Interview with Rieko Seto

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Helsinki 2007. Kuva: tv.

Happening: Time and Energy
Time: Hiroshima Day, Wednesday August 6th, 2008 from 6pm – 9pm
Place: Laivasilta, Loviisa
Tickets: Free Entry
Language: Finnish and English (Rieko’s talk is in English)

Written by: Sally Armbrecht

A tea bag is only a tea bag, one might say. But in the hands of artist Rieko Seto, the thin paper of Lipton tea bags glued together become a dress or a handbag, tannin stains creating abstract designs in brown on a cream-colored background. The ordinary details of life that we look past everyday inspire her. In a piece called “Tower to Survive”, used cardboard creates a towering metaphor of her solitary journey as an artist and her struggle to constantly reach higher in her art.

Rieko Seto, a visiting artist to Finland, was born in Hiroshima, Japan, in a family of doctors. Her father was a doctor, her sister and brother are doctors, and her mother is a doctor’s wife. She smiles at me and says, “So of course I was supposed to become a doctor too, or at least marry one.” A tea bag is a tea bag, unless with your imagination it turns into something else. From a young age, Rieko loved to draw and paint and so she set out on the path of an artist.

When she arrived in Tokyo to attend the Masashino Art University, she first encountered the now familiar response people have upon hearing that she is from Hiroshima. Rieko explains, “Immediately they want to know what I think about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and whether I had any family affected.” This question has followed her everywhere she goes: to the University of Pennsylvania in the states where she got her Master of Fine Arts, and to art shows in the states, Europe, and Korea. At that time Rieko wanted to talk about art and the world, not about a tragedy in the past. She never mentioned the bombing when she had shows, or created art that directly referred to it. One can understand that she wanted to be seen for her herself and the art she was creating and not be defined by something that happened before she was born.

Rieko also thinks that some artists use disasters, such as Hiroshima and 9-11 to get ahead as artists because there is already such emotional weight associated with the event. She has never felt comfortable with the fine line between expressing the pain, fear, or loss of these tragedies and the commercialization of them. Rieko feels the same way with making art directly related to large concepts such as “Peace”. Of course there is a need to explore these concepts in art, but the question is how to do it in a sincere and personal way and not become cliche.

But another reason Rieko has not been talking about the bombing of Hiroshima is because, as a second-generation victim of the bombing, she has been so strongly impacted by it and has wanted to put it behind her. Rieko explains, “When I was young and in elementary school we had Peace Study classes and our teacher assigned us a project to interview family members who survived the bombing. I interviewed and wrote an essay about my mother and after writing that I became so nervous. I would hear announcements on the TV about the 2nd generation having a higher possibility to get leukemia and I just wanted to forget about it all so I would’t feel scared.” But she has realized that she can’t truly separate from what is a part of her reality. And when some of her Japanese friends pointed out that it is good for people to hear about the affects of the bombing from someone who was directly affected by it, she decided to start talking more about it.

Rieko tells her mother’s story: “My mother was 14 years old. She said it was a Monday morning and since the factory where she worked during wartime was closed that day, she was meeting three of her girlfriends to go swimming in the sea. They were waiting at a bus station and my mother was late so they missed the bus. As they waited for the next bus, suddenly everything was fire. My mother described it as “swimming through a sea of fire.” She and two of her friends were able to run away to another station and then to a hospital, but one of her friends died. She has always felt guilty that she was late and they missed the bus that might have taken them farther from the center of the blast because then her friend might have lived.” I ask Rieko if surviving the bomb impacted her mother’s life in other ways and she says, “Yes, she felt so lucky to have survived such devastation and it has made her be more positive when facing challenges in life.” Her mother felt nothing could be as bad as what she went through that day of August 6, 1945.

We look at Rieko’s art, which is currently on exhibit at Taidetehdas in Porvoo. She hadn’t thought her art was connected to the bombing or to peace, but as she gets older and starts to think more of her mortality, her work explores the fragility and impermanence of daily life. She muses, “Perhaps there is a sense of peace in this cardboard model of my body in a fetal position, entitled “Salvation”. For me, it is about a time last year when I was a bit depressed about how to keep up the motivation needed to be an artist and to get shows and make enough money. I can lift this up, carry myself and be my own salvation. And when I curl up in a fetal position I can find some peace.”

As Rieko and I talk, my baby boy plays next to us, his knees curling up naturally when he rolls onto his side. He is so fragile and has absolute trust in my protection of him. Suddenly I shiver at the image of Rieko’s mother swimming in a sea of fire, her dress no more substantial than one made of tea bags, there and then gone. I look around me at Rieko Seto’s art and I know that she has a story to tell us.

Rieko Seto will be speaking in Loviisa at Aika ja energia (Time and Energy) from 6 – 9 p.m. on Hiroshima Day, Wednesday August 6th as part of Loviisan rauhanfoorumi (Loviisa Peace Forum). Ms. Seto will have with her English translations of her essay about her mother and of a book of essays written by Hiroshima survivors that was compiled by her teacher.

Her art, “My days of cardboard and teabags”, is on exhibit at Taidehallin aulugalleria, Porvoon taidetehdas, from 31.7 – 17.8.2008.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Rieko Seto

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