The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One worked on the A-bomb. The other was a victim. How their grandsons now create art together.

Kei Ito in his Baltimore home studio, with photographs for the “Afterimage Requiem” exhibit. (David Peterson)

Kei Ito was struggling. It was September 2014, he had just started graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and a professor had trashed his first project. As he relaxed in his living room with Andrew Keiper, his housemate and fellow student in MICA's photographic and electronic media program, Ito repeated what his professor had said: Make something that's truly meaningful to you. Ito knew what that subject matter would involve, he told Keiper. It was something that had haunted him for years: his grandfather's experience as a teenager during the bombing of Hiroshima.

Keiper was startled. He thought about his own family's uncomfortable association with Hiroshima. He had told some people about it, but he'd never met anyone affected — much less so intimately — by the bombing. He took a deep breath and revealed the connection: Keiper's own grandfather had worked on the Manhattan Project, code name for the program that developed the atomic bomb.

"And then we just both sat there," Keiper says. "We both grasped how special this was." They vowed then to work on a project together.

More than three years later, they have created "Afterimage Requiem," an image and sound installation that  explores the legacy of the first atomic bomb. The exhibit, set to be on display at Baltimore's War Memorial from Jan. 19 through Jan. 31, features photos by Ito and sounds created by Keiper.

To the artists, the work seems especially urgent, considering the global jitters about nuclear confrontation with North Korea. Many contemporary artists in Japan don't deal with the issue of the A-bomb, says Ito, who grew up there. He thinks that's a mistake. "We are the only victims of the weaponized nuclear bomb," he says. "We need to speak up."

The exhibit, which hadn't opened by press time, is intended to fill the cavernous hall of the War Memorial, a huge neoclassical building in downtown Baltimore. There, where an eternal flame burns and the names of Marylanders who died in World War I are etched into the walls, dozens of large prints will rest on low pedestals: silhouettes of glowing, prostrate bodies. Each image is Ito's own figure: He curls in a fetal position or lies prone, twists his limbs at odd angles, reaches out as if in supplication. The life-size images evoke that morning in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb instantly killed as many as 70,000 people.

From each corner of the hall will pour an array of sounds: wind rustling in the New Mexico desert, muffled voices, footsteps, radio signals, propellers churning. The exhibit superimposes the clamor of technology on the gentler sounds of nature, reflecting how the Manhattan Project transformed natural elements such as uranium to unleash ghastly violence, says Keiper. But visitors won't hear any bombs exploding. Keiper's work focuses on the secret efforts before the bombing, while Ito's images describe its aftermath. "We leave the moment of detonation out," Keiper says, "and expect our audience to bridge the gap, to complete the equation."

"Afterimage Requiem" won a $10,000 grant from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, earning top scores from each juror. "It's an incredibly poignant and moving project," says Sonja Cendak, manager of the alliance's Rubys Artist Project Grants. "The meat of their project is so relevant to them personally as well as to what's happening in our country."

Although they share an intriguing bond of family history, the two artists bring contrasting visions to their work. Keiper, 38, calls his work morose, dark, sometimes angry. "Not aggressively optimistic," he says wryly. He grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor of fine arts in painting and then taught digital media at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland. Since he came to MICA — where he's now an adjunct professor after earning his master of fine arts in 2016 — his work has become more political, emphasizing social justice and protest. His piece "Rough Ride"grew out of the April 2015 Baltimore uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Displayed at a solo show at MICA that fall, the work is a cacophony of protest noise, TV news, police helicopters and thuds of flesh against metal, emanating from eight speakers.

For Ito, 26, light is the heart of his work. "Almost every single print I make uses sunlight or a form of sunlight," he says. Ito grew up near Tokyo, attended high school in New Zealand and graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a BFA in photography. He earned his MFA from MICA in 2016 and hopes to remain in Baltimore. (He recently received an O-1 visa, known as an artist's visa, allowing him to stay in the United States for another three years.)

He now works mostly without a camera, utilizing photosensitive paper and the sun. For his signature piece, "Sungazing" — which has been shown in several major cities — he used a simple lightproof box as a camera and photosensitive paper as film. He made a hole in the box and exposed the film to sunlight 108 times, each exposure the duration of one breath, while meditating on his grandfather. (The number 108 is significant in Japanese Buddhism, representing the 108 defilements humans must overcome.) The resulting prints show a dark spot in the center where the sunlight hit, surrounded by a glowing halo of light.

