Marisa Olson, Fall 2003-10-20
The year is 1952. Seven years have passed since Hitler committed suicide, effectively ending the Second World War. We are in the cradle of the atomic age. The US has 1,005 stockpiled nuclear weapons, the USSR, 50. It's Halloween and over 11,000 U.S. military personnel are suiting up at the Marshall Islands' Enewetak Atoll in the South Pacific. They are about to detonate "Mike," the very first high-yield two-stage thermonuclear device. It is not an exaggeration to say that nuclear weapons have changed our world, for on that day, 50 years ago, a handful of politicians briefly added a another sun to our universe. Experimentally releasing the energy of 10.4 million tons of TNT, "Mike" exceeded the firepower of all weapons detonated in World War I and II, combined, and operated on the same energy principal as the stars.
Artist Michael Light's newest project gathers 100 of these nuclear "suns", or small stars - "thermonuclear furnaces", as Light calls them -- in a book to be released in five languages this October, with Knopf publishing the American edition. Half of the images are of tests taking place on land, while half are over water. None of the images in Light's book were taken by the photographer whose name is listed as its author. As with the artist's high-profile FULL MOON project, in which he made use of NASA public domain images from Apollo, 100 SUNS is the fruit of Light's creative appropriation of existing images.
The images were taken mostly by military personnel stationed at the Hollywood-based Lookout Mountain Air Force Station. These documentarians had, at their disposal, a show-biz arsenal of cameras and equipment. Light has reproduced the images with faithful accuracy, choosing not to edit or "touch-up" the images, thus preserving the perspective of the photographer. The resulting byproduct is a visual timeline of the mutual evolution of photographic and nuclear technologies. The photos got better as the bomb got bigger. And, of course, the photos were quickly and widely accessible, in the heat of a Cold War that led the US to rapidly declassify images that would demonstrate its firepower to the world. Not surprisingly, the tests had a reciprocal effect on Hollywood.
In fact, Light's project is laden with filmic references. Let us not forget that a "photo-graph" is a "light-drawing", so that presenting photos of the light of the "suns" is, therefore a self-reflexive meta-level practice a light drawing of a light-impression. The images in the book are laid out to read almost as a film strip, each image existing as part of a larger series. Given a specific sequence, Light expands the story from one frame to the next, land-based version giving way to water-world sequels. Image 37, "Zucchini", establishes the quasi-cinematic field in which the tests took place. Rows of bleachers find members of the Canadian and British military observing a detonation 13 miles away. The image of the eager men, lined up in awe, bespectacled in darkened shades, bears a striking resemblance to images of theatre-goers of the same age, perhaps donning 3-D glasses in order to best capture the sci-fi "masterpiece" illuminated before them.
Indeed, the best filmic reference may not be to science fiction for the action flick, but to porn. The military gave their bombs names like "Fox," "Sugar," "Romeo," and "Climax" (part of "Operation Upshot-Knothole," a June 1953 fission bomb test orchestrated at 1,334 feet above a Nevada desert, creating a fireball with a life span six times longer than its predecessors and an invisible blast of heat that set the earth ablaze five miles away). The grins smeared on the faces of the men in "Zucchini" come as a result of witnessing a mind-blowing demonstration of earth-shattering prowess. A less-than-visceral response would be impossible. These men knew then what Hollywood knows now war is sexy, bombs are radiant, nuclear technology is smashing. But if 100 SUNS is as much a film as a book, its relationship with porn extends to a similarity in effect. What might once have made a shutter shudder now verges on optical populism. Eventually the viewer moves beyond shock, to a state of visual overload. The climax here is no petit mort (France's "small death" of the orgasm) but the ultimate realization that we are witnessing traces of the technology that yielded hundreds of thousands of dead, in Japan, and multiple generations of genetic deformity, as seen at Chernobyl. Light says that it's not uncommon for him to receive a call the morning after someone sees the work, saying that they have experienced nightmares after witnessing the "brilliant human savagery" therein. In a bittersweet way, this points to a fact on which the book's brilliance hinges. We are witnessing the sublime. The tests, and the resulting images, are simultaneously beautiful and horrific, hedonistic and pestilent.
It might seem easy to draw parallels between the subject of 100 SUNS and the contemporary political climate. After all, we now live in a world in which the letters WMD can stand alone, easily recognized as an acronym for weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the experiments in 100 SUNS unfolded largely in a time of "peace," when the US was not embroiled in a war. Some argue that it is precisely the existence of nuclear weapons that made that peace possible. The USSR stopped its tests in 1990 (13 months prior to its dissolution) and the US claims to have followed suit just two years later, just after the first Iraq war. But such an argument for nuclear weapons might call upon us to rethink our definition of "peace," however -- for the absence of an officially declared war is not peace, and the US has been entrenched in non-war "police actions" nearly every year since World War II ended. This is to say nothing of the violent impacts of our homeland nuclear experiments, both offshore and on the continental United States. After years of protest, thousands of Nevada, Utah and Marshall Islands residents are quietly receiving government-inked checks meant to soften the blow of their fallout cancers and medical quandaries. And there is so much more of which we are surely unaware.
This is one of the motives for Light's project. "One cannot help but wonder what, as citizens, we still do not know about the subject of nuclear weapons, not only in the sense of the surreal excesses of the Cold War past, but in terms of the hidden, weaponized nuclear present that will be with us as long as we know time," he says. Light has returned to Bikini Atoll, currently uninhabitable due to radioactive contamination, to take new aerial images of the spaces in which the suns erupted, "with the conceit of being there as a witness in the 1950s and imaging the bomb myself as a photographer." He is also at work editing underwater footage taken at Bikini. The video, aerial photos and reprints of the archival images will be presented in an exhibition at San Franciscošs Hosfelt Gallery opening October 18 and running through November 27, and plans are underway to tour the work.
While it is only fitting that the verite of virtuoso destruction be captured by the "faithful" eye of the camera, ultimately, Light admits, seeing is not knowing. "Photographs only tell us about the surface of things, about how things look. When it's all we have, however, it's enough to help understanding. It exists. It happened. It is happening. May no further nuclear detonation photographs be made, ever."
Š PLANET magazine, Fall 2003, All Rights Reserved