Duck and Cover-up

"Atomic City" Doesn't quite reveal the whole truth of our curious relationship with Nukes

"Atomic City" does provide the visitor with some lasting images. Downtown Los Angeles is shown illuminated by the flash of bombs exploded at the Nevada Test Site, 70 miles north of Las Vegas. A photo from November 1997 shows a truck carrying radioactive waste overturned on the 5 freeway. Then there's the plan by LA's Department of Water and Power to build a nuclear power plant on an artificial island off Huntington Beach.

But the exhibit's commentary is so understated that those images are likely to leave visitors with only a vague sense of nostalgia. This isn't just disappointing —it is surprising. The exhibit is curated by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), an organization in the vanguard of the campaign against nuclear weapons since the 1950s. But then again, perhaps the exhibit's extreme reticence is a wise tactic for dealing with a controversial topic in Orange County. There have been recent, painful lessons in curatorial politics: when the Orange County Museum of Art's satellite branch in the South Coast Mall displayed silk-screens of Mao by Andy Warhol, they received phone calls demanding the removal of the Communist icon. And a show featuring contemporary Vietnamese paintings brought an angry mob of protesters to the Bowers Museum last year.

But PSR has an admirable record of standing up to red-baiting, so discretion may have nothing to do with how the show was assembled.

Whatever the reason, it's a shame. Orange County is home to many people who work for weapons manufacturers (or defense contractors, if you prefer the political vernacular). It is bookended by a large naval weapons station and a rather worrisome nuclear power plant; it is precisely the sort of place whose people need to examine "our region's curious relationship with nuclear technology." "Atomic City" is, at best, a first tentative step.

PANEL DISCUSSION OF "ATOMIC CITY: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA IN THE NUCLEAR AGE" at OLD COURTHOUSE MUSEUM, 211 W. SANTA ANA BLVD., SANTA ANA, (310) 458-2694. FEATURED SPEAKERS INCLUDE UC IRVINE PROFESSOR JON WIENER, ACTIVIST TIM CARPENTER, PSR'S JONATHAN PARFREY AND CAL STATE FULLERTON PROFESSOR DAN BROWN. SUN., 4 P.M. FREE. EXHIBIT HOURS, MON.-FRI., 8 A.M.-6 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 11.

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