When UNLV history professor Andrew Kirk visited former atomic bomb test sites around the world he found people making art. “Art was a common thread,” he says, “from the Pacific Islands to Nevada; Kazakhstan to Australia.”
Art was a way for people to process an experience with no historical precedent.
“Much of this work was done by amateurs who would not have identified as artists and never intended this atomic art brut to be seen,” says Kirk. “It was for themselves, their peers and their families. I was especially fascinated by elaborate models of secret equipment made by miners to achieve test requirements … They have a wonderful sculptural quality.
Recognizing his interest in collaborations between art, science, and history, the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art asked him if he would like to comment on a series of artworks –currently on exhibit: the Toxic Archives drawings of Joan Linder. Most of Linder’s drawings focus on nuclear tests, as Kirk did in his recent book, Doom Towns: the People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing.
Both the historian and the artist have grappled with the complications of historical reality. In their different ways, they are working to present evidence to today’s audiences so that significant events of the past are not forgotten, disregarded, or misjudged.
But how can we avoid misjudgment? How do we form an idea of a time so close to our own and yet different? How do we recognize the ongoing effects of those past acts?
Kirk suggests that art is part of the answer. He proposes a holistic presentation of history that not only considers all media as source material, but also uses them freely to illuminate its own conclusions. "Showing the information in a range of accessible formats draws readers into the story from different angles and avoids the trap of polarized interpretations.”
This is the perspective he brings to Toxic Archives. Instead of drawing pictures of bombs or explosions, Linder meticulously reproduced pages from government documents recording different experiments that were carried out 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,” says another. “Studies of Human Subjects. Report Received: 6/25/46.”
From a distance the artworks could be mistaken for photocopies. At close range they reveal 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 humanity of her approach. The stain “reminds us that, crazy as these documents seem, they were real and part of the work-a-day world of some ordinary people,” he says. It assists our imaginations. “What was it like for the ordinary people who oftentimes didn't even have access to critical information about what they were doing? So the focus on the ordinary and the mundane offers completely new insights about this history.”
He goes on making connections between research and presentation. “Because I had the opportunity to encounter historical actors and their universe of artifacts and art they created and collected to make sense of their own experiences, it was obviously important to me to try and capture some of that remarkable variety of sources in book form. Linder's art does something similar by refusing to simply drop things into a familiar linear format. In the process, viewers and readers get to see just how complicated, interesting, and disturbing all of this really was.”
In Doom Towns he reproduces not only first-hand witness transcripts and formal letters about scientific projects, but also ephemera like a scrappy “Project Ranger” participation certificate handed out by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1951. In an unusual move, he also commissioned the artist Kristian Purcell to transform his source material into a graphic novel so that readers could see the information cohering in a different way.
In a similar vein, Toxic Archives includes drawings of old advertisements for hazardous waste compactors and panels from a