Eighteen artists and collectives — some international, but mostly U.S.-based — collaborated to create “Hot Spots: Radioactivity and the Landscape,” a multimedia exhibition reflecting on the environmental impact left in the wake of military as well as industrial production and use of radioactive materials.
The exhibition was organized by independent curator Jennie Lamensdorf and Joan Linder, associate professor and chair of the University at Buffalo (UB) Department of Art. It was first seen at UB Art Galleries in the fall of 2018 before making its way to the Krannert Art Museum (KAM) last September.
By far the largest work in the exhibition is Elizabeth Demarey’s The Nike Missile Cozy Project. In 2001, Brooklyn-based Demarey created a 27-foot-long blue satin cover for a decommissioned 10-ton nuclear warhead tipped Nike Hercules missile.
She later created a lifesize soft sculpture to wrap the covering around — a Cold War symbol that takes up a whole room, impotently slumped on a row of sawhorses.
Nuclear waste has had a disproportionate impact on Native American lands in the Southwest, and Native American artists are prominently featured in the exhibition.
AIR: Confluence of Three Generations is part of AIR (Auto Immune Response) (2017), a multimedia series by Navajo artists Will Wilson, who described the project as “a post-apocalyptic Navajo man’s journey through an uninhabited landscape.” In this composite image, Wilson, his daughter — both wearing masks — and his mother stand on Navajo land overlooking the Grand Canyon.
Woodland Child in Gas Mask is part of a series produced between 2010 and 2015 by Naomi Bebo of the Menominee and Ho-Chunk nations. The series applies Native American beading traditions to gas masks used in war.
Isao Hashimoto, a curator at Lalique Museum in Hakone, Japan, created in 2003 an 8-bit video game-style animation depicting the 2,053 known nuclear detonations between 1945 and 1998 — appropriately titled 1945-1998.
Some of the featured artists went beyond advocacy and into activism, such as printmaker Adele Henderson, an associate professor of art at UB, often uses mapping to depict visible as well as invisible forces and structures of power.
Back in 2010, Henderson created Tonawanda Map, which depicts a stretch of the Niagara River with a shoreline of heavily polluting industry, as a citizen science project. It was part of the grassroots community actions that lead to the first successful prosecution under the Clean Air Act in an effort to halt illegal emissions from Tonawanda Coke’s plant.
And while most of the works deal with the legacy of the Cold War, some address recent developments. In 2018, Santa Fe-based Nina Elder used synthetic uranium and radioactive charcoal to create Bears Ears Uranium Bid Area (100 Years of Uranium Consumption by the Top Seven National Consumers), a series that superimposes data on the global demand for uranium on images of Bears Ears, the Utah national monument that was reduced and reopened to uranium mining by the Trump administration in 2017.
Initially conceived in response to the legacy of radioactive material left behind in the Buffalo area due to the role the region played in the Manhattan Project, the exhibition gained new relevance at Illinois, which has more nuclear power plants than any other U.S. state.
“This exhibition is about slow violence and how toxic waste has a duration we cannot compute,” said Amy Powell, KAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art.” It outlives humans.” Powell co-curated the exhibition for KAM with Lilah Leopold, graduate curatorial intern.
Some university of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professors found ways to incorporate the exhibition in their curricula. Jamie Jones, an assistant professor in the English department who has researched how energy sources are represented in literature, fine arts and popular culture, planed to have her spring semester environmental writing class assess the history and effect of the energy industry, nuclear weaponry and activism in Champaign-Urbana community to create a field guide to the local nuclear landscape.
This exhibition is the perfect opportunity to think about how this energy and infrastructure intersect with everyday environments.– Jamie Jones
“Hot Spots: Radioactivity and the Landscape” closed on March 21.
Photos by Sergio Barreto. Materials from Illinois News Bureau and UB News aided in the production of this post.