Monday, March 10, 2014

Video Installation Review: Etsuko Ichikawa's "Echo at Satsop"

This is one of an ongoing series of works commemorating the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, 2011. At first, however, it appears to celebrate the immensity of space rather than any kind of disaster; it is only after some contemplation that one makes the connection.

Before entering the installation space, I could hear deep booms and clatters echoing from within. After entering, these resolved into the sounds of metal railings and pipes, struck like gongs, and reverberating in a vast chamber. The video began a half-minute or so later with the silhouette of a cooling tower of a nuclear power station. Nuclear, yes, but here appearing as an art object; a gigantic abstract sculpture, a huge curving geometric shape. As the scenes shifted to images from the interior of the tower, it became obvious that the sounds were made (and echoed) from inside. Birdcalls echoed from outside. A tiny human figure (the artist herself) walked along parapets and the rim of the tower’s summit; clad in the white robes of the priestly caste of some ancient, unknown civilization (or perhaps those of a future world). Close-ups of her clapping (the sound becomes colossal in that space) and dropping water from a bamboo pipe into the void. Fade to black; the sounds and reverberations continue for another six minutes with no video.

So what have we experienced?

It seems to be an exploration of the reverberation of sound in a large space, rather than a lamentation for victims of a nuclear disaster – more akin to Paul Horn’s Taj Mahal recordings or the classic “Cistern Chapel” CDs by Stuart Dempster (with or without the other members of the Deep Listening Band) than Penderecki’s Hiroshima music. There is no sadness or horror here. There is only tranquility generated by the interaction of sound, space, and visuals.

But what kind of space is this? A decommissioned nuclear tower; it was originally not an expansive echo chamber, but a home to the same kind of power that has nearly destroyed Fukushima. The generation of such power was not, or course, originally intended for harm – Fukushima (and Chernobyl) are not Hiroshima or Nagasaki – but the question remains: is this power safe? What is it that drives us to attempt to harness it to begin with? And what will happen after the power is no longer needed, or after our civilization has run its course and collapsed into dust as all works of humans must?

I don’t intend to get political here, and I don’t believe that Ms. Ichikawa intended to make a political statement about nuclear power either. There are legitimate arguments both for and against its use and its safety. Rather, this installation/video seems to be using the no longer used nuclear cooling towers as a metaphor for the impermanence of things. (The use of the water from the bamboo inevitably recalls Zen artwork, and parenthetically the idea of impermanence and the return to nothingness espoused by that philosophy – see my further comments here.) The tranquility created by the vast echoes in the enormity of the space invites us to look beyond temporal impermanence into something that is eternal and unchanging.

Echo at Satsop runs until March 14th, 2014, at Jack Straw New Media Gallery, 4621 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle.

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