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RENO, Nevada — The world’s first nuclear weapons explosion occurred on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico. Three weeks later, the world changed when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The power of nuclear weapons is typically evaluated by their human devastation, and not by the American landscape shaped by its testing. In the exhibition The Nuclear Landscape at the Nevada Museum of Art, artists document, imagine, and investigate how the testing sites of Nevada and New Mexico scar our soil and harass romantic images of the American West.
The tilted orientation of Emmet Gowin’s aerial photograph “Subsidence Craters on Yucca Flat, Nevada Test Site” (1997) feels spontaneously captured, like he discovered a strange land. However, the Yucca Flat is a Nevada desert drainage basin where 739 nuclear tests were carried out, making it the most irradiated nuclear-blasted spot on Earth, about an hour from Las Vegas. One hundred nuclear tests were conducted before 1963, when the Soviet Union and the United States signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which prohibited nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water, and in space, bringing an end to above-ground tests. The subsidence craters that scar the soil mimic crop circles but are the result of underground blasts. Explosives were inserted in shafts 300 to 1,600 feet below the ground and their detonations caused the Earth’s surface to sink from the void created by liquefied rock. Who needs Ancient Aliens on the History Channel or other conspiracy theories when science is more shocking?
Artist Peter Goin gained access to the nuclear test sites by foot in the series Nuclear Landscapes, the Nevada Test Site, 1985–1991. The most alarming photograph is “Accelerated Erosion” in which the soil appears to boil and freeze simultaneously. Rolling clouds make shadows on the distant foothills, which are walled-off from the cracking earth by a line of sage brush. The bizarre and beautiful image echoes Jack Malotte’s watercolor painting “The End” (1983), which depicts the government’s nuclear testing on Shoshone ancestral lands, challenging memories of the American frontier. There is no better example of the government’s abusive relationship with the environment than destroying stolen land.
The diverse photographic series of mushroom clouds, 100 Suns by Michael Light, orbits a gallery wall. Some clouds have spiky trunks and others have elegant candlestick stems. One has a blistering cap and the next is embraced by smooth, smoky rings. The violent and graceful forms are expanded in the painted series, Proof (2017) by Nevada artist Rachel Stiff; each shifting cloud shape is the result of a different alchemy.
What is achieved by making art about scientific experiments? Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer argued in “Truth and Method” (2004) that art is more than an aesthetic experience, that real knowledge can be gained:
Does not the experience of art contain a claim to truth which is certainly different from that of science, but just as certainly is not inferior to it? And is not the task of aesthetics precisely to ground the fact that the experience of art is a mode of knowledge of a unique kind…?
The Nuclear Landscape was developed as part of the NV STEAM Conference in partnership with the Desert Research Institute’s Science Alive program to explore educational practices in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM). Marisa Cooper, Education Director at the Nevada Museum of Art, stated in an email to Hyperallergic: “We wanted to show how art could serve as a window into complex issues, like Nevada’s relationship to nuclear testing, nuclear power, and nuclear waste storage.”
Images of the nuclear landscape do not only document a problem of the past. The soil may be unstable but it is not dead. Artist Chris Drury found microscopic soil bacteria known as Microcoleus vaginatus living in the Nevada Test Site. Drury painted the partial DNA gene sequence of the bacteria on the gallery wall with dirt from the test site, prompting questions about the risks of radiation to genetic mutation. It is a worthwhile reminder that something which seems isolated for lives outside Nevada and New Mexico can migrate through the land and air, scientifically or politically.
Art has often responded to emergencies and by doing so found hope for solutions. According to Cooper, educators have said that the exhibition opened a dialogue with students that was previously avoided. Still, this exhibition recalls and reevaluates the history that predicated our contemporary political conversation about nuclear warfare. The nuclear bomb is a strange symbol of American authority, often treated as if it occurred organically. But every empire’s claim to power eventually fades with the ravaged land as is its only relic.
The Nuclear Landscape continues at the Nevada Museum of Art (160 West Liberty Street, Reno, NV) through October 28.