Santa Fe is situated approximately thirty-five miles southeast of Los Alamos, New Mexico, birthplace of the atomic bomb during World War II. Despite or maybe (subconsciously) in spite of this proximity, the two locations couldn't be more different. Santa Fe is a Southwestern mecca of arts, culture, and tourism, offering up countless spiritual traditions, speckled with alternative health and wellness options, and fiercely loyal to its charming adobe style. Just up the hill, tucked away on the mesas of the Pajarito Plateau is Los Alamos, a sleepy town hastily constructed to service the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the largest employer of Northern New Mexico. Despite the large number of employees and beautiful geography of the area, the town feels empty and odd, the buildings are institutional and cold in contrast with its artistic sister down the hill.
This extreme contrast in cultural and historical geography is one of the pleasantly surprising and unique aspects of life in the Land of Enchantment, and makes the exhibition Atomic Surplus an especially significant and pertinent occurrence. Tackling nuclear power and its history is an ambitious project, wrought as the topic is with politics, emotions, pressing realities and paranoia. The Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe steps up to the challenge with a complex yet modest group exhibition featuring a roster of twelve local and international artists and artist collectives.
The primary exhibition is supplemented by several para-exhibitions. Tony Price and the Black Hole exhibits ephemera from the Ed Grothus’ Black Hole, a surplus store that sold unwanted materials from the Labs, and work by local artist Tony Price (1937-2000); Price, an anti-nuclear activist created “atomic art” out of the detritus and scraps sold at the Black Hole. Photographs within the Los Alamos Historical Society Archive touches on the historic context in which the atomic bomb was created, and Nuclear Age Vintage Ads presents images from industrial and nuclear advertising from 1953 to 1963. A number of related events includes film screenings, poetry readings, presentations and panel discussions, all open to the public and all designed to incite curiosity and initiate dialogue. These offerings show admirable devotion on behalf of the CCA to follow the mission laid out in the exhibition catalog, “to scratch the surface, to spark curiosity, to invite a deeper consideration.”
Jim Sanborn, Pencil Dart “Penetrating Radiation,” 2002, pigment print on plexiglass, 40 x 60 inches, ed. 10.; Courtesy of the artist and Center for Contemporary Arts.
The exhibition catalog, itself integral to the exhibition(s) by including essays, poems and statements by the contributing artists, also claims that art is “the perfect realm in which to address complex issues.” However, considering the issue at hand is one traditionally shrouded in secrecy and hiddenness, one wonders if part-research/part-artistic expression visual presentations are really the best medium through which to address highly complex scientific issues.
A handful of the artists contribute to this peculiar premise in a straightforward manner by using nuclear materials as artistic media. Local Santa Fean Nina Elder’s drawings render declassified images of the Manhattan Project in graphite and radioactive charcoal. French artist Bettina Samson placed film in a light-tight box that once contained uranium ore, an experiment mimicking the accidental discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel. The radioactive dust was developed on the films, resulting in large-scale photographic prints resembling much larger galaxies. Washington, DC-based Jim Sanborn uses a similar technique, but instead captures on film the radiation emitted from depleted uranium projectiles that are used by the U.S. military. He exhibits the radiation exposure alongside a traditional photograph of the projectile itself.
Nina Elder, Trinity Test Site, August, 1945, 2012, graphite and radioactive charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Center for Contemporary Arts.
The rest of the exhibition covers a variety of topics related to the “nuclear legacy,” spanning atomic test sites (Claudia X. Valdes), nuclear power plants (Luca Zanier, Vanessa Renwick), nuclear waste sites (Center for Land Use Interpretation), abandoned Soviet military sites (Eric Lusito), and the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl (Peter Cusack) and Fukushima (Chim↑Pom, Rankin and Dub Ainu Band) and painterly expressions of awe and fear (Greta Young). The overall focus throughout the perspectives represented is on the long-lasting—if not eternal—repercussions of nuclear power on the economic, military, environmental, cultural, and visual landscapes across the globe that have been inflicted with the threat of the proverbial “press of a button,” rather than the moment of destruction itself. The choice is likely informed by a curatorial willingness to remain politically neutral; while the impulse is noble, ultimately the images of nuclear devastation are more memorable than the detached film experiments with uranium dust.
However, there are several strong works that combine the harsh reality of nuclear fallout with poetic interpretation to provocative and moving ends. The young artist collective Chim↑Pom is one such example. Formed in 2005 in Tokyo, the group of six twenty- and thirty-somethings travelled to Soma City following the March 11, 2011 earthquake that wreaked havoc on the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. About thirty miles from the site of the leaking reactor, Soma City was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. Chim↑Pom befriended local youths who, though also victims of the crisis, were volunteering to provide aid in their community. The result of this encounter is the video piece KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (2011), in which the youths chant 100 ki-ai vocalizations used in martial arts to concentrate internal energy just prior to a strike—amid heart-rending ruin. Their shouts range from positively empowering (“Japan is awesome!”, “We’re not gonna lose against radioactivity!”, “Cheer up!”) to seemingly strange and unrelated (“Please buy spinach!”, “I’m gonna get a girlfriend this year!”). The odd and banal sentiments conjure feelings of hope for normalcy and the possibility of a normal future, and in contrast to the backdrop of up-ended ships amid total wreckage, evokes a sensation of absurdity: absurdity on the scale of nuclear power itself.
Chim Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers), 2011, Video, 10:30; Courtesy of MUJIN-TO Productions and CCA Santa Fe.
A series of photographs by Swiss artist Luca Zanier captures scenes of nuclear power plants in northern Europe. The images attempt to capture enormous spaces that become abstracted through the comparatively limited lens of Zanier’s camera. The images are dominated by endless lines, color and disconcerting perspectives, revealing an unknown technical world made separate and distinct from day-to-day reality. The scenes look like the sets of science-fiction films, but the artist draws a parallel between these spaces and places of worship in his statement, calling them “temples of an energy-guzzling society.” The notion of a cultic worship of energy is surprising, but sinks in with an air of tragedy and the recognition that belief in nuclear energy is more common than well-informed knowledge of it.
Atomic Surplus absolutely achieves its goal in inciting deeper curiosity about matters that are often limited to iconic images of mushroom clouds and fear-laden portrayals of destruction in the media. However, the viewing experience also risks creating an uncomfortable degree of skepticism in which we ask in circles, what do we not know? where do we turn for information? who do we trust? Moreover, what role do artists play in the search for truth? There is a dissatisfying slippage between creative expression and the highly complex scientific issues at hand. In the spirit of knowledge-seeking and skepticism about this crucial topic, my recommendation is this: mix equal parts Atomic Surplus and a visit to the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos; take with a grain of salt.
[Image on top: Luca Zanier, Beznau I (control room), 2011, digital print, 31.5 x 47 in. ed. 4 of 7; Courtesy of the artist and Center for Contemporary Arts.]