Darkness and light also permeate each artist's memories of his grandfather. Keiper's maternal grandfather, Lovell Cardenas, was a shadowy figure, an engineer who lived apart from his wife and started a second family where he worked in Philadelphia. It has been an article of faith among Keiper's relatives that Cardenas contributed to the Manhattan Project, although no living family members know exactly what he did. "All we knew was that it was secretive," says Elizabeth Keiper, Andrew's mother.

Cardenas worked on timing controls and radium research, but Keiper has been unable to learn more. That's not unusual. "It can be very difficult to locate documents relating to the work of individuals on the Manhattan Project," according to Cindy Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. "To maintain secrecy, accounts were written sparingly without reference to individuals or details that could compromise the project." Although an estimated 500,000 people worked on the Manhattan Project, only 14,000 are listed in a database kept by the foundation. Cardenas is not among them.

Cardenas died in 1986, when his grandson was a child, leaving behind mysteries that still tantalize Keiper. "To me, he's the place where the door opens into the project," he says. "I almost don't care what he did in particular. It's just an entry point." Keiper and Ito used some of their grant money to visit Los Alamos, N.M., and the Trinity test site — where Keiper recorded wind, insects and leaves crunching underfoot — and sometimes got shivers pondering their surroundings. "All the clever, celebrated men who designed and built the bombs are responsible for the catastrophe of their use," Keiper says. "But all Americans share that burden."

Keiper and Ito also visited the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to see the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the weapon on Hiroshima. "It almost seemed like a mythical creature," says Ito. "The thing that brought so much death ... it was right there. That overwhelmed me ."

Ito's grandfather, Takeshi Ito, was only 15 on Aug. 6, 1945. Like many teenagers in Japan, he had been mobilized for the war effort. As he left home that morning to work in a munitions factory, his 12-year-old niece, Kikuko, asked to borrow his canteen. No, he told her; he'd need it himself. At 8:15 a.m., the Enola Gay released its bomb, which fell for 44.4 seconds before exploding 1,968 feet above the city. At the factory, Takeshi felt himself covered by light, he would later say. He ran for the exit, heard a boom and found himself under a machine. The room filled with smoke and dust, but he made it into an air-raid shelter outside. Many students working with him were killed.

Kikuko's body was never found. Takeshi's mother and a brother also died. The family home was incinerated.

Takeshi fled his ruined city for Tokyo, studied economics and later became president of Yamanashi University. But Hiroshima and Kikuko stayed with him. He wrote and spoke against nuclear weapons. He pushed the Japanese government to acknowledge radiation illness in bomb survivors and to pass a 1994 law mandating free medical care and compensation for them. His work brought him to the United Nations and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and he is recognized as one of the "Icons of Hiroshima" by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. When he died of lung cancer at age 70 in 2000, Kei  was only 9. "I didn't talk to him much about" Hiroshima, Ito says. "I was watching cartoons; I was reading comic books. I kind of regret doing so." But he never forgot his grandfather telling him: "When the A-bomb exploded, it was like a hundred suns lighting up the sky."

In 2015, the 70th anniversary of the bombing, Ito went to Hiroshima for his first visit since a school field trip as a child. He photographed the sun rising on the morning of Aug. 6. He met a great-uncle who had survived the bomb and visited a friend of his grandfather's who had a neck tumor. He heard about the devastation — the radiation, the financial toll, the destruction of families.

For "Afterimage Requiem," Ito used a technique similar to the one he employed in "Sungazing" to make 108 glowing images of his own body. The project is about capturing light, he says. While the heat flash burned Hiroshima, the invisible light of radiation was etched into the genes of survivors. "My grandfather's body," he says, "became the film."

The exhibition, according to Ito, is a meditation on "so many feelings," involving fear, beauty, the past, the present, the future. But, he says, "hope is the ultimate goal."

Sheri Venema is a Baltimore freelance writer and a former journalism professor at Anne Arundel Community College.

"Afterimage Requiem":Jan. 19-31. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Baltimore War Memorial, 101 N. Gay St., Baltimore. 410-396-8013. Opening reception 6 to 10 p.m. Jan. 19; artists' talk at 7:30 p.m. Free.

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