Facing our Nuclear Fears: An Interview with Artist Etsuko Ichikawa
by Lisa Pollman
Etsuko Ichikawa has garnered international acclaim for her unique artistic practice, which involves drawing with molten glass on paper. She has now turned to film with Echo at Satsop, which was filmed within the Satsop Nuclear Power Plant in Washington State and was inspired by Ichikawa’s reaction to the nuclear crisis in Japan and its implications for the rest of the world.
Born in Tokyo, Japan, Etsuko Ichikawa moved to Seattle in 1993 to pursue studying glass at the world-renowned Pilchuck Glass School. After working for American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, Ichikawa began working as a full-time artist in 2003. Her ‘Glass Pyrographs’ and ‘Aquagraph’s’ series have been shown throughout the United States and Japan. The artist has been nominated for the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant and the Freedom to Create Prize, and has received support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Ichikawa’s first film Echo at Satsop marks a departure for the artist. Lisa Pollman recently met with Ichikawa to find out more about the film and what motivated her to take on such a challenge, both artistically and emotionally.
When did you decide to make your very first film inside a decommissioned nuclear tower?
We need to go back at least a year and a half ago. I remember talking with Paul Kikuchi who is a local sound artist. I met him at a party here in Seattle, set up by a friend who is also an artist. It was a good mix of people, mostly sound artists. Everybody started talking about what they were doing in their studio practice and I told them that I had always been curious about echoes. I am interested in how one thing leads to another, such as how dropping a stone into the water makes a ripple reaction or effect. That is sort of like an echo.
After hearing about my interest, Paul said, ‘You have to go to Satsop’. He had done a project there, an improvisational sound piece he made within the tower. Later, he sent me a link of his performance. It was amazing the way sound traveled in that space! It was unexpected and was absolutely beautiful.
Because of the ongoing problems in Japan and worldwide surrounding nuclear power, this issue has been bothering me so much. I miss my country and my culture, then I see these problems from afar and that makes me feel vulnerable. It makes me wonder if I can do anything at all to help or do anything for them. I wanted to bring my life and my work together, and learning about Satsop was the trigger. Creating a film in the nuclear tower at Satsop was the best solution for it.
What was the reaction of people when you told them about your idea?
A lot of people wanted to go with me and some people wanted to refer me to somebody who might be helpful. I did a lot of research. Going back there with the right crew and a minimum number of people probably took me over a year. Securing funds was one of the most important things I had to do. I received two grants for this project, one from Jack Straw Productions and the other from 4 Culture. Confirming grants takes time. By that time, I knew I would do it, no matter what. I worked with cinematographer Ian Lucero and sound engineer Tom Stiles, along with other creative crew members.
How were you inspired by the ‘emotional juxtaposition between ethereality and fear’ on this particular project?
That is based on a very particular, specific experience that I had. When I decided to visit Satsop for the first time, I decided to go by myself. This was something I needed to experience myself without any distractions.
When I traveled to the reactor, I took the highway from Seattle to Olympia. The scenery was beautiful, with many evergreen trees. Once I exited the highway, the first thing I saw was the tiny little grey twin towers in the distance. At that time, I began to feel very emotional. I felt like this is a place I shouldn’t go and I was asking myself why am I going there.
[I thought about] not only Fukishima but all the way back to Nagasaki and Hiroshima and all of nuclear related things happening throughout the world. Part of me just didn’t want to go and I was getting more anxious. As I continued to drive, I could see the towers coming closer and closer, into view. The road was curvy and eventually, and along the way, I lost sight of the towers. I entered into the Satsop Business Park. At this point, the tower is huge and right in front of me. It’s so big; you cannot see all of it, because it’s too close. I wanted to go back! I parked the car and met the tour guide. We went back and forth, to several buildings and I was able to go inside the tower. People are not usually given access to this particular tower that I used for the film, Cooling Tower #3.
To access the inside of the tower, I had to climb tiny metal stairs that are four stories high. Then there is a bridge, which is attached to the cooling tower. The guide opened a heavy door, and then I was inside. The guide took me to the very center point, which he said had a ‘sweet spot’ and that was the best spot for an echo.
Once I got there, I was totally overwhelmed by this very different environment. Once you are in the middle, the space is absolutely beautiful. It’s humongous. The amount of concrete and the feeling of history and old concrete washed by water and rain is very tangible. All of these things you feel on your skin, your body. You feel that when you go inside and I am very sensitive to those things.
