I come from a generation that marched in the streets against nuclear energy. Nuclear energy = nuclear weapons = war. We did “die-ins” at the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach, with activist Tim Carpenter leading the battle; watched Bruce Springsteen kill it at the No Nukes concert at Madison Square Garden; donated money to Greenpeace; wrote to Congress members; and kept an eye squinted in the direction of the two giant domes at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
We weren't surprised in 1979 when the partial reactor meltdown (part human confusion/part machine error) at Three Mile Island happened. The explosion and fire, with the resulting spread of radiation, just a few years later at Chernobyl left us smugly nodding and saying, “Told you so.” As a hotbed issue, social inequities, AIDS, terrorism and health care soon pushed nuclear energy low on the list of concerns, and we didn't think much about it until it started being talked up as a potential “green” technology, with President Barack Obama even giving it the thumbs-up.
Then came the March 2011 tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi.
If local environmentalist and curator Mark Chamberlain's exhibit “Silent But Deadly: CHERNOBYL-FUKUSHIMA-SAN ONOFRE” at the intimate BC Space Gallery is any indication, the pitfalls of nuclear energy were never far from his mind, even during the relative quiet of the past decades. While his show asks fewer new questions than it does revive old-school concerns, all five artists in the show use the medium of photography to subtly bring our minds back to an issue too many have grown complacent about.
Ed Heckerman's Buddhist-influenced Glocal—Enso Rice Photograms are camera-less images created by laying objects onto photo-sensitive paper. Working in collaboration with people in Japan, Heckerman made mandalas with rice sent to him, the resulting photograms appear as X-rays of the country's food staple. Initially, the pictures have a “seen one, seen them all” feel, but each is unique, and with the passage of time, other images come to mind: the top of a reactor cooling tower, a cataract, a bullet hole, the crater of a volcano, a lesion, even the infamous Germs burn, sadly none as peaceful as the artist intended.
Too heavily Photoshopped to be strictly journalism, Ron Azevedo's tranquil photos of Chernobyl and the faded amusement parks of the abandoned Ukraine city of Pripyat reminded me of something out of the Silent Hill video games. If their intent is to make us think about catastrophe, the opposite is what actually happens: Their eerie grandeur is simply too stunning.
There isn't an individual in any of Kei Kobayashi's 60-plus black-and-white photos taken amid the various “caution zones” in and around Fukushima. A few cattle and a stray cat are the only living beings pictured amid the overgrown gardens, tools left miduse, abandoned homes, rotting fruit full of holes, quiet playgrounds and religious altars. Without a shred of the surreal omnipresent in Azevedo's work, some of the pictures are titled, some not, the only constant identification a Geiger counter reading at the bottom of the image.
Even more somber are advocacy journalist James Lerager's documentary images of architecture, including the structure built around the ravaged Chernobyl Reactor 4 now in an ominous state of decay (The Chernobyl Sarcophagus) and the local San Onofre plant (shut down in January 2012 after being inactive for a year, thanks to faulty generators and radiation leaks) and his picturesque Navajo scenery poisoned by mining (Jackpile Uranium Mine, Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico). Most poignant, he puts a human face on the collateral damage of nuclear contamination: His 1991 Post-Chernobyl Western Ukraine is a Madonna and child represented by a haggard nurse holding a naked, unsmiling young girl with multiple birth defects. In other photos, we see more children sickened with leukemia or retardation, cancer-ridden adults, as well as noble profiles of activists and whistleblowers in a host of different countries. Sobering in their emotional landscape, each of Lerager's compositions includes a brief background and contextual history of the shot, providing an eye-opening education along with the art.
If you have an hour free, I highly recommend you drop a few coins in the parking meter and watch Jun Hori's documentary Henshin (Metamorphosis). As powerful as all of the still photography on display, the Japanese reporter's film engages in ways that a frozen moment in time can't. Beginning with panicked footage shot at the Fukushima plant immediately following the explosion of Reactor 3, with voices screaming, “Get everyone out of here,” this wrenching film cuts between the uncertain families displaced by the multiple meltdowns, contrasting them with communities near the heavily contaminated Santa Susanna Field Laboratory in Ventura County and interviews with locals and activists at Three Mile Island.
Is the whole thing as depressing as it sounds? My perspective is you need to know what's going on if you're going to change things, and there's plenty of information on display to give any thinking person pause. Still, after watching the incompetency, evasion and flat-out lying by government institutions and corporations caught by Hori's camera, all I could think was that his final images of fireworks exploding in the sky seem a back-handed metaphor for the future meltdowns to come.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.