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

Art Nucléaire

Second part and end of our Art and Nuclear file.
>> Part One

At the moment, it is the power stations that are exploding. Chernobyl, then Fukushima. Amongst the many video creations that "document" these scenes of disaster, The Radiant (2012) by The Otolith Group collective assembles a range of techniques (found footage, etc.) and perspectives (critical, empathetic, etc.) on the subject. The sequence where the Japanese liquidator points a gloved finger at a security camera is particularly gripping.

THE RADIANT (extract) from Simon Arazi


It features in full in Machine To Machine (2013) by Philippe Rouy. Beyond that, it also conveys the emergence of "end time" art (to quote Günther Anders), combining "the aesthetics of catastrophe" and "the poetics of fear". 

Philippe ROUY : Machine to Machine (EXCERPT) 

That is what the philosopher Paul Virilio focused on in an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in 2002 called Ce qui arrive/Unknown Quantity (i.e. accidents). The Chernobyl catastrophe featured in this outline of a "museum of accident". In the preamble to the exhibition, in a warning, he reversed the lies of nuclear experts regarding this notorious cloud declaring: If we exhibit an atomic bomb, it is merely a purely cultural problem…Note that Le Sarcophage by Bilal & Christin (2000) is based on this idea of a dystopian "Museum of the Future" and focused on Chernobyl. The comic is presented as a mock advertising board, an allegory of hypermodern art and a "glowing" technological future.

Bilal Le Sarcophage             
              Correspondances ; Le Sarcophage, Pierre Christin, Enki Bilal


Theoretically, we’re already there: in addition to the first tourist excursions into the forbidden zone, several artists have effectively begun to play "stalkers" around power stations where nuclear accidents have occurred… Similar to Yes Men activists, the artist collective Chim↑Pom, responsible for several interventions in Hiroshima and Fukushima, held an exhibition regrouping several works (sound installations, devices, projections videos, objects, etc.) with artists linked to their project called Don't Follow the Wind (2015). A defining feature is that the works are dispersed within the Fukushima exclusion zone. Opening to the public is therefore a pipe dream taking the decontamination time into account. While waiting, there is an overview of this invisible exhibition through audio info on a dedicated website, a catalogue, artefacts and a making-of.

Radioactive Art in Fukushima | Don’t Follow the Wind


Featuring among the artists is Eva & Franco Mattes (alias who are involved in A Walk in Fukushima (1). An immersive 360° video piece, viewed through VR headsets with a DIY makeshift design, immerses us in the exclusion zone. Previously, the artist duo designed a quirky installation from metal bars recuperated from Chernobyl’s forbidden zone! Another guest artist, Trevor Paglen designed a glazed cube that is blue/green with black streaks and has sides 20cm long, made from low-level radioactive waste material collected from inside the Fukushima exclusion zone and more from the first atomic explosion (Trinity Cube, 2015).

Trinity Cube
Travor Paglen, Trinity Cube, 2015

Black Square XVII (2015) by Tary Simon demonstrates the same principle. This opaque work is compacted waste that is even more radioactive, glazed then enclosed in a small, reinforced metal container also containing a letter by the artist for the future. Created for the centenary of the famous Black Square by Malevich, that this display device brings to mind, this piece can only be seen unprotected in a thousand years…

Black Square Tary Simon
Black Square XVII (2015) de Tary Simon

This project was designed in collaboration with ROSATOM (the Russian equivalent of the Office for Nuclear Regulation). It is worth noting that, if "nuclear art" is one of the ultimate outcomes of the sphere of art/science, organisations working in this field generally opt for projects and artistic residencies that conceal their nuclear activities. Such is the case with the CEA (Atomic Energy Commission) art/science workshop that is very far removed from this type of approach…The only division built around artistic practices associated with nuclear power issues is one coordinated by the curator Ele Carpenter (2) within the Arts Catalyst association that implements art, technical and social criticism oriented projects.

Easier to handle than nuclear waste, contaminated earth can also be a constituent component of a work. Embracing the old principle of "prepared" instrument, Fuyuki Yamakawa makes use of interference caused by radioactivity escaping from a sample of contaminated soil via guitars connected to Geiger counters (Atomic Guitars Marks I & II, 2011) that he operates wearing protective clothing.

Atomic Guitars Fuyuki Yamaka
Fuyuki Yamakawa, Atomic Guitars Marks I & II

Rediscovering the effect of radiation on traditional film, the photographer Shimpei Takeda developed a whole printing protocol from samples of radioactive earth that he meticulously collected and geo-localised around Fukushima. This results in a black and white cartography, full of traces that appear to sparkle like stars in the universe (Traces, 2012).

This principle of ionising radiation is well known, as it is associated with medical imaging. The plastic artist Marc Ferrante uses it to "exhibit" this type of image. He proposes a whole collection of X-rays of hands. There are 110 X-rays in total, involving eminently manual professions from surgeons through to puppeteers and magicians. The X-rays reveal the skeletons of hands in specific gestures (Jeux de mains…, 2005-2017).

Jeux de mains marc Ferrante
Jeux de mains, Marc Ferrante

However the process was deemed sufficiently ambiguous for the ASN (Nuclear Safety Authority) to carry out inspections at the medical laboratories where the images were produced and decreed a reminder of the law according to which The use of radiography on the human body for non-medical use is forbidden, according to article L1333-11 of the Public Health Code…

Taking advantage of a less rigorous legislative body and privileged entry inside the Hanford nuclear military-industrial complex, close to which he lived in Washington State, James Acord remains the only artist to date to have handled extremely dangerous fissile materials. Duly equipped with a unique licence the number of which he had tattooed on him, this "Facteur Cheval of nuclear" salvaged rods of depleted uranium extracted from a decommissioned reactor with the aim of producing a set of monumental sculptures in the shape of land art. The work remains incomplete as James Acord committed suicide in 2011.

Lityin Malaw

(1) Also proposed as part of Real Lives Half Lives: Fukushima, exhibition from 19 May to 15 July 2017, at the Arts Catalyst Centre in London
(2) Ele Carpenter, The Nuclear Culture Source Book (Black Dog Publishing, 2016)