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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The limitations of language in fully comprehending or conveying the visual – what Barbara Stafford has appositely termed the struggle between ‘a legible methodology’ and linguistically ‘illegible empirica’ – may suggest what the full visual impact of a nuclear detonation is best understood through visual means. Indeed for most of us, then and now, our experience of the bomb has occurred principally via the official photographs used to document the explosions. This extraordinary visual record commenced with the first US test in 1945 and continued until 1963, when the Limited Test Ban Treaty forced nuclear testing, quite literally, underground. The role of these pictures in servicing and advancing the early stages of the Cold War is beyond estimation. Circulated through official channels and the popular media on both sides of the conflict, the images operated like cards in a game of political top trumps – each picture a threatening demonstration of the growing nuclear arsenal at the opposing countries’ disposal. As a result, the bomb might be understood as a uniquely photographic phenomenon – its visual spectacle in part choreographed for, and disseminated via, its two dimensional trace. It is through this photographic record that the twentieth century acquired its principal iconic, permanently etching, as Ian Jeffrey has suggested, ‘a powerful new motif’ upon ‘the collective imagination.’

The creation of the bomb and its visual record fundamentally altered the nature of artistic creation, both in terms of the destructive threat it represented and the visual icon it served to create. Speaking to William Wright in 1950, Jackson Pollock observed that ‘the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or any past culture,’ casting his work as the abstract embodiment of a pseudo-atomic dynamism, ‘energy and motion made visible’. In his Unspeakable Confessions, Salvador Dali similarly acknowledged the impact of the bomb upon his own creative convictions: ‘the atomic explosion of August 6 1945 shook me seismically. Thenceforth, the atom was my favourite food for thought. Many of the landscapes painted in this period express the great fear inspired in me by the announcement of that explosion.’ This fear was manifest nowhere more than his ‘Melancholy, Atomic, Uranic Idyll’ (1945). A terrifying dark and cavernous space populated by molten objects and dehumanized figures, its visual interplay of atomic imagery and faceless baseball players gestured accusingly towards the popularisation of this new and fearful war game as an ‘all-American’ pursuit. It was the bomb’s immediate popular cultural role which was unpicked and restaged by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol: endlessly repeated as a black and red screen print in Warhol’s ‘Atomic Bomb’ (1960) or rendered as though a comic book explosion by Lichtenstein’s ‘Atomic Burst’ (1966). Understood through the language of Pop, the mushroom cloud was critically located amidst a world of consumer imaging, hinting at the contortions entailed in the commodification of disaster and the manufacture of a contemporary visual icon as immediately recognizable as that of Marilyn or Superman.

Whilst the end of the Cold War and the events of 9/11 may have permanently altered our shared sense of impending disaster – the promise of imminent atomic apocalypse partially displaced by a fear of a less definable terrorist threat – the image of the bomb continues to hover at the edge of the collective consciousness. Its contemporary currency altered by recent events and the passage of time, the bomb exudes a peculiarly nostalgic appeal. Understood less in terms of its immediate threat or contemporary iconicity, recent art practice has looked to the atomic bomb and its photographic record more as the vehicle through which to explore the role of both photograph and archive as the flawed repositories of memory, incomplete purveyors of historical knowledge. Such projects have substituted the immediacy of a contemporaneous popular culture, or the imaginative conveyance of a deep-rooted fear, with intricate reconstructions and the critical assembly of a dark historical narrative through the re-presentation of its photographic trace. Probing at the representational claims made for these photographs and the systems of knowledge they have serviced, recent artists have exploited the bomb as a telling indicator of the limitations and contortions inherent to the processes of photographic mediation.

It is in the role of archival pillager that Michael Light assembled his 2003 bookwork and accompanying exhibition, 100 Suns. Scouring the US Government holdings – ‘these piles of photographs owned by everyone and no one’ – the artist looked to create what he has termed a ‘portrait of the bomb,’ unprecedented in either its breadth or the exclusiveness of its focus. At the back of the book, a detailed body of research and a written introduction looks to frame the photographs as historical documents, unearthed and brought together by the artist as an accusing testimony, both to the initial proliferation of an American nuclear armory and, by implication, the large number of post-Treaty underground tests of which there exists no similar record. When we are confronted by the pictures themselves, however, such litigation risks losing itself behind their extraordinary visual quality: the surreal character of the remote landscapes and the mushroom clouds’ eerily sculptural forms, the exquisite chiaroscuro of the grainy black and white photographs, the varied and vivid palette of the colour depictions. Yet the potency of 100 Suns resides in its narrow avoidance of an uncritical celebration of this astonishing visual assembly through its subtle interrogation of the mediatory role of the photograph – what Bruno Latour has recognised as the inevitable ‘trans-formations’ inherent to the process of ‘information transfer’.

Light presents each photograph alongside the name of the test depicted, its explosive yield in kilotons or megatons, its date and its location – textual additions each representing alternative attempts to relay, convey or make sense of the explosions. The result of this combination is less a collective effort at a kind of representational totality, but a telling juxtaposition, each component working in reciprocal dialogue to signal the limitations inherent to the preoccupations of the other. If the government names – Simon, Apple, Zucchini – seem sickeningly ill-fitting, the numerical measurements of the scientific data appear abstract and clinical when presented alongside the visual depiction of their referent. At the same time, these efforts to linguistically or statistically comprehend the bomb reflect back upon the photograph itself and the inadequacies it, too, can be seen to embody: the artificial imposition of a state of permanent stasis, the uncertainty regarding any notion of scale, the reduction of the sublime to the spectacular and the severance of the bomb from an understanding of either its consequence or its cause.

