Traumatized by art: Camera Atomica's nuclear photography is strong stuff

With the end of the Cold War, all the nuclear paranoia of the '80s seemed to dissipate. Yet the fear didn't go away; it was suppressed. The gap between pre- and post-Cold War generations' experience of living in the nuclear era might be what makes Camera Atomica, the Art Gallery of Ontario's latest photographic exhibition, so very jarring.

The fear factor makes Art Gallery of Ontario show hard to appreciate on an aesthetic level

Michael Light. 100 SUNS: SEQUOIA 5.2 Kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1958, 2003. (100 SUNS/Michael Light.)

With the end of the Cold War, all the nuclear paranoia of the '80s — terrifying films like 1983's The Day After, still the most watched television movie, and everything from TV shows to T-shirts of the mushroom cloud that had become our dark mascot — seemed to dissipate. Yet the fear didn't go away; it was suppressed. The gap between pre- and post-Cold War generations' experience of living in the nuclear era might be what makes Camera Atomica, the Art Gallery of Ontario's latest photographic exhibition, so very jarring. 

The dawn of the 1980s brought with it a particularly intense period of the Cold War, beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Visions of the mushroom clouds over Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and test sites of the 1940s still figured ominously in the North American collective consciousness.

Mushroom clouds, in particular, became a form of shorthand for everything nuclear – even just the silhouette of the familiar domed shape was a kind of visual assault.

Then, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we got over it, sort of. Whether we were de-sensitized or simply overwhelmed, symbols of nuclear holocaust took a back seat in 1990s and 2000s pop culture. We saw nuclear bombs on occasion, but often they appeared in action movies instead of post-apocalyptic ones (think Armageddon, where Bruce Willis uses a nuke to attempt to save the world, not destroy it).

The imagery Camera Atomica curator John O'Brian has exhumed acts as a visceral reminder of what nuclear weaponry, and energy, has already wrought. Even with the distance inherent in looking at an exhibition in an art gallery, Camera Atomica is a powerful argument supporting the idea that, after a horrifying or traumatic event, considering artworks related to that trauma on a purely aesthetic level is almost impossible.

Despite the fact that photojournalism is mixed with images from pop culture and the world of contemporary art, the documentary aspect of the show overwhelms the artistry.

Mushroom clouds, in particular, became a form of shorthand for everything nuclear – even just the silhouette of the familiar domed shape was a kind of visual assault.

O'Brian includes in Camera Atomica a dizzying number of historical photographs, dating from the origins of both nuclear energy and weaponry (the first tests of nuclear bombs in the 1940s) to today. The exhibition traces the relationship between nuclear power and photography – after all, the reason we're familiar with the mushroom cloud from a bomb in the first place is that the U.S. military invited photographers on site to record the moment of the first atomic bomb's detonation.

Photographers have been both propagandists and protesters, documenting the nuclear issue from scientific, social, and emotional points of view. And Camera Atomica also includes responses to the nuclear question by photographers, and contemporary artists more broadly. The works range from Kristan Horton's restaging of frames from Stanley Kubrick's 1964 anti-war satire Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (using low-production-value household items) to Ken and Julia Yonetani's uranium glass chandelier that signals the exhibition's entrance. The glass is not dangerously radioactive; its green glow comes from being lit by an ultraviolet light bulb.

Camera Atomica doesn't focus solely on the dangers of nuclear technology. The exhibition looks at the way nuclear energy has been harnessed to diagnose, and even treat, killer diseases. The show opens with an X-ray image taken in 1895 by the physicist who invented X-ray technology—  Wilhelm Röntgen used his discovery to illuminate the bones of his wife's hand. The bones of Mrs. Röntgen's hand eerily echo some of the stories we know of the Japanese bombings, where impressions of bodies were emblazoned by the blasts on the surrounding buildings. It's a fitting photograph with which to open the show, depicting nuclear energy as what O'Brian calls a pharmakon: a Greek word meaning something that heals and injures simultaneously.

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      There are, of course, repeated images of mushroom clouds and hibakusha (survivors of the nuclear blasts in Japan during the Second World War) that point (and point, and point) to nuclear energy's inherent destructive power, whether by war (Nagasaki and Hiroshima) or accident (Chernobyl). Some images have a subtler, haunting quality — photographs of the eradicated landscape of Hiroshima in one room of the exhibition foreshadow a 1995 Edward Burtynsky picture of uranium tailings at Elliot Lake, Ont., in the next. A portrait by Ted Grant of a child who has been seriously affected by radiation at Chernobyl makes the display of lurid green, lifelike felines in Sandy Skoglund's staged photograph Radioactive Cats lose its camp, and takes on a sickening quality.

      The array of contemporary work in the show serves as a reminder that our fear is still present. It's just that our 1980s-era dread of full-on nuclear war has been replaced by the threat of newly nuclear states going rogue, as well as our millennial terror of nuclear accident, Chernobyl's scab newly picked off by Fukushima.

      The latter threat gives Camera Atomica an especially emotional and powerful punch, perhaps more for being shown in Ontario's capital city. Canada is a nuclear nation, and Ontario houses both the largest reactor in the country, the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, as well as the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, which may be the most reviled thanks to its advancing age and worrisome history.

      Peter G. Gordon. Nadean Johnson with a Geiger counter displaying a poster at the Atomic Survival Exhibit at the Sportsmen’s Show, March 19, 1952. (York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections)

      The cumulative effect of the show is alarming, and it's impossible to pass through the gallery's exit doors without the creeping sensation that things have gone quite awry. In conversation, it's clear that O'Brian has mixed feelings about the nuclear issue. He says he hopes people come away from Camera Atomica sharing his questions.

      "I hope people will say 'Oh, I didn't know that. I didn't know nuclear energy did so much for medicine, or that Ontario is [one of the] most nuclearized jurisdictions (per capita) in the world.'

      "I hope people will say, 'That makes me think about things a little differently  –  I'm in favour of nuclear energy because it doesn't cause as big a carbon footprint [as oil or coal], but I want to think about that a little more.' The kinds of photographs in the show will open up the possibilities for that kind of conversation."

      Camera Atomica, curated by John O'Brian. To Nov. 15 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas W., Toronto. 1-877-225-4246.

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