The sorcerer's apprentices: artists playing with nuclear energy (1/2)

Dossier art et nucléaire

Once upon a time you could visit nuclear power plants, but that was before…Complex machinery comprised of a jumble of tubing, dials and flashing buttons is what stood out in these visits. And a vague feeling of danger seeing fissile matter enshrouded in blue light. A cobalt blue that dominates in Stéfane Perraud’s devices beginning with Plus Bleu Que Le Bleu (2013, ArtLab/Digitalarti production). This interactive installation plays, in part, on the bluish reflections seen in the cooling ponds in power stations.

Plus bleu que le bleu... from Digitalarti 

It involves the Cherenkov effect, an observable shockwave of light when electrically charged particles move faster than the light in a given environment (outside the vacuum). Plus Bleu Que Le Bleu forms part of the Cycle Isotopia. A whole series of projects revealing Stéfane Perraud’s preoccupation with nuclear energy; this includes Rets that bring together several graphic works inspired by illustrations of loading bases at the reactor core.

Isotopia Stefane Perraud
Rets, artworks inspired by the representation of labyrinths in alchemical iconography interwoven with plans and sections of nuclear reactors.

Nuclear power is a source of inspiration for artistic creation. Peter Keene glorifies historic discoveries with his mechanical, stroboscopic and electronic device in tribute to Pierre and Marie Curie (… Marie, Pierre, Marie…, 2007). Stephen H. Kwai brings subatomic particles into play with his mobiles symbolising atom movement (Atomic, 2015). The project Case Pyhäjoki (2013), carried out jointly by artists like Mari Keski-Korsu and Erich Berger at the site of a power plant, highlights the environmental impact of nuclear infrastructures through talks and workshops. Helen Grove-White, as part of the collective project Power In The Land that she coordinated around the Wyfa power station in Wales, the last part of which was closed in December 2015, raises the problem of the decommissioning process with a "photographic performance" with equally bluish reflections… 

X-10: Power In The Land 'Artist Insight': Helen Grove-White

If civil nuclear energy is synonymous with dystopia, it has been forgotten that to begin with it was regarded (if not intended) as a utopia. The artist Gair Dunlop revives this blend of nuclear dream and nightmare in his audio-video diptych where he features vintage public information documents next to recent shots of decayed buildings (Atom Town, 2011). There is a similar process, on the fringes of found footage, in the video montage by Chris Oakley Half-Life (2009), initially exhibited as part of the BANG (British Atomic Nuclear Group, a now defunct informal structure/gallery/residence that also "accommodated" The Nightwatchman, a series of "dramatized" installations by Kypros Kyprianou and Simon Hollington notably ridiculing administrative consultation protocols on nuclear power). 

hotboxes from Gair Dunlop 

Jürgen Nefzer’s work is also about a dream turning into a nightmare, through a series of photos of pastoral landscapes featuring carefree fishermen, strollers and bathers with the menacing outline of power plants and cooling towers in the background spitting out plumes of smoke (Fluffy Clouds, 2003-2006). 

Fluffy Clouds Jurgen Nefzger
Sellafield, England, 2005 Fluffy Clouds

Peter Cusak presents a similar approach with field-recordings: he proposes an acoustic trip in the vicinity of Sellafield, Chernobyl, Bradwell and Dungeness power plants (Sounds from Dangerous Places, 2012). A strange sensation listening to the sound of the wind blowing the cables and birdsong combined with Geiger counters beeping …

The multimedia collective Xceed uses information from the collaborative website SafeCast ( for their video-installation RadianceScape (2016). Based on data collected in real time on radiation levels in different places, Xceed constructs a sort of animated graphic design, with laser-enhanced data spatialisation and visualisation, and a soundtrack with ambient noise generated from electro-magnetic radioactivity detectors.

RadianceScape / 輻射界 from XCEED 

It’s a coordinated journey, a radioactive "road trip"… After being exhibited at the Microwave International New Media Arts Festival in Hong Kong, RadianceScape was projected in HD beneath a dome, Deep Space 8K, during Ars Electronica 2016.

Radiation, again, and its inevitable genetic consequences are the focal point of Sirvertian Human - Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment (2015) by Ai Ikeda. This work evokes both Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci and an anatomical chart of acupuncture points. In fact, it’s a repertoire of the effects of radioactivity on the human body. And this piece is inseparable from an accumulation of magnifying glasses through which chromosomes that have undergone changes due to radioactivity can be observed…

However, the greatest fear is war. Apart from the fascinating beauty of mushroom clouds that the well-named Michael Lights sublimated on the photos that he collated (cf. 100 Suns, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013), Clay Lipsky reinterprets our fears with Atomic Overlook (2013-14), a photomontage that uses collage and misappropriation techniques associated with Surrealists and Situationists. 

Atomic Overlook
Atomic Overlook, Clay Lipsky

The horror is even more disturbing as it is not soldiers in these apocalyptic images, but onlookers who appear to assist with the atomic explosions as if they were fireworks. It is a strange feeling seeing this society "being entertained by nuclear power"… While waiting for the 3rd World War, other threats are looming, notably terrorism and dirty bombs, that disperse radioactive products, along with all the social, medical, ecological and political implications. This is what the collective Critical Art Ensemble simulates in their performance/intervention, Radiation Burn (2010.

The artist who best summarises the danger of nuclear proliferation is Isao Hashimoto with his video animation 1945-1998 (2003). Virtually all the bombs that exploded feature, in little more than 14 minutes, until the banning of atmospheric then underground testing. The inventory begins in 1945, with Trinity, the first explosion in the desert in New Mexico before the bombing of Hiroshima then Nagasaki… 

A Time-Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945 - by Isao Hashimoto

Only one flag is displayed in the planisphere for the time being, that of the United States. The countdown begins. A beep resounds every second, amounting to a month. A flash in combination with a noise embodies each explosion. The United States had notched up 8 when a second player arrived, Russia. The years went by and others countries joined the nuclear power club (England, France, China, India). At certain times, nuclear activity was on and off all over the place. Then it was spaced out. A total of 2,053 explosions were counted over 50 years. A chart that could be now be  "updated" with Israel, Pakistan and North Korea… 

Title image: 100 Suns, from the book of Michael Light


Second part of the article HERE