Critical Reflection: ‘Atomic Surplus’

| THE magazine - December 20, 2013

Jim Sanborn, Pencil Dart/Penetrating Radiation, pigment print on Plexiglass, 40” x 60”, 2002 

Despite the unsolicitous nature of Atomic Surplus, the exhibition covers a heated topic that is very much in our present. Curator Erin Elder poses a particularly relatable question for us New Mexicans: What does it mean to live in the birthplace of the atomic bomb? Atomic Surplus consequently examines some of the world’s most dangerous secrets through twelve international artists who illustrate the effects of nuclear energy. There are three new subspaces within the Muñoz Waxman Gallery at the CCA with rotating exhibitions: The Project Space invites a nostalgic exposition of Tony Price’s now defunct Black Hole, while The Workshop and The Living Room emphasize social practices where the community may gather for dialogue and self-expression. Elder’s interdisciplinary approach combines a more traditional art exhibition with educational programming. Overall, Atomic Surplus is a brave exploration from Elder that signals exciting possibilities for the CCA.

New Mexico’s history is filled with the kind of scientific agenda that’s not exactly amenable to the human condition, and here in Santa Fe this track record poses a certain tension alongside our restorative climate and naturopathic proclivities. Do two Whole Foods within a mile radius somehow negate the effects of nearby nuclear testing, of which there are still remnants here in Santa Fe? New Mexico’s national reputation is also eccentric, unaided by the fact that half the country doesn’t even know we are a state. During the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos wasn’t a recognized city and therefore no one could locate that strip of land in the Jemez Mountains on a map—and there was no reason to. It was chosen in part for its remoteness from seacoasts and from people.

In the show’s accompanying catalogue, an eerie essay by the Los Alamos Historical Society (the educational sponsor for Atomic Surplus) describes the journey of disembarking at Lamy, reporting to 109 East Palace, and being taken to a secret city controlled as a military base. The scientists and their families had only one address: P.O. Box 1663—actually located in Santa Fe. Each had an ID card that contained no identifying traits— just a number. The whole community was essentially nonexistent, but over six thousand people lived at Site Y to support the war effort. In 1945, their hard work came to fruition and the world’s first atomic bomb, The Gadget, was detonated at White Sands. On September 2 of that year, treaties to end the most deadly conflict in the history of mankind were signed. It is no wonder that something so deadly required so much secrecy—and still does. Atomic Surplus presents a very serious picture of nuclear waste and its effects on humans. It’s a great war weapon for good reasons.

Photographs by Zurich-born Luca Zanier document the interiors of nuclear power plants. There are eight large, crisp images of nonorganic, uninviting, sci-fi spaces. They are impossibly clean, human traces are nil, and the bright lights are conspicuously artificial. One photo shows a grid of little sunflower-yellow cubbies, another a white control station brimming with buttons, and another a corridor with too many airtight doors. As the wall tag notes, “nuclear fission has been a contested but potentially promising method of producing heat and electricity.” The memory of Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island forces us to ask if this prospect is worth the risk.

The most compelling piece in Atomic Surplus is a video by a young artist collective formed in 2006, in Tokyo, called Chim↑Pom. Their response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear leak post-earthquake and tsunami exposes a very dry optimism in the face of loss and polluted waters. The group huddles in the devastated seaside town shouting slogans that feel regimented and militaristic. They affirm with unemotional detachment “I want to go swimming in the ocean!” or “I’m gonna get a girlfriend this year!” Such desires are simple and potentially easy to fulfill and yet, maybe not. Encouragements ring: “I’m not gonna give up either!” Interspersed by aggression: “Screw you, nukes!” All are declared with the same rallying pep spirit that, amid the wreckage, feels a little hopeless. These young artists respond to the collision of nuclear energy and nature with raw sobriety.

Jim Sanborn is from Washington, D.C., and makes diptychs with a photographed uranium shell and an image of its light deposit side-by-side. Sanborn places the uranium projectile on top of transparency film and develops it after leaving it for several days in the dark. He notes that, “when a shell explodes it releases radioactive dust that lingers on the site for millennia.” This is why we are still able to see the atomic surplus. His process is similar to Bettina Samson’s— from Paris, France—who makes photograms of nuclear dust also “made in the absence of light.” These exposés suggest that nuclear energy has a life of its own—an inanimate object produces its own light, but beware because it’s toxic.

Nuclear explosions kill instantly and leave residue for generations thereafter. Nina Elder, one of the twelve artists, notes that the Santa Clarans continually suffer from leukemia because their fields are irrigated by Los Alamos nuclear runoff. Meanwhile, descriptions of The Gadget’s explosion still inspire awe. It’s the scorching mushroom cloud seen around the world that looked like a thousand suns collectively rising from the earth. Undoubtedly a sublime experience; Oppenheimer’s self-reflection as Krishna is apropos. Anything so magnificently irreverent is an oasis in the desert.