Perhaps the most intriguing and uncomfortable images which feature in 100 Suns are those depicting the early witnesses of the bomb, operating as telling punctuation points within the larger visual narrative. Turning away to shield their eyes from the bright luminescence of the explosion or viewing it through visors, the gazes of these transfixed onlookers seize upon the form of the ascending cloud which rises above the desert or ocean landscape. In one particularly chilling image, a group of soldiers sit back cross-armed upon a platform erected out at sea. Illuminated as though by a thousand flash bulbs or a cinema screen located out of frame, their relaxed poses and absorbed expressions seem to strangely prefigure, or even inform, Edward Hopper’s 1960 painting ‘People in the Sun’. Like the inclusion of audiences and auditoriums within the modernist cinematic trope, these images prompt an uncomfortable self-consciousness on the part of the viewer, encouraging a troubling identification.

In Tess Hurrell’s 2005 project ‘Chaology’ we encounter an alternative mode of archival appropriation, enacted through the artist’s painstaking reconstruction of specific explosions as darkly comic installations. By transposing the bomb from test range to studio, Hurrell critically reflects upon the act of photographic decontextualisation and the subsequent ignorance of the image to the conditions surrounding its creation and the destruction it prefigures. At the same time, the photograph’s permanent rendering of the mushroom cloud as a captivating sculptural form is literalised through her own careful acts of assembly. Hurrell’s concern is with atomic bombs as photographic phenomena, her temporary studio constructions directed solely at the creation of their two-dimensional trace, exposing and debunking the use of the photograph as the vehicle for military and governmental posturing. Particularly in our digital age, her use of childish materials – cotton wool, talcum powder, charcoal and string – carry the nostalgic allure of the Blue Peter studio, hinting at the sense of nostalgia which potentially accompanies our contemporary engagement with the bomb.

Hurrell’s combination of archival re-working and intricate construction echo the similarly detailed processes of dioramic assembly developed by John Timberlake in his project ‘Another Country’. Drawing its source imagery from The Atomic War File held at the Imperial War Museum, London, the project focuses first upon photographs depicting various British nuclear tests conducted on an assortment of foreign shores. Re-imagining the explosions as painted canvases, Timberlake initiates a disturbing integration of the mushroom cloud into distinctly English pastoral idylls – Constable and Turner’s Romantic impressions of a timeless landscape sitting alongside the impertinent nuclear intrusions. The coexistence of these two sources – drawn from either extreme of a collective image bank – seems to develop the sense of ill-fitting serenity which shrouds many of the original photographs, transposing it to the tranquil setting of these familiar historical views. In the foreground, paper-mache landscapes are erected and an audience of model figures introduced to witness the spectacular additions to the painterly vistas. Re-photographed to form an at once seamless yet strangely disconnected image, Timberlake’s project seems driven by a Constructivist impulse of sorts, complicating the acts of perception and representation through the layering and uncomfortable co-existence of various media. The fact that these scenes, like Hurrell’s installations, exist only now as photographs – their foregrounds hastily disassembled and the canvas repainted with a new atomic idyll – further alludes to the complex relation between the bomb and its photographic trace.

Like Hurrell’s pipe cleaners and cotton wool, Timberlake’s deployment of small plastic models seems to cast him in the guise of the amateur hobbyist, reconstructing the nuclear threat in miniature, and so shrouding his images with a child-like innocence, set against the dark experience of a nuclear spectacle. The figures’ delicate plastic forms appear unnervingly fragile, as easily melted or crushed underfoot as Subbuteo footballers by a sadistic child owner. Their presence here self-consciously evokes the traditional artistic motif of the lone figure dwarfed by extraordinary panoramas, and its historically-ascribed role, as visual shorthand for a Kantian sublime – man faced with the fraught task of intellectually processing the incomprehensible and awe-inspiring majesty of the natural world which stands before him. Confronted by an atomic presence, Timberlake’s figures signify a deliberate perversion of this tradition, acknowledging the similarly unrepresentable but man-made phenomena understood by Derrida as a ‘Nuclear Sublime’. In these obsessive and repetitive treatments of a theme we are presented with a powerful testimony to the impossibility of ever representing the full enormity of the bomb, a knowing futility echoed across the project like a self-deprecating mantra.

Writing five years, almost to the day, after the invasion of Iraq by a US-led ‘Axis of the Willing’, the particular currency of the bomb could be seen to have shifted once again. Whilst recent artistic engagements might have centred on an artful negotiation of a nostalgic impulse and the photograph’s mediatory distortions, the unfolding of events in the Gulf casts an additional immediacy upon these projects. We can now seek out a darkly ironic synchronicity between the publication of 100 Suns in 2003, with its implicit critique of ‘the cultural invisibility and secrecy’ surrounding America’s post-Treaty nuclear stockpiling, and a more literal, more damning, invisibility rooted at the heart of the failure of the US and British forces to unearth the ‘nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons’ for which they went to war. In a similar way, Hurrell and Timberlake’s intricate reconstructions of the bomb in paint on canvas, cotton wool and string, seem to hold up a mirror to more cynical governmental fabrications, along with the estimated 90,000 civilian lives sacrificed in a war their fictive atomic threat was used to justify. It is a condemning figure, overwhelming it what it denotes. A futile effort to make sense of an unthinkable reality.

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Published in Photoworks issue 10, 2008
Commissioned by Photoworks

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