Echoes and Loss
The Visceral Vibrations of Two New Exhibits
Photo by Sean Frego / courtesy of the artist
An ominous sound hits, like a slamming gate, and she appears—a speck traveling across a walkway that's halfway up to the sky. Jump cut to the same moment, different view. We see her from the back. Dressed in white flowing clothes, she walks past heavy equipment toward a doorway. Pan out: This doorway is on the side of a skyscraper-height tower with a wide base and a tapered top. It was built as a nuclear cooling tower south of Seattle, but before it was ever used, it was abandoned. Now it just stands there inordinately shading the land around it, an echo of the world's first large-scale plutonium production reactor, located just across the state at Hanford. Hanford was the source of the 10,300-pound bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Walking across the tower, the woman in the film—Etsuko Ichikawa, a Seattle-based artist from Tokyo—claps repeatedly, in slow motion. It is not applause.
When you see this, you also feel it. Echo at Satsop the film is only part of Echo at Satsop the installation. The most visceral part is a circular platform of wood that you stand or sit on. The booming sounds of Ichikawa's claps vibrate through the wood into you. She made the piece shortly after the Fukushima disaster, when she lost touch with her parents for a time and didn't know whether they were alive or dead. The artistic ripples of radiation are satisfying, intimate, healing, but they ripple farther out, into realms that are threatening, vicarious, ominous.
Echo also cinematically enacts the echo between small and large scale, one person and the huge chamber of history. Hanford, Nagasaki, Fukushima, Satsop—for Ichikawa, these are personal places, yet so vast as to be only partially imaginable. What she can do is treat the echoes. She can send sound waves out, observe their return, and wonder at the resemblances and experiences that flash temporarily into view.
If Echo at Satsop is one voice in the vastness of time and place and events, then Wing Luke Museum in Seattle's International District is a chamber for the echo of thousands of voices. It's an art museum and more—its primary function is to tell the stories of Asian Pacific people in the American Northwest. Any object, "fine" or not, can serve.
Taking up three rooms in the museum, there's a new installation by artist duo Lead Pencil Studio (Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Seattle, Stranger Genius Award winners in 2006). In one unlit corner, a grimy, rolled-up American flag leans against the wall with a broom next to it and another rolled-up flag on the other side. It immediately made me think of the iconic portrait that WPA photographer Gordon Parks created of Ella Watson, an African American and a janitor, with her posing in front of a flag in the government building where she worked in the nation's capital. Her expression is subtle but undeniably condemning. Her posture is stiff, as stiff as the broom and mop on either side of her (as stiff as a flagpole), and the American flag that presides over everything is blurry and doubtful, a symbol of marred pride. Parks called the picture American Gothic after another American classic, Grant Wood's 1930 painting of farmers. Did Lead Pencil Studio intend this chain of echoes? It's doubtful. Their entire installation, transit in half-light, is made of echoes that no one person can know.
Transit in half-light is made of arrangements of everyday objects that the museum owns: old suitcases, dressers, plates, dolls, given to the museum by Asian Pacific businesses and families. Lead Pencil Studio ignored art objects. The only painting they selected is a tattered painting of a ship at sea. They hung it on the wall, but in shade, without its own light, the way it would appear in a house rather than a museum.
They interwove their own new sculptures and drawings. They lined a hallway with found mirrors and empty old picture frames. Then they painted a faint ink line running through all the frames and mirrors, forming a path where figures in ink—figures the size of fingernails—walk a different sort of Silk Road, where the goods in motion are them. Overhead lights make the tiny figures cast perfect shadows. The ink figures and the shadow figures look so much like each other, it's hard to tell which is which.
Another sculpture appears from one end to be a stack of raw cedar like you used to see at lumberyards—it smells great, the room redolent with regional history. On its other end, the wood is cut and finished into a life-size ticket window. The Wing's building was originally a hotel for men from Asia coming into or leaving Seattle for jobs.
Transit in half-light is not just a work of art, it is a revelation of the Wing as a house of living, resonating history. In an interview, Han described her own family's story of relocation from Korea, including her grandmother's prized possessions—a solid-gold Buddha statue among them—which vanished in transit. Immigration is the American trip that maybe never really ends; Han points out that even people whose immigrant family histories are lost, like me, move around domestically, constantly leaving new trails.
Things in motion are harder to see; there's a whoosh. On both ends of the ink road hallway, Lead Pencil Studio positioned glass display cases gleaming and stocked with bright objects from the museum's collections—but with a catch. The glass is heavily glazed. The objects are a haze, a dream. They're objects that choose who can see them: You could make these out if you already knew what they were. It's the same with cultural histories, lost to some, vivid to others.
Lead Pencil Studio was especially inspired by the museum's restricted areas: not just its basement, but the hotel rooms upstairs that were preserved rather than demolished, and a family grocery shop the museum inherited intact, which looks operational from the street except for having both Open and Closed signs in its window. Take a tour, and you will find that both are true.