Art exhibition “Hot Spots: Radioactivity and Landscape” makes the invisible visible
By Jodi Heckel
Illinois leads the nation in the amount of energy it produces from nuclear sources. But the aftermath of its production often is unseen.
An exhibition that opened at Krannert Art Museum (KAM) in October seeks to make visible the long-term impact of the nuclear industry, particularly issues surrounding radioactive waste. “Hot Spots: Radioactivity and the Landscape” features the work of a variety of artists and collectives. It opened at KAM on Oct. 17 and runs through March 21.
The exhibition was organized by the University of Buffalo Art Galleries and inspired by the role the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area played in the Manhattan Project; the radioactive waste being stored at sites such as the Niagara Falls Storage Site; and the “hot spots” from radioactive slag once used as backfill in roads and parking lots there.
“This exhibition is about slow violence and how toxic waste has a duration we cannot compute. It outlives humans,” said Amy Powell, KAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art.
Illinois is close to these issues as well. In addition to the state’s reliance on nuclear energy to generate electricity, the University of Illinois is a pioneer of research on nuclear power generation.
Much of the artwork focuses on landscape. The exhibition includes Native artists depicting lands and people affected by nuclear tests.
“The nuclear testing legacy is in our lands, in our waters, in our air. Certain people bore the consequences of that more than others, depending on where they lived. The exhibition is inviting us to look at what can be a very invisible legacy and make it visible,” said Kevin Hamilton, the dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts and an artist who co-wrote a book on the Air Force film studio that photographed America’s nuclear tests.
Hamilton said his research and the exhibition parallel one another in terms of looking at efforts to control information and knowledge.
“It shows you that images are really important to this whole debate,” Hamilton said. His research showed how “the Pentagon and the Atomic Energy Commission were using images to try to control opinion, try to control fear. In the exhibition, the artists understand that it’s at the site of images that we can discover new ways of seeing these debates and seeing the effects of these technologies.”
For example, Italian architect Ludovico Centis mapped the sites connected with the Manhattan Project, which led to the first atomic bomb; nuclear weapons complex sites; and the National Park Service’s Manhattan Project National Historic Park sites. His maps are on view in the exhibition, and Hamilton said they will connect viewers and their homes to the nuclear industry.
“One map is looking at patterns of fallout around the country during the testing era,” Hamilton said. “Anyone looking at these maps immediately is going to look for their hometown, then think, ‘Oh, there’s something that’s closer than I thought.’ People think all that testing happened out there in the ocean, in the desert.”
Jamie Jones, a U. of I. English professor who researches how energy sources are represented in literature, art and popular culture, plans to use the exhibition with her environmental writing students.
“It’s really exciting and productive to bring students to the museum to interact with visual objects. They’ll have to think about how to be interpreters and make reliable, responsible meaning out of these objects,” Jones said.
Her spring semester environmental writing class will create a field guide to the local nuclear landscape that will look at the history and effect of the energy industry, nuclear weaponry and activism on campus and in Champaign-Urbana, and how the legacies of the Cold War are embedded in the landscape.
“This exhibition is the perfect opportunity to think about how this energy and infrastructure intersect with everyday environments. It will be a great case study for my students,” Jones said.
Among the works in the exhibition are “uranotypes,” or uranium prints, of radioactive waste sites. Photographer Abbey Hepner exposed the photographs using uranium and a surface sensitive to the heavy metal. One of her photographs will be shown with a Geiger counter attached to it, measuring the radioactivity of the print.
Native artist Naomi Bebo creates beaded masks using Native American beading traditions on gas masks used in war. Her work “Woodland Child” features a child-sized mannequin in a beaded gas mask.
“AIR: Confluence of Three Generations,” by Navajo photographer Will Wilson, is a composite image of Wilson, his daughter and his mother standing on Navajo land overlooking the Grand Canyon. He and his daughter are wearing gas masks. The photograph is part of his multimedia series “AIR (Auto Immune Response),” a post-apocalyptic journey through a beautiful but toxic environment.
The largest object in the exhibition is a 27-foot-long missile cozy created by sculptor Elizabeth Demaray from 88 yards of light-blue quilted satin cloth. For “Sticks and Stones: The Nike Missile Cozy Project,” she wrapped the cozy around a Nike Hercules missile at a decommissioned military base in California. She later stuffed the cozy so it could be shown at art exhibitions.
“This exhibition creates not just a space to stimulate discussion, but a space to hold a discussion,” Hamilton said. “I’d love to see students, classes and community groups talking about what they’re learning in front of the work, what has happened here and how we can learn who in Illinois has been affected by nuclear technologies.”
This article first appeared on the University of Illinois Krannert Art Museum website and is republished with kind permission. All photos permission of KAM. Headline photo is by Will Wilson, AIR: Confluence of 3 Generations, 2015. Archival pigment print on paper. Courtesy of the artist, willwilson.photoshelter.com © Will Wilson.