well known for. How has that opened up a new chapter, and how has film played a role?
EI: I think Vitrified, is the first show where I finally managed to put everything together in one place. Because my body of work has been glass pyrographs, that’s what people know of my work. When I started doing more socially engaged, or politically charged work, I felt like my work was going into two completely different directions, and I didn’t know how to control that. One of my friends, who is a sound artist, Paul Kikuchi, I think I invited him to my studio and I said, ‘I’m really interested in the effect of an echo, because I like water and if you throw a stone into water, you get this ripple effect. And that enhances and disappears, but it kind of delivers something. So I really liked the echo effect, and that could be sound, light, and I think its all intertwined, it’s all connected to me. I thought the echo was a way to communicate, but not necessarily know exactly what it is, because it bounces back to you. And he said, ‘Oh, Etsuko, you should go to Satsop. It’s a nuclear power plant, and you can go inside a reactor, or cooling towers, and just visit, because it’s an amazing acoustic chamber.’
EI: I felt like I needed to go there by myself for some reason, so I took trip, driving down to Satsop. The first thing I noticed was how humongous that concrete structure is. It’s a 500ft tall tower, and 380 ft in diameter. But the echo was amazing. You initiate the sound, by kicking concrete or clapping your hands, and the echo bounces back to you larger than you initiated it, and it bounces back, and it bounces back. I felt like I was making a spiral, to go up to the sky and escape. That was an incredible experience, and the view of the sky, a perfect circular sky you see above you, and the combination of visuals and audio was really inspiring. And then it was a nuclear cooling tower, and I was trying to say something about having nuclear power in our lives. It’s not necessary, and I think it’s wrong, so that’s how the ideas came together. It connects everything, my home, Japan, and having Hanford in WA state, that being the Manhattan B project site that created plutonium for the nuclear bomb, that bombed Nagasaki, so it all came together. It was the reason why I thought film was the best form of art I can create.
SB: One of the things I wanted to ask you about, was the narrative of the new film Vitrified. It’s a compelling and moving narrative to go through the world with this character, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where this narrative came from?
EI: I think I had an idea about visual poetry. That’s what I wanted to make with this film. I rarely work with words, so this was new and challenging, because I think I usually try not to talk about things, rather leave everything abstract. And that’s why my work is pretty much abstract. I had a storyline in my mind for a long time, about this film, but what I wanted to do was to kind of break apart, so the final outcome would be like a broken poem.
SB: It’s very poetic, and to me it feels like a glimpse into a world that is both connected and exists separately from this world. It’s a world that you created for us to enter. And thinking about that world, and how you exist in it, I wanted to ask about your body, which is so present in a lot of the work. Is that an important element? Is your personal presence and your personal identity an important element to the work?
EI: Yes, that’s a really good question, because I originally didn’t want to have myself in the final film. I had an alternate idea that didn’t happen and that was an interesting process of understanding my work, and myself. My answer was that only I could do this, and I can’t really ask another person to act, because it would become acting, and it would become something else. So I ended up doing everything [laughs], it happens a lot in my studio. So, telling a story, being inside of the work, it was overlapping everything in so many different layers, and I like that part. Some people don’t need to know that its me, which is great, and some people know its me, which is also good, because it adds a different meaning to the work. I like both ways. I like the presence of myself in the work as well as the anonymous, its fine.
EI: One line in the film says, ‘I didn’t give birth,’ and that is something critical. I feel like I always wanted to leave something for the future, and my art is basically my babies, that how I produce something for the future. But that was the overlapping meaning in that particular line.
SB: I want to talk about this theme in a difference sense. One of the pieces in the show is titled ‘Leaving a Legacy,’ and in the film, the character encounters this orb, and there is this sense of nurturing. For me, the whole film and show has a sense of duality in it. In the process of creation and the process of nurture, and the way the things that we nurture can be ultimately destructive to us as well. Is that important, can you talk about that I little bit?
EI: So the orb itself to me, it’s almost like life itself. It was created by nature, or maybe by a woman. However, this orb has uranium in it, and why is that? Because this orb accepted what was in the environment. And there is no way to say no because you breathe, you drink water, and that’s how you live. You have to accept things that you don’t necessarily agree with. So, that’s the struggle. I think everyone thinks about this perfect world, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist. It’s interesting, like giving birth and nurturing, and then dying. That, we all experience, every single person, and the same thing happens in the environment. Water is probably the beginning and the end, the amazing thing about water is it contains, pretty much everything.
SB: Your show Vitrified is up at Winston Wächter until April 25 and you can preview it on our website, www.winstonwachter.com. Thank you so much Etsuko.
EI: Thank you Sofya, my pleasure.