After prolonged dormancy, Cold War-era tropes about the dangers of radioactivity have exploded back into the popular consciousness. This re-emergent fascination is proved by critical and popular acclaim lauded on HBO’s Chernobyl. The show is so popular that it’s spawned a growing tourism industry for the irradiated area around the now-contained meltdown. While it’s supposedly safe to visit the nearby ghost town of Pripyat, and to view the reactor under its massive, gleaming sarcophagus, questions linger as to how benign the area really is. With this in mind, Invisible Colors: The Arts of the Atomic Age by Gabrielle Decamous (MIT Press) arrives on bookshelves at a fitting time. Specifically, Decamous is concerned with the artworks that radiation inspired.
The book is organized geographically, coursing around the globe from well-known “nuclear events” like Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and, of course, Chernobyl) to the plights of subalterned peoples in New Jersey and uranium mines in Saskatchewan, Czechoslovakia, Niger, and elsewhere. Unlike the tourists visiting Chernobyl today, nearly everyone Decamous addresses was exposed to radiation over days, weeks, and even decades — and typically without informed consent.
The chapters that focus on the effects of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki envelop us in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Decamous emphasizes the suddenness of the attack, the surprise and confusion following the blinding white light that incinerated of tens of thousands of people in a matter of seconds. Much of the art produced by these hibakusha — Japanese for a survivor of the bomb, and a term the author uses for any survivor of the events depicted throughout the book — was literature. Novels and autobiographies poured out of survivors who witnessed the bombs’ lingering effects. The bomb caused lifelong, chronic ailments, ranging from body-covering burns to blindness to cancer to birth defects.
Several midcentury Japanese artists also merged visual art with literary flourishes. Married artists Maruki Toshi and Iri, for instance, created a renowned series of painted works known collectively as The Hiroshima Panels. These 15 folded panels are black and white, with touches of red for atomic fire; they recreate Hiroshima before, during, and after the blasts. The works are notable not only for their harrowing, heartbreaking account of the detonation, but also for the Marukis’ choice to prominently include depictions of Korean nationals and American POWs among the dead and dying.
The Marukis felt that the all-encompassing carnage of these events could not be captured in any one media, so they included poems as well. Reflecting on this body of work in 1985, they recounted, “We don’t paint these subjects because we enjoy painting them. It’s not out of some desire to do something for humanity or to make a point. We painted the bomb because we had seen Hiroshima, and we thought there had to be some record of what had happened.”
Artists around the world echo the Marukis’ call for recognition. Decamous reveals time and again that nations with nuclear powers retain these weapons, in part, by silencing those who have been harmed by their fallout. Her history of art-making throughout Oceania is especially poignant. The author describes how the US and Europe have historically viewed the region as “an appendage, an empty space, and thus one that does not exist for others.” France alone conducted 181 nuclear tests in Polynesia from the 1960s and into the 1990s, 41 of which were atmospheric. The air was so choked by poison that radioactive material fell with the rain on Christchurch in New Zealand.
The people on islands like Moruroa and Fantagataufa sought independence from France, for the basic right to self-determination as well as to free themselves from the scourge of radiation brought on by the French. Poetry became the preferred way for Moruroans and Fantagataufans to express their outrage, to challenge the silence their plight registered in Paris and the rest of the world. This longing for recognition and freedom can be felt in “Wave-Song,” a poem by the New Caledonian politician and writer Déwé Gorodé, from her collection Under the Ashes of the Conch Shells.
In this sun
the earth all around
is empty of water
Only the endless wave-song
beyond the barb-wire
is a lullaby that rocks our enclosed and watchful sleep
beneath the huge white mushroom cloud infecting the sky over Mururoa […]
Beyond the aforementioned works, Decamous discusses the motif of nuclear destruction in pop culture (for instance, songs by Iron Maiden and monster movies) and esoterica (e.g., handkerchiefs designed by children to raise money following the Fukushima disaster). Her incisive commentary helps us understand that the nuclear threat has never ceased. It’s never been limited to some distant locale or time period. We — those with power and those who are silenced — live and die with its murderous potential.
The mushroom cloud silences those in its path, and causes nearly everyone else such dread that we’d rather forget it. The art and literature in Invisible Colors turn our gaze toward the blinding fury of the atom’s explosion, which gazes back with our silent participation in its singular purpose to raze and slaughter.