Jack Kerouac, as Sal Paradise once said: "I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till i drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion." And I think that's a rather apt description of my blog over the years, and perhaps the most perfect description of me in general that I've ever read. So that's what this blog is, a collection of the falling stars that are beckoning me at any time.

11 August 2006

Nuclear Dichotomies

Originally uploaded by sockmonkeyrevolt.
The Bemis Underground's new show, Nuclear Dichotomies, is an interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying pairing of history and art.

Curator Tim Guthrie has attempted to fuse together informative and often poignant historical artifacts, archival materials and interactive displays with artworks which are at times technically skillful, but devoid of depth or contextual intensity and at others woefully cliched and resemblant of an artist's first experiments in different mediums. The result is visually cluttered and frustrating in its lack of artistic enlightenment on a subject that's been so prominently on the world's mind for the last 60 years, you wouldn't think it tough to find something to say on its relevance to our lives today.

It's a shame that the encaustic work 'Sworg Shot' is buried in the most easily missed corner of the gallery, as it is really the only painting with any complexity. Instead we find, in a position of prominence, 'Sabre Rattling,' an inexplicably cliche, five-foot digital painting printed on vinyl of a man on horseback carrying a sword and wearing a chemsuit gas mask (which I think might be the most embarrassingly naff artwork to come from a professional artist.) along with a painfully juvenile attempt to mix a mushroom cloud with religious icon. Guthrie's numerous encaustic and digital portraits are aesthetically pleasing, but do little to stimulate the mind or add relevance to the theme of the show.

Despite the failings of the art side of the equation to be moving, the historical side does provide depth and emotion and, at times, striking beauty. Throughout the gallery are several artifacts from the bombings of Japan; most displayed beneath blown glass bells which are as warped and alien looking as the melted, seared and broken items themselves. It's hard not to look at the charred remains of a child's tricycle and not think of the carefree times humanity itself has lost since the dawn of the nuclear age. Likewise, for all the assertations of the press releases that science and art are a dichotomy, it's easy to find artistic beauty in the film footage of the blasts from the US nuclear testing program whilst being awed by their destructive power.

One of the most successful art pieces in the show is actually an artistic re-invisioning of archival footage. 'Recalling Trinity' is an animated short featuring Robert Oppenheimer's thoughts on the first nuclear test, nicknamed Trinity. The animation invovles replacing archival footage with re-imagined frames recalling the current obsession with rotoscope animation, but the handpainted frames here give the work a frentic quality that reminds me of early Bill Plympton (though, of course, they lack the surreal humour of Plymptoons.)

It's in these pieces of history that the viewer is challenged to consider our current relationships with the nuclear and therefore they are as much art as they are science and far more powerful than any of the intentional art. The naivete of the Department of Defence's nuclear attack preparedness materials, advising 60s era families that hiding behind their sofa would somehow save them from a nuking seems an amusing collection until you remember the equally absurd materials put out only three years ago by Homeland Security, offering up duct tape and rubbish bags as a way to biological weapon/dirty bomb proof your home.

Nuclear Dichotomies also offers several attractively designed, highly informative and interactive displays outlining the history of the nuclear testing program in the United States, interviews with survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and various radio and film materials from the early Cold War era.

Better curating and some serious editing in the form of scrapping the vast majority of the portraits and paintings, which were too numerous and made for a very crowded and cramped feeling in the gallery in the first place, could have benefited the exhibition.

For what it's worth, my favourite piece was a series of viewmaster slides from the 50s and 60s of various vacation spots. They seem just like average tourist shots until you notice mushroom clouds looming ominously in the background behind oblivious tourists. They're all the more intriguing for the tension created in wondering if they're altered or merely amazingly spooky happenstance. Whether they're ferreted out or brilliantly subtle fakes, they almost make up for 'Sabre Rattling.'

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