The Satsop Chronicles: An Artist in the Nuclear Age

Alan Chong Lau September 18, 2013 0
The Satsop Chronicles:  An Artist in the Nuclear Age

Left: Etsuko Ichikawa’s “Echo” series is now on display at Davidson Galleries. Photo credit: Lincoln Potter. Right: “Memory of Echoes 1, 2013” by Etsuko Ichikawa. Aquagraph, pyrograph, paper. Right: “Memory of Echoes 1, 2013” by Etsuko Ichikawa. Aquagraph, pyrograph, paper. Photo credit: Megan Harmon. 

I think of the news I read about a town in northern Japan where a boat washed ashore by the tsunami had become a bone of contention. Some villagers wanted it destroyed. As one resident put it: “My heart aches every time I have to walk by.”  Still others in town wanted to preserve it as a symbol of what happened here. Two years after the tsunami wrecked havoc and triggered a nuclear spill, what lingers is an unhealed scab on the collective psyche of a town and a nation.

This played through my mind as  I watched a short film of a tall Japanese woman in a Shinto white robe begin her lonely descent across the catwalk of a huge chamber that curved up to a blue patch of sky. The place is better known as the Satsop Nuclear Facility. The woman is the artist Etsuko Ichikawa, and how she got here is a story unto itself.

Born in Tokyo, she moved to Seattle in 1993 attracted by the medium of glass.  She worked for Dale Chihuly as a studio assistant, arranging his shows in Asia.

Her experimentation with glass led her to the development of her unique pyrograph technique: drawing with molten glass on paper. Wider exposure at an art fair in Miami opened up possibilities for shows, installations and public art projects across the country and around the world. Seeing her at work, one can feel the drama of glass and fire, the etching of smoke on paper and the choreography that goes with each flowing calligraphic movement as a purification ritual.

Things took a different direction when the tsunami hit Japan, setting off nuclear leakage. Locally she helped co-found “Artists for Japan” with friends, a nonprofit  raising awareness and funds to help the victims in the area of damage. But after the summer of 2012, her thinking changed as issues in Japan remained unresolved.

“I miss my home and culture, but at the same time, I can’t stand the fact that the Japanese government has not taken any action to clarify issues that the Daichi Nuclear Plant had that caused the meltdown,” she says. “After more than two years, it’s clear to me that we can’t depend on the government for the country’s recovery. It’s something that people there don’t voice enough.”

That summer, she met Seattle composer/percussionist Paul Kikuchi at a friend’s party. He told her about his experience on a sound project that he did at Satsop Nuclear Facility. The plant west of Olympia was close to completion when cost runovers and public concerns about nuclear power (especially after the Three Mile Island leak) brought construction to a halt. Ichikawa had wanted to visit the site and wondered how her art making and need to deal with the nuclear issue could come together. After one visit, she was convinced that producing art within the deserted cooling tower would be the answer. This is how “Echo at Satsop,” her new series now at Davidson Galleries began.

It took a year to secure the funds and gather a creative team for the project.  She went to Satsop with no political agenda or environmental message in mind. Instead, with the memory of Japan’s tragedy fresh in her mind, she simply wanted to see “what can I do through what I do, which is to make art.”

The film project proved the perfect vehicle.But first obstacles had to be overcome. Her initial visit was an emotional trial by fire. When she got off the freeway and saw the cooling towers, she froze. A maelstrom of emotions overtook her: “I felt anxiety, depression, fear, anger … and I kept telling myself that I should not go there.”

Realizing it was too late to turn back, she entered Cooling Tower 3, which is 496 feet tall and 440 feet across at the base.  Standing at the center on the catwalk, she was speechless.  The cathedral-like empty space overwhelmed her:“I felt like I was embraced by something, as the space was breathtakingly beautiful. When I shouted out, my voice echoed with such a long decay, it felt surreal.”

She visited twice with her crew with an idea in mind that changed as they worked within the actual space. There were many challenges with technical aspects and logistics. Especially difficult was hauling the equipment onto the catwalk. But in the end, the spontaneity of improvising within the space and the unknown factor actually worked to their advantage. When I ask her how the issues in Japan have affected her, she turns pensive and says: “As I see it, it will be a major issue for the long-term future, and most importantly, it affects the environment and all living things on earth, not just Japan. Now it’s something we all have to deal with.”

“Echo at Satsop” is an exhibition comprised of one sound installation, a short film, pyrographs and aqua graphs. The show is on view through Sept. 28 at Davidson Galleries in Seattle.

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