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Art AND: Kei Ito

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Kei Ito has an eBay habit. Ito uses the site to purchase parts of WWII-era nuclear weapons— it’s a compulsion he picked up from the artist Paul Rucker who also collects artifacts to use in his artwork and to live with. In this way, elements previously capable of incredible destruction become objects for mediation which, in time, Ito weaves into the narrative of his work. To make sure he was getting the story right, Ito befriended a New Mexican nuclear anthropologist who helps him authenticate the eBay discoveries that he adds to his growing collection of artifacts.

Born in Tokyo and based in Baltimore, Ito understands himself as a collection of opposites and pursues both sides of those narratives through his open-ended and expansive photography practice. He makes photos without a camera, and his work is about his Japanese heritage while living as an immigrant in the United States. “People ask me all the time, ‘Is this truly photography?’ I say, ‘Hell yeah!’” Ito explains. “My work is still photo-based. My ideas of making artwork are always rooted in photography, but the outcome may not actually use photographic skill or technique.” Ito’s art, while camera-less, often uses Chromogenic color prints or pigment prints as he cleverly uses other light sources, such as the sun’s light, to expose light-sensitive paper and develop an image.

 

Kei Ito, Afterimage Requiem. Photo courtesy of the artist.

[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.

Kei Ito in his studio. Photo by Justin Tsucalas

SUBJECT: Kei Ito, 29
WEARING: “Dolce & Gabbana vest I bought from a vintage store when I graduated from the MFA program at MICA as a graduation gift for myself. Uniqlo T-shirt and jeans, which is the brand I’ve worn since when I was a kid. Johnstons and Murphy leather shoes. I traveled a lot in my childhood which led me to have a lifestyle of having less but nice clothes that last a long time as long as you take care of them.”

PLACE: Creative Alliance, Highlandtown, Baltimore

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Kei Ito: 08/06/1945, Hiroshima Keeps Telling (only available in Japanese), written by my grandfather, Takeshi Ito, regarding his memory of the Hiroshima bombing and life with radiation sickness definitely influenced my childhood and my artistic practice.

As far as hobby readings, I read lots of classic sci-fi, especially H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, The World Set Free, etc. His insight of these “impossible” technologies gives an interesting comparison to real technology that exists today.

You’re from Tokyo, lived in New Zealand for high school, moved to Rochester, NY, for college, and then Baltimore for graduate school. How does Baltimore compare to the other places you’ve lived? 

Baltimore is one of the first real cities I ever lived in—my family moved to the countryside of Japan when I was little, and I mainly lived on campus during my time in Rochester, NY. I was here in 2015 during the Baltimore Uprising and participated in the protests. My perception of Baltimore shifted from just a city to a city that evokes change, making artwork for ultimate change and peace. In 2020, I still feel the same way about the city and realize that this is the place that we, as artists, can make work about issues and be heard as well. 

Have you always been an artist? How did you know? Was there ever another career path you considered or were encouraged to pursue?

I was surrounded by very creative people around me since my childhood, and I was taking numerous photographs during my time in New Zealand. I actually applied to both photo/art university and medical university as I have always been interested in the idea of healing. (It is kind of funny to think now that my interest in healing found a way into my artmaking.) The first time I really recognized myself as an artist was during my graduate program at MICA. It was the time I started to create the body of artwork regarding the nuclear issues and it really clicked within me. 

[Photo: Kei Ito’s studio. Photo by Justin Tsucalas.]

What material do you use so much you should buy stock in it?

I’m always on the hunt for vintage/old photo darkroom paper of any type. This gives such a wide range of imperfection and light leaks that give extra elements of chance in the artwork. I also tend to be obsessed with certain items from time to time; currently, I am collecting plumb bobs in the hope of using them for upcoming projects.

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it? 

Uniqlo is a Japanese clothing company I’ve known since I was a toddler as they sell clothes for all kinds of people/ages. They always have been a cheap but reliable clothing company but recently they expanded their operation to all across the globe. There are several mega-size stores in NY and one in Union Station, DC. They even collaborated with MoMA to make an accessibly-priced artist T-shirt so it’s a huge plus. I never would have imagined seeing such a familiar clothing store in the US, but I think it’s a welcome change.

What’s a favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

There are many amazing restaurants in Baltimore, but [my wife Liz Faust and I have] been loving Annabel Lee Tavern near Creative Alliance. Their Annapolis chicken sandwich is amazing but their duck fat fries are one of the best and perhaps fattiest fries I’ve ever had (coming from a person who fully embraced New Zealand’s fish and chips culture!). We’ve still been going there to support the restaurant during the pandemic.

Talking to you about your art process, it sounds like you get ideas all the time for new work, so often it’s hard to keep track of everything. Is making art therapy for you or is art your occupation? Is it both? Is this the way you think, so you have to physically make it to stay sane?

That’s a hard question! I’m going to be making artwork no matter what. I make work as a way to express myself and break the boundary of what photography and the idea of photography is, but at the same time, I’m so invested in discussing the ramifications of nuclear warfare and examining my heritage. My grandfather was an anti-nuclear activist and I don’t take on the role of an activist, but I welcome it with the idea of my art being used as activism. It’s my way to contribute to society, by making this artwork and sharing it with the world. 

 

[Photo: Recent installation by Kei Ito, photo courtesy of the artist.]

What do you do just for fun? How did you get into that?

I play guitar. My dad loves folk music; he’s of that generation and he himself plays guitar. He taught me how to play and I play almost every day, at least for a short amount of time. I don’t consider myself to be any good at it. You know, that’s a beautiful thing about folk music, you don’t have to have too much skill to do so. But then again, I also love metal.