When I reached the centre, I looked up and there was a perfect circle, with the beautiful blue sky above me, letting light in. It made me think of being in a very beautiful cathedral. It’s really a spiritual place. I felt that I was embraced by the contained air or the building itself and that I was allowed to be inside the space by something or someone other than myself.
I started hearing echoes. My voice and my guide’s voice bounced back and became interwoven with each other, as we talked. The echo of one’s voice is louder than the original sound and gradually goes up the tower and begins to spin faster two-thirds of the way up the tower and then slowly goes up and out into the sky.
The whole experience was so beautiful and unexpected and brought together two extremely different experiences, fear and ethereality.
How were you able to capture video and sound during this project? What aspects were easy? Which ones, difficult?
Logistically, physically and emotionally, it was really hard for everybody. I was the only one who had been there before and we ended up going twice more together. Because we did not know the location and we did not know how hard it would be for the crew to carry their gear to the catwalk level and to the top, it was difficult. A backpack with water had to be carried all the way to the top because I wanted to pour water into the tower from there as well as the catwalk. That was really just a physically challenging process just to get there.
For the sound engineer, he prepared really well but we wanted to record in three layers of the tower. The first layer is the cistern, which is a reservoir under the catwalk, and on the cement floor at the catwalk level, where he placed a total of five microphones to catch sound as I walked along the catwalk. The hardest one was placing two recorders and a camera across the top, at the center of the circle open to the sky. There were technically lots of challenges!
Were you pleased by the results of the project? How?
Yes. The quality of the visual and the sound, and the way they turned out is stunning. The end product is much better than I could have expected. It’s surreal, kind of sci-fi looking, futuristic. It has a sense of calmness and spirituality and all of those things I have inside of me. I am very happy and super, super excited.
What are the themes - political, societal or historical - you wanted to evoke through this project?
The way that I approached this project, I did not want this film to be political and I didn’t want to have the message up front be ‘no nukes’. I did not want the project to have a political or environmental voice.
I chose the location because of my being Japanese and we are the nation that was bombed twice. Those are both tragedies made by human beings. Also, Satsop was close to my home and available to me. In my head, it’s all together. I cannot say that I wanted to voice a particular concern.
Ian and I did edit this piece eight or nine times. The very last thing we added was the mushroom cloud, at the very beginning without any narration or text. That image, everybody knows. That put people in a particular place to start the video. We [Ian and I] went back and forth about that image. Originally, I thought about putting a narration behind the film about my transformational experience that occurred inside the tower during my first solo visit. That was the reason behind why I wanted to do the film, rather than putting a political or environmental message.
What I really wanted to show was this unknown, unexpected and striking emotional experience. That was the essence that I wanted to speak about. I could have shown more of a Shinto-like purification ritual but I chose to show something else. I am not 100% anti-nuclear, either, because that is such an amazing thing that people created. If it could only be used in such a way that it doesn’t cause harm to others. What a powerful thing we have!
I didn’t want to say too much, so people could take away what they wanted. That’s my attitude with my art — I don’t want to explain too much. Most of the work I have done is abstract and the film has very strong visuals.
Do these themes differ when the project is viewed from a Japanese, American or Global perspective?
This is something I want to start collecting feedback about. I started talking with my friends both here and abroad and will start working on a blog for this project. The ‘Echo at Satsop Blog’ will talk about my experience and what will happen next. This is just the beginning for me. This film is made and getting great feedback. I want to go back there. That place [Satsop] is simply magnetic. It’s like a vortex.
At the unveiling of this video, you were celebrating your fiftieth birthday and your twentieth year living in the United States. Why did you choose this event to introduce this project?
That was simply the best time. My event was on August 8th, and Aug 9th was the bombing of Nagasaki and August 6th, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. It was right in between.
Do you have plans for further sound and video projects? Where? What will they entail?
This could change but an idea of going back to Satsop has been in my mind. Next time, I don’t want to be in the film. I want to be the director and find a producer who can support [the project] financially. I want to lead and create the work with the same group of people. We had such a great collaborative team.
I am thinking of holding auditions to find performers and give them an assignment. Could you create a performance using these two concepts ‘echo’ and ‘nuclear’ and how these two terms are connected. How do these things relate? I want to challenge other people. Instead of creating my own art. I have to find the right people who will take up the challenge of creating something that I would never possibly do.
As a private citizen what do you think we can all do to raise awareness and change policies around Nuclear energy and facilities?
This is really a good question and it depends upon the individual. A group of people could do something together, under one mission. In daily life, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. There’s a possibility that each person’s mind could change to make a huge shift. Ultimately each person’s will power could be the most powerful thing.