Michael Light, 064 DOG, 81 Kilotons, Enewetak Atoll, 1951. From 100 Suns, 2003 © Michael Light

Futile Metaphors: Contemporary Arts and the Bomb

At 5.30am on 16 July 1945 the US Government detonated the first atomic bomb at the Alamagordo Bombing Range in the Jornado del Muerto desert, New Mexico.

In an official memo sent two days later, Major General Leslie R. Groves, the US Secretary of War, recounted what he had witnessed: ‘I estimate the energy generated to be in excess of the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT; and this is a conservative estimate…There was a tremendous blast effect. For a brief period there was a lighting effect within a radius of 20 miles equal to several suns in midday; a huge ball of fire was formed which lasted for several seconds. The ball mushroomed and rose to a height of over ten thousand feet before it dimmed.’ Beneath the propagandist buoyancy of Groves’s memo, we encounter one of the first attempts to negotiate the new and fundamental problems entailed in any attempt to articulate the full enormity of what was witnessed that day. The General’s uncomfortable mix of statistical data and analogous descriptive prose encapsulates the peculiar meeting of science and spectacle embodied by the detonation of the bomb – recognising not simply the dawn of a new epoch in destructive military technology, but also a visual phenomenon of overwhelming proportions.

Confronted with the same dilemma, Robert J. Oppenheimer, Director of the Manhattan Project, chose to dispense with the clinical metaphors of science altogether, famously falling back upon the words of the ancient Sanskrit text, the Bhagavad-Gita: ‘If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be the splendour of the Mighty One…I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ Whilst Oppenheimer’s ominous statement may still elicit a certain chill, his contrived recourse to religious analogy offers further testimony to the unavailability of any sufficient descriptive system through which to relay what he experienced that morning in the New Mexico desert. His appropriation of an alternative discourse – in many ways as inadequate as that offered by science – gestures towards an unavoidable futility underscoring his efforts. For these early witnesses, the magnificent and horrific spectacle of the bomb seemed to precede or resist the possibilities of language, their efforts to relay what had occurred hovering superficially on the surface, futile metaphors gesturing vaguely towards a sublime and indescribable reality.

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Published in Photoworks issue 10, 2008
Commissioned by Photoworks

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