Alchemical uncertainty at Boulder MOCA
Sept. 26-Dec. 27, 2008
Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art
1750 13th Street
Entering the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art I am unsure what to expect from an exhibition about scientific experiments conducted on American citizens during the cold war and the age of nuclear fear. My husband, who is ten years older than me, remembers the drills at school, going to the bomb shelter, hiding under a desk, as if that would really help.
I am drawn to the large abstracted image mounted on acrylic or plexi glass. It’s organic, possibly cellular, human maybe. Horribly beautiful. It’s a blow up of a glass negative that artist Erika Wanenmacher found at a surplus store in Los Alamos, New Mexico¬¬–photographic images from a microscope ranging in magnification from 1,000 to 60,000x. It turns out they are mostly mammalian collagen connective tissue. She writes in her artist statement that they had the worst resonance of anything she had ever touched.
“They just felt ‘BAD.’ I let them sit in my studio for a couple years and sort of ‘off gas.’ They started to tell me stories.”
The Science Club is a collection of sculptural installations. In 1993, a reporter from the Albuquerque Tribune, Eileen Welsome published a series of stories about radiation experiments conducted on humans by the U.S. government from the 1940s to the 1970s. Those studied were primarily the poor, minorities, pregnant women, soldiers, and children. Welsome went on to write a book in 1999 called The Plutonium Files. At a state institution for retarded children in Massachusetts, scientists at M.I.T. conducted experiments on children, exposing them to radiation. In order to get the children to participate, they called the studies “The Science Club.”
Wanenmacher provides the viewer with rooms all in black and gray, circa 1950s–1960s. An accompanying audio component provides a fictionalized, first person narrative of a boy growing up in Los Alamos. Atomic insignia’s are everywhere. Even MAD Magazine is black, white and gray. I loved the paint-by-number paintings of the Hiroshima bomb blasts done in black, white and shades of grey. Curtains blow in the breeze against a window open to blackness. A short wave radio crackles with the boys’ story. It’s a bit creepy, all the glorification of nuclear and scientific exploration and the lack of color.
In another room, Wanenmacher, guides the viewer on a spiritual quest to rid them of the negativity. A bronze eyeball projects an image onto a floating screen. It sets amidst a pentagram on the floor. The artist herself leads the spell, calls the four directions and then the video follows her in the set up of the screen and projector. I wanted more magic, more mysticism, more cleansing. But perhaps, there is not enough to wash clean the horrible evil, the destructive power of the atomic bomb.
Wanenmacher’s work is guided by the principles of alchemy and the belief that each object made is a spell with the unlimited possibility for change and remediation. But I left the exhibit feeling exposed, radiated, and almost as uncomfortable as I felt when visiting the museum in Los Alamos tracing the history of the Little Boy and Fat Man following the successful detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon at the Trinity test site–uncertain about the options for change and remediation when it comes to weapons of mass destruction.
Leanne Goebel is a member of the International Association of Art Critics and a 2007 recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation | Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant.