22 September 2016

Art of the nuclear Anthropocene

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Courageous (2016) by Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson

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Trinity Cube by Trevor Paglen

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Coming Up For Air by Uriel Orlow

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Mutatis Mutandis: Birds in the Radioactive Bionocenosis by Yelena Popova

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Uranium ore from Kvanefjeldet in Narsaq, Greenland by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway

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Site Reports (Blue Danube) by Isabella Streffen

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Scrap Trident by David Mabb
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Technology shapes culture in many ways, not least by provoking an artistic response. Perhaps the most frightening and powerful technological development of the last century, nuclear fission, has inspired much creative output, from midcentury “atomic” fabric prints to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Now, the Nuclear Culture Sourcebook, published in September, collects the work of more than 60 contemporary artists dealing with such themes as radiation, uranium mining, and nuclear weapons.

“Since the splitting of the atom, nuclear knowledge and experience has changed the way in which we see and understand the world,” writes Ele Carpenter, who edited the book and is an associate curator at Arts Catalyst in London and Bildmuseet in Umea, Sweden. The new volume is the result of four years of curatorial research in Great Britain and Japan. The artists included, Carpenter writes, “are all contributing new forms of visual and conceptual knowledge to the understanding of what ‘the nuclear’ is and might become.” Here we showcase seven works from the book.

The image above is a still from Courageous, a 2016 film by British artists Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson. The two filmed aboard the decommissioned British Churchill-class nuclear submarine Courageous, which entered service in 1971 and is now preserved as a museum in Devonport. In 1982, Britain sent the Courageous to help retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

The Nuclear Culture Source Book was published by Black Dog Publishing in partnership with Arts Catalyst and Bildmuseet, which will host the Perpetual Uncertainty exhibition of nuclear art from October 2, 2016 to April 15, 2017.

Trinity Cube by Trevor PaglenAmerican artist Paglen made the outer layer of this 2015 sculpture from irradiated broken glass collected inside the Fukushima exclusion zone. The work’s inner core is made out of trinitite, the material created on July 16, 1945, when the United States detonated the world’s first atomic bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico, heating the desert’s surface to the point that it turned into greenish glass. The cube is installed in the Fukushima exclusion zone—which is not open to the public—as part of the Don’t Follow the Wind project. 

Coming Up For Air by Uriel Orlow. This 2014 photograph by London-based multimedia artist Orlow shows decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines at the British naval base in Devonport. Many such old submarines are waiting for their reactors to be removed before dismantling.

Mutatis Mutandis (necessary changes have been made): Birds in the Radioactive Bionocenosis by Yelena Popova. Russian-born and UK-based, Popova was inspired to create her 2010 watercolor of mutant birds by Russian biologist and dissident Zhores Medvedev. In 1978, Medvedev published an account of biological research in an area of the Urals contaminated by a 1957 nuclear disaster previously unknown to the outside world. He detailed measuring strontium and caesium in “birds inhabiting the radioactive biocenosis.” 

Uranium ore from Kvanefjeldet in Narsaq, Greenland at Riso, Denmark by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway. Danish artist Autogena and British artist Portway took this photograph at Danish Decommissioning in Riso, Denmark in the summer of 2016. They then travelled to Greenland to explore the Danish-Greenlandic nuclear relationship and Inuit community. As the Inuit attempt to gain economic and political independence, they are aided by the possibility of huge untapped resources of uranium, like that shown here. 

Site Reports (Blue Danube): Site Visit RAF Barnham November 2011 by Isabella Streffen. UK-based artist Streffen took this photograph at the Barnham Royal Air Force base in Suffolk in 2011, part of a series of “site reports” she has been compiling since 2008 on locations of military interest in Great Britain, Europe, and the United States. Barnham was used to store nuclear weapons in the 1960s and is now a heritage site.

A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament: Scrap Trident by David Mabb. When British artist Mabb discovered flowered fabrics by 19th-century designer William Morris upholstering a nuclear submarine, it moved him to create this 2015 work from fabric, projection screens, and acrylic paint. To read an essay by Mabb on his Morris-inspired work, click here.