Consider the Bomb
by Gregory Woollgar
The atomic bomb is the figure of death looming over modernity. The promise of apocalypse has never been so close to humanity as it was during the Second World War and the Cold War. The irony is that this phenomenon was entirely self-propelled—it occurred through the guise of technological advancement. This pinnacle of science and technology, the atomic bomb, resulted from the splitting of the atom. Dividing the atom promised a resolution to all of humanity’s energy problems. Nuclear science proposed limitless energy potential to fuel our impulse for industrial progress. All was in our grasp. The flip side of this nuclear project was a destructive inclination. The splitting of the atom could also provide limitless military potential. The ability to obliterate any rival was a tantalizing prospect for military use. The pure energy capacity extracted from microscopic atoms could wipe out vast cities. Thus the United States set out to militarize the sole atom. This is the paradox of the bomb and the Atomic Age: nuclear science was heralded to bring about an improved quality of life for humanity, but in fact threatened entire annihilation of society. The bomb is the product of a hyperactive obsession with technological advancement and militarization leading to the horrors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The nuclear project is the apex of modernism and as such features prominently in Simon Starling’s work.
Simon Starling is eternally interested in the legacies of modernism as a launching point for his art practice. No site or idea from modernity could be riper for questioning than the legacy of the bomb. Simon Starling revisits this angel of death as a spectre haunting the histories of the 20th century and interrogates the complicity of art and design in this nuclear era. The connections between the bomb, art and popular culture have always been close. For example, Uranium’s radiation was discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel, who proved the principle of radioactivity through the observation of photographic film. The bikini swimsuit was unveiled to the public in 1946 in Paris, only days after the atomic bomb testing in Bikini Atoll. The ‘Peace Sign’ was designed in 1958 for the British nuclear disarmament movement by Gerald Holtom. Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) (2013 -2014) considers Henry Moore’s divisive sculpture, Nuclear Energy (1967) as a prime example of the connection between the bomb, art, and of the paradox of nuclear science.
The main figure in Simon Starling’s Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) is Henry Moore’s sculpture, Nuclear Energy. This work went through a vigorous and dubious process of disguise and reinvention during Henry Moore’s life. The mushroom cloud-shaped sculpture was envisioned and made into a plaster model in 1964, and then commissioned by the University of Chicago in 1966 to be cast as a large bronze monument. The commission commemorated the site of the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction overseen by Enrico Fermi. Later in 1970, Henry Moore invited photographer Errol Jackson to record him working on the already finished maquette in front of a formally similar elephant skull, which came into his possession well after completing the sculpture.* Years later, during the 1980s, Henry Moore was dissatisfied with the various connotations of his sculpture and possible complicity with the entire nuclear project. So he insisted a working model for Nuclear Energy be sold and displayed at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, under a new name Atom Piece.**
The question at hand surrounds the essence of this sculpture – is this the depiction of the productive potential of nuclear science or a critique of its destructive tendency or something entirely apolitical such as an elephant skull? Does Henry Moore celebrate modernism and the development of nuclear fission? Or does he see this practice as inherently flawed? More than likely, Moore was not fully aware of his complicity until decades into the Cold War when the immanence of nuclear proliferation had truly created a mark on public consciousness. Starling does not answer this question for us, but he does signal the multiplicity of interpretations in his project.
Simon Starling’s work can be viewed as a complex web of information that unfolds and leaps across time and space. He exposes expansive networks with numerous nodes marking the fascinating minutiae of sidebar histories. These stories transcend the confines of how we usually create history – trapped behind linear causalities. In Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), Starling bounds across seemingly unassociated histories and draws a map of relationships – he connects 16th century Japanese Noh play Eboshi-Ori, Henry Moore, the Manhattan Project, and James Bond. Though the project is complex, it does not come across as contrived, but rather each node is essential to the entire project. There is a certain poetic vision to Starling’s practice and how he addresses such divergent details with serendipity. Each aspect of the work acts like an atom orbiting a central nucleus, the base idea. His projects are always structured around a core. What is the center of Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), when so much of the play addresses instabilities?
The core of Starling’s practice is to affect transformations – to alter objects. He tinkers. The goal of these alterations is to change our relationship to objects and histories. He pursues an impact on public awareness of specific objects. One way to think of these transformations is through the title of one of Starling’s largest exhibits, Metamorphology at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Morphology is the science of the conversion of organisms—to turn one thing into another. The ideas of transformation and morphology are overtly present in Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) as Simon Starling manipulates Eboshi-ori to discuss the adaptations of a single sculpture through a Cold War history. At the heart of the project is this conversation about mutation.
So then, why the bomb? At the most basic level, the atomic bomb is the product of a transformation. The physical and chemical mutation is the splitting of the atom. Nuclear fission alters and separates a nucleus into isotopes. This instability creates potential for near limitless energy transfer. The product of this minuscule reaction can take on different, contradictory identities – energy for the world or a bomb to end the world. The sole chemical transformation of nuclear fission created vast destruction. The power of a single act of conversion has sent reverbs through history. In total, Simon Starling’s project reminds us of the potency of the act of transformation.
* Correia, Alice. “‘Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965 by Henry Moore OM, CH’ in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity”. Tate Research Publication. Web.
** Starling, Simon. “A nuclear masquerade.” Tate. Web.