[Image: Kei Ito, Afterimage Requiem. Photo courtesy of the artist.]
Ito’s main subject since moving to the United States for undergraduate studies in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and then to Baltimore for MICA’s MFA in Photographic and Electronic Media (PEM) has been the Manhattan Project, the research and development project undertaken by the United States and Great Britain during WWII that led to the development of the first nuclear weapons. The nuclear bombs developed in the Manhattan Project were used against the Japanese people when they were dropped by the US Air Force on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, killing between an estimated 129,000 and 226,000 people.
Ito’s grandfather survived the bombing of Hiroshima and became an activist and writer who spoke out against nuclear warfare for the rest of his life. Ito’s grandfather passed away when the artist was nine years old, so they didn’t have the opportunity to have a lot of conversations about activism and nuclear war. As a kid talking to his grandfather, Ito recalls, “I wasn’t asking him ‘Oh, what was [the bombing of] Hiroshima like?’ It was, “Hey, can we go to the theme park?’”
Since arriving in Baltimore, Ito has worked frequently with fellow PEM grad Andrew Keiper, whose grandfather was a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project. “My collaboration with Andrew,” Ito says, “is a reminder that work about nuclear issues is not a thing of the past.” Keiper brings the science to their collaborative projects and Ito brings the story. “I think that contrast between me and Andy is really amazing because [it mirrors] the whole process of making the bomb and what happened after,” Ito says. “[It was an incredible] scientific achievement that created so much lasting trauma. The story has a lot of interesting contrasts.”
For Ito, these stories are not just history, and he’s interested in the people behind these narratives. The objects and symbols in his work stand in for the victims and tell both how people were affected by nuclear warfare and how people could be affected again. Of our current moment, he says, “The pandemic is probably the closest thing we could [experience] to the isolation [people encountered when living in fallout shelters]. It’s going to be this way for a long time, and you won’t be able to go out as much as you want. Society wouldn’t be functional. I feel like we’re seeing a sneak peek of what that world would be like” if nuclear war broke out.
Ito is ultimately optimistic about the future and thinks that art can be a way to understanding for people. “I think the art exists no matter what, it’s like a seed that you plant in hope that someone sees [it] and they get influenced to make a better world. It’s a legacy you leave behind,” Ito says. “I’m taking the legacy from my grandfather and I’m leaving it as a form of artwork.” Addressing the effects of nuclear war includes the so-called Downwinders, people who lived in the Southwest in the 1940s and were exposed to Manhattan Project tests that have since proved harmful to their health, as well as “the many people who survived or died from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki [attacks], and people who worked on the Manhattan Project, and the people who live now—it’s become a legacy of the future as well.”
Despite his heavy subject matter and serious concerns about our shared nuclear future, Ito laughs easily at himself throughout our conversation in his live/work space at the Creative Alliance where he lives with his partner, the curator Liz Faust. We talked about why artists have to take their work seriously, why metal and folk music are the perfect complement to one another, and how Uniqlo is the Old Navy of Japan.