At the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 17
Blaine Campbell’s 2017 colour photograph The Last Days no. 1 depicts a nuclear-attack warning siren, installed in a leafy North Vancouver neighbourhood in 1960. Not tested since 1968, it remains in place as an “artifact” of the hottest years of the Cold War. It stands, too, as a public reminder of a time when Canadian and American schoolchildren were faced with the prospect of running home to their basement bomb shelters when sirens sounded, or remaining behind, crouched under their desks and crying for their mothers.
One of the many powerful works in BOMBHEAD at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Campbell’s image speaks not only to the Cold War period of nuclear anxiety, but also to our current age of renewed nuclear brinkmanship. As guest curator John O’Brian has written in a small publication designed to resemble a 1960s nuclear-preparedness pamphlet, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union folded many of us into a state of complacency.
Not O’Brian, however, who has channelled his personal doomsday fears into collecting, publishing, and exhibiting archival materials and ephemera related to the age of both horror and false hope ushered in by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. (Of note is his 2011 book Atomic Postcards, coauthored with Jeremy Borsos.)
Much of that ephemera is on view in BOMBHEAD, as a complement to a wide range of drawings, paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures, and videos surveying ways artists have responded to and shaped our understanding of the nuclear threat.
Selected mostly from the VAG’s permanent collection, the works are organized around themes of fear, protest, documentation, and “The Bomb”, and include Nancy Spero’s outraged gouache and ink drawings from her "War Series"; Robert Keziere’s intimate and engaging photos of the first Greenpeace voyage; John Scott’s expressionistic drawing of a demonic figure composed of heaped skulls; Erin Siddall’s quietly anecdotal, post-Fukushima-meltdown video; Carel Moiseiwitsch’s powerful lithographs of missile-laden warplanes; and Ishiuchi Miyako’s heart-stopping photographs of the burned and bloodied clothing worn by victims of the Hiroshima bombing.
Also on view are Mark Ruwedel’s haunting black-and-white photos of nuclear test sites in the Nevada desert; Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed-media Hot Shot from 1983, opposing the proposed nuclearization of space; and Bruce Conner’s photomontage Bombhead, from which the show draws its title. This widely reproduced work depicts the upper body of a uniformed soldier, his neck and head replaced by a mushroom cloud. As writer Blake Fitzpatrick has observed, the mushroom cloud was the “photographic icon that made the Bomb visible from the end of the Second World War through much of the Cold War”.
More recently, photographers such as Ruwedel and Canada’s Robert Del Tredici, founder of the Atomic Photographers Guild, have looked for other ways of bringing the nuclear subject into visibility by representing the people, sites, and objects connected with it. Del Tredici’s photos, including pages from his 1987 book At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, alert us to Canada’s significant role in the production of the first atomic bomb and our country’s continued investment in the nuclear industry, military and civilian. The postapocalyptic landscape in Del Tredici’s shot of the Stanrock tailings wall at Elliot Lake, Ontario, reads as a condensed treatise on the environmental threats posed by uranium mining and refining.
A number of works in the show function metaphorically rather than literally. Among them is Roy Kiyooka’s poetic photo-text series "StoneDGloves". Here, Kiyooka’s images of ragged cotton gloves, discarded by workers at the Expo 70 site in Osaka, Japan, and inadvertently hardened by a mixture of concrete and rainwater, are interpreted through an atomic lens. Shredded, twisted, unravelling, they seem to symbolize the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
BOMBHEAD is an extraordinary show, and a striking testament to the abilities of our best artists to respond to the times in which they—and we—most anxiously dwell.