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BUFFALO, NY — Radioactive waste is embedded in New York’s Niagara County, including driveways and parking lots where it was employed like ordinary gravel. But this backfill is toxic, and these “hot spots” can have radiation levels up to 70 times greater than the surrounding area. This hidden pollution, and the fact that the country still has no longterm plan for radioactive waste storage, inspired Hot Spots: Radioactivity and the Landscape at UB Art Galleries in the Center for the Arts at the University at Buffalo.
“When we first started talking about the subject, we felt the issue, while critical, had become largely invisible, like the waste itself,” Joan Linder, co-curator of Hot Spots, told Hyperallergic. “It was also exciting to see that there were [and] are so many artists that share our interest in the subject, and we felt that bringing this theme to a group exhibition would shine a light on the subject of an under-recognized problem while expanding upon the already existing dialogue.”
Eighteen artists and art collectives are featured in the compact exhibition, from Edward Burtynsky whose haunting “Uranium Tailings #12, Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada” (1995) photograph captures waste byproducts from uranium mining piled like drifting snow, to Elizabeth Demaray, whose “Sticks and Stones: The Nike Missile Cozy Project” (2001) is a 27-foot blue satin covering for a dormant 10-ton nuclear warhead tipped Nike Hercules missile. The soft sculpture is slumped in the back gallery on a series of sawhorses, the Cold War-era weapon deflated of its bombastic power.
“We live in such a visual culture, and art helps make these complex issues accessible and relatable,” said co-curator Jennie Lamensdorf. “This subject is even more urgent now than when we began working on the exhibition three years ago, because of the President’s reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument, which has significant uranium reserves, and the inflammatory rhetoric about ‘big nuclear buttons’ and expanding the United States’s nuclear arsenal.”
Although the first atomic bomb test in 1945 in the New Mexico desert and the subsequent Cold War shadow Hot Spots — most eerily in Isao Hashimoto’s 2003 animation chronicling the 2,053 confirmed nuclear detonations between 1945 and 1998 in the style of an 8-bit video game (the United States “wins” with 1,032 detonations) — many works reflect nuclear issues of the present. Visitors can don headsets to watch the 360-degree film “A Walk in Fukushima” (2015–17) (one of the few Hot Spots pieces not concentrated on the United States) by the collective Don’t Follow the Wind. The experience immerses viewers in the Fukushima exclusion zone, where nature overgrows the decaying architecture.
There, following the 2011 disaster, the collective organized an exhibition that will go unseen until the area is again safe for humans (people in Tyvek suits block the art in the film), referencing the invisible perils of its radiation. Nearby, Nina Elder’s “Bears Ears Uranium Bid Area (100 Years of Uranium Consumption by the Top Seven National Consumers)” (2018) has data on the global demand for uranium overlaying panoramic views of the Utah national monument that was radically reduced by the Trump administration, and subsequently reopened to uranium mining. Both Will Wilson’s 2015 photograph of three generations of his Navajo family, each wearing gas masks, and Naomi Bebo’s 2010–15 hand-beaded gas masks, recall how uranium mining has already polluted the landscapes of New Mexico.
Even if every nation was to take part in nuclear disarmament, and uranium mining was halted, subsequent generations would still have to deal with all the industry’s waste. Abbey Hepner’s “Transuranic” (2014) uranotypes — made with a photographic process using uranium, one being displayed beneath a clicking Geiger counter — visualize storage sites such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Humble buildings, and mundane highway signs, suggest little of the hazardous waste being transported to this underground repository, where it’s to be stored for 10,000 years.
How can people that far removed from us be warned away from these dangerous sites? In one case are drawings from Michael Brill and Safdar Abidi’s “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (1993) that envisions “a permanent, passive marker system, capable of surviving and communicating with humans for 10,000 years into the future.” One shows a “Spike Field” with menacing points; another proposes a “Black Hole” that would cover the area with black concrete or granite, making it uninhabitable. Yet with WIPP having a 2014 accidental radiation release — caused by the use of the wrong cat litter for absorbing liquid nuclear waste — concerns are still on keeping it safe and secure in the present. On a smaller scale, Erich Berger and Mari Keto’s “Open Care” (2016) imagines nuclear waste passed down through heirloom objects — bronze disks pocked with steel pellets — through which each person would take responsibility for monitoring its storage.
A problem that stretches thousands of years into the future can be easy to overlook, but it is permanently changing the world. Art can only do so much, and any real change will have to involve the commercial and federal powers that profit from and control these industries. Nevertheless, as Lamensdorf stated, artists can still “document and represent this insidious and invisible material in a visible way.”
Hot Spots: Radioactivity and the Landscape continues through December 8 at UB Art Gallery (North Campus, University at Buffalo, 201 Center for the Arts, Buffalo, New York).
The University at Buffalo arranged for the author’s travel to the exhibition.