Oh really?

Yeah, that’s the influence of my collaborator, Andrew Keiper. He’s a metalhead and he introduced me to the amazing world of Canadian metal and I’ve been loving it. It’s funny, I think folk music is all about trying to express within the lyrics the issues of the world. And I think metal is similar in this way; it’s such a different spectrum, but I see the connection between them. I love both kinds of music, so that’s why I have an electric guitar, specifically designed for metal music, and I have an acoustic guitar for folk. I’m always like that: I see extremes on either side and I think that’s a good thing. It lets me see the perspective of both sides.

Guitar is a pretty respectable hobby. Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby or pastime? 

I used to skate, not so much anymore but I used to longboard. I was like a “cool kid.” Well, I tried to be a cool kid back in high school. But when I got to Rochester Institute of Technology, they have a huge campus. I don’t like walking, I don’t like biking, so I long boarded everywhere to get around. I tried to do it in Baltimore but I just grew out of it eventually. So I really don’t consider that to be my hobby anymore, but it used to be.

My other hobby I would say is eBay. I spend lots of time on the internet. I spend a lot of time on eBay just because I love to look for artifacts. I have all sorts of different memorabilia from WWll and the Cold War, like the Manhattan Project artifacts [here in my studio at Creative Alliance]. I think it is from the influence of Paul Rucker. [Rucker previously had the studio space Ito now lives and works in]. Paul collects all different kinds of artifacts and uses them in his artwork. Christian Boltanski does that too. I like to collect artifacts and not necessarily to use them for artwork all the time, but I like to have it so I can use it when the right time comes. 

eBay has some crazy stuff! I have some cufflinks that are made out of part of a decommissioned ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] that used to be the exterior wall. It’s hard plastic; someone managed to find it and carved it into cufflinks. I have that. It’s wild. I found someone bought an abandoned nuclear silo from the Cold War era and is renovating it to be a living space, so they are selling found parts and circuits that probably used to be used for contributing to control a nuclear missile. It’s complete junk but I have that. I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do with it, but the fact I own it excites me!

eBay is such a weird place that I need to really figure out if something is authentic, and for that I do lots of research. When I say I spend lots of time on eBay, the research comes with it. I do lots of research to see how authentic the item is and also what the story behind this object is, because it’s the artifact that fascinates me all the time. The object doesn’t become an artifact without a story and it’s that story that I’m always seeking. 

The object doesn't become an artifact without a story and it’s that story that I'm always seeking. 
Kei Ito

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

I have several black jeans all ranging from solid black to damaged wash gray. I always found them to be one of the easiest things to match up with any type of style, you can usually get away wearing them to a fancy party and restaurant.

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make or the show you would curate.

I would love to renovate one of the decommissioned/abandoned missile silos and convert it into a studio, permanent sunlight art installation, and gallery space. These silos are in the middle of nowhere so a sculpture park would also be a nice addition to the gallery.

What are the last three emojis you used?

🙏💛🐱

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in the Baltimore art scene?

There are lots of meeting grounds/platforms for artists in Baltimore, such as Creative Alliance, School33, Baker Artist Portfolio, Artists U workshops offered by Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, and many more. These resources are an amazing starting point to explore deep into the amazing Baltimore art scene.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I can definitely see my characteristic traits in the Pisces sign. My mind is always fascinated by the beauty of the world; that’s the reason why I first picked up a camera. My brain always connects so many things that other people usually don’t make a connection to, but this helped me to come up with creative solutions to some complicated problems. But I also know I am very emotional when it comes to memory. I have a hard time ignoring/forgetting past mistakes or embarrassment and sometimes become obsessed with the idea of memory itself.

 

Kei Ito in his studio. Photo by Justin Tsucalas

Who are your art heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

There are many artists I admire, but I always love the artists who can use personal and collective trauma in order to examine and express themselves. The previously mentioned Christian Boltanski is one of the greatest influences in my art-making. I get many influences from Paul Rucker, his use of artifacts and his boldness. I love William Kentridge, whom I actually met before knowing anything about him. During my freshman year, my friend took me to a screening for Kentridge’s new film at Eastman House, Rochester. I saw his film for the first time and absolutely loved it. I remember going up to him to strike a casual conversation and telling him how much I loved his film and getting an autograph.

What would your teenage self think of you today?

Probably really proud, especially since I wasn’t a model student when I was in junior high school (it was one of the reasons I moved to New Zealand for my high school). Let alone living in the US, being married—and being an artist is the wildest dream for my younger self.

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

My first job (I think I was 16) was being a wedding waiter at one of the largest wedding venues in Japan. I learned so much from that job, but I also saw some really ugly things happening behind such an innocent-looking model of the commercialized wedding business.

What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind?

I recently had a residency at the University of Utah (the Marva & John Warnock AIR) which allowed me to do much research on Downwinders. Downwinders are the people/victims who were exposed to radiation during the nuclear weapon testing that was mainly conducted in Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. I always had knowledge of them but only recently I made a connection to my heritage and started making artworks that bridge these two traumas.

Kei Ito, Eye Who Witnessed. Photo courtesy of the artist.

*****

Ito will have a solo show, Atomic Sentence, with Harmony Hall Art Center in DC. Kei received the 2021 Denis Roussel Fellowship given by the Center for Fine Art Photography and will complete a residency at the Studio at Mass MoCA in 2021.

Photos by Justin Tsucalas except where otherwise noted.

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