Installation view of From Dust, 2020–2021, Southern Utah Art Museum of Art (all images courtesy Cara Despain)

CEDAR CITY, UTTaking a three-pronged approach, Cara Despain’s From Dust addresses the nuclear testing program which rained down on the American West for four decades. Despain’s work not only lays bare that dark chapter in US history when the government knowingly dropped megatons of fissile material onto its own soil, but highlights the betrayal of public trust and abuse of power committed in the name of national security. Though currently based in Miami, Despain was raised and educated in Utah, and most of her practice has explored the injustices and eccentricities of this region.

Visitors are introduced to the magnitude of the phenomenon in “Iodine-131” (2020), a low relief sculpture that hangs on the wall. Created by feeding Google satellite imagery of the 1360 square mile Nevada Test Site into a 3D printer, the resulting 4 x 4 foot topography is printed in gypsum concrete and reveals a central plain flanked by two mountain ranges. Looking closer, one notices the hundreds of pockmarks dotting the geo-accurately rendered area. The realization that these depressions still exist today as massive craters formed by the nuclear detonations is chilling, their numbers unfathomable.

Cara Despain, “Iodine-131” (2020), 47 x 47 inches

Nearby, “on the record: hot milk / yellow cake” (2020)  plays oral histories of those impacted on a vintage portable turntable: the stories of downwinders living in the path of radioactive fallout converge with those of Uranium miners who unknowingly dumped toxic waste onto Native American lands. Accounts of the headaches, cancers, and deaths conjure nausea, but to hear them recounted in the victims’ own trembling voices adds another dimension to storytelling that could otherwise feel detached. 

Buried throughout these recordings we find statements made by US military personnel about the expendability of American lives. One states plainly that Mormon communities will not question government activities because “of the religion’s authoritarian culture, [Mormons] are used to accepting authority.” Even more heart-breaking is the veracity of the statement. Due to growing  patriotism following WWII, many residents of Southern Utah did not question the detonations; they faithfully read the government-issued pamphlets, took the iodine tablets and climbed up onto nearby mesas to watch the flashing mushroom clouds. School children “ducked and covered” under their desks, all because the government told them it was safe.  

Cara Despain, “Monument” (2020), digital video, loop

The final indictment in Despain’s work implicates the viewer, and all those that deified the landscape by consuming its culture. “Monument” (2020) takes the form of a digital film fragment derived from a John Wayne Western. Here, Despain has edited the content and deleted Wayne’s hefty body, leaving only his signature cowboy hat and boots to swagger off into the sunset. A label explains that the cast and crew of Westerns filmed in this region received fatal exposures to nuclear dust, precipitating their early deaths. Repeating endlessly on a loop like the half-lives of deadly isotopes, only Wayne’s accoutrements remain to complete the scene. By obliterating Wayne’s body, Despain denies us of our beloved hero and implicates those who turned a blind eye to its irradiated landscape. Further  omissions continue today. While Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl all have monuments to remember victims of their nuclear histories, no such memorials exist in the US Southwest.  

From Dust continues through February 27, 2021 at the Southern Utah Museum of Art (351 W University  Boulevard, Cedar City, UT).

Alexandra Karl is a critic, curator and educator. Her website can be found at

One reply on “The Chilling, Little Known History of Nuclear Experiments in the US Southwest”

  1. Dear Ms. Karl,
    My father was in the Army Corps of Engineers and in 1951 was a military witness to one of the atomic blasts there. They were in trenches and brushed off the atomic dust with brooms.

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