When UNLV history professor Andrew Kirk visited previous atomic bomb test sites around the world he found people making art. “Art was a common thread,” he states, “from the Pacific Islands to Nevada; Kazakhstan to Australia.”
Art was a method for individuals to process an experience with no historical precedent.
“Much of this work was done by novices who would not have actually determined as artists and never ever planned this atomic art brut to be seen,” says Kirk. “It was on their own, their peers and their families. I was particularly interested by fancy designs of secret equipment made by miners to accomplish test requirements … They have a fantastic sculptural quality.
Recognizing his interest in cooperations between art, science, and history, the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art asked him if he wish to comment on a series of art works– presently on exhibit: the Poisonous Archives drawings of Joan Linder. Most of Linder’s illustrations concentrate on nuclear tests, as Kirk carried out in his recent book, Doom Towns: the People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing.
Both the historian and the artist have actually faced the issues of historic truth. In their different methods, they are working to present proof to today’s audiences so that significant events of the past are not forgotten, ignored, or misjudged.
But how can we prevent mistake? How do we form an idea of a time so near to our own and yet various? How do we acknowledge the ongoing results of those previous acts?
Kirk recommends that art becomes part of the answer. He proposes a holistic discussion of history that not just considers all media as source product, however also utilizes them easily to illuminate its own conclusions. “Showing the info in a series of accessible formats draws readers into the story from different angles and prevents the trap of polarized interpretations.”
This is the point of view he brings to Toxic Archives. Instead of drawing images of bombs or explosions, Linder thoroughly recreated pages from government files tape-recording various experiments that were performed in the aftermath. Every typed letter in the original record was individually recreated by hand. “Recovery of Radioactive Iodine and Strontium from Human Urine,” reads one of her drawings. “Operation Teapot. November 1955.”
“The Excretion of Hexavalent Uranium Following Intravenous Administration,” states another. “Research studies of Human Topics. Report Received: 6/25/46.”
From a distance the artworks could be misinterpreted for copies. At close quarters they expose themselves as the artist’s slow meditations on the minutiae of the past. Even the brown circle of a coffee cup stain has been remade with watercolor paint. “Human Radiation Studies” say the words above the ring.
Kirk notes the mankind of her method. The stain “reminds us that, crazy as these files appear, they were genuine and part of the work-a-day world of some common people,” he says. It helps our imaginations. “What was it like for the ordinary individuals who usually didn’t even have access to important info about what they were doing? So the concentrate on the normal and the mundane deals totally brand-new insights about this history.”
He goes on making connections between research study and presentation. “Since I had the chance to experience historical actors and their universe of artifacts and art they produced and gathered to make sense of their own experiences, it was obviously important to me to try and catch some of that amazing variety of sources in book kind. Linder’s art does something comparable by refusing to just drop things into a familiar direct format. In the process, viewers and readers get to see simply how complicated, intriguing, and disturbing all this truly was.”
In Doom Towns he reproduces not just first-hand witness transcripts and formal letters about scientific projects, however also ephemera like a scrappy “Job Ranger” participation certificate distributed by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1951. In an uncommon relocation, he also commissioned the artist Kristian Purcell to transform his source product into a graphic unique so that readers could see the details cohering in a different method.
In a similar vein, Harmful Archives includes drawings of old advertisements for hazardous waste compactors and panels from a 1963 Marvel comic book in which the bad guy Loki needs to be sealed inside a lead-lined tank after he gets radioactive superpowers. We see how the world looked as atomic science moved into the mainstream vernacular, ending up being a pop culture trope.
A comic book like this can be considered as a commercial variation of the personal art works that Kirk saw people developing “for themselves, their peers and their families.”
“Remembrance takes on a special significance with things atomic,” he concludes. “The incomprehensible geologic times associated with going over atomic traditions is one reason individuals will constantly need to keep believing and wondering and memorializing this history. Many people are never ever going to dig deep into archives to see historic documents, which makes work like Linder’s so crucial. Her art brings life to main files that could be dismissed as outdated antiques.”
We can reflect that both Kirk’s book and Linder’s art works are now atomic artifacts too. They have taken their place in time and history beside everything they document. And, in the future, individuals might study them too.