For 25 years, Phil Buehler has photographed ruins of the Cold War, from geometric lines of stored military planes in Arizona, to the weathered fallout shelter sign on the Bronx grammar school where he once practiced “duck and cover” drills in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Those signs are still on thousands and thousands of public schools and buildings, and once you start thinking about them, you start noticing them everywhere,” Buehler told Hyperallergic. “In fact, there’s one on the school right across the street from the gallery.” That gallery is Front Room Gallery on the Lower East Side, where his photographs of abandoned silos, bunkers, and other Cold War relics are on view in (UN)THINKABLE.
Along with shots inside a shadowy Nike missile bunker near a New York City beach, a view to the sky from Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral built to prove American might in the Space Race, and an ominous row of Titan II missiles, the exhibition features a red telephone. Pick up the receiver, and visitors hear both John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis speech and Donald Trump’s much more recent “fire and fury” proclamation from August directed at North Korea. Although the missile bunkers are now empty and decayed, the fallout shelter signs rusted, the nuclear tension of the Cold War seems suddenly contemporary.
“The Cold War, Space Race, and arms race were all a part of my childhood that I thought I’d left behind when the Berlin Wall came down, but now I find myself thinking about it again,” Buehler said. Nearby in the gallery, a Geiger counter clicks away as it monitors a red Fiestaware plate, painted with a glaze containing uranium oxide, and a 1950s book on the effects of atomic radiation is open to a section on temperature skin burns.
“I wanted to take the exhibit off-the-walls and make it more personal for visitors to the gallery — bring these otherworldly weapons a bit closer to home as most people have never been inside a B-52, or seen a nuclear warhead nose cone, or been in an underground missile bunker,” Buehler said. “But we’ve all picked up a phone, and picking up the red dial-less one in the gallery you might just think about how the security of the world could depend on just two people talking to each other.”
The photographer has documented modern ruins since 1973 when he rowed to abandoned Ellis Island, before it was revamped as a museum, and has created series on sites like Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, demolished in 2015. (UN)THINKABLE visualizes how these nuclear artifacts haunt our world, recalling the capability for mass destruction constructed during the Cold War, asking the viewer to consider the potential for their return.
Phil Buehler: (UN)THINKABLE continues at Front Room Gallery (48 Hester Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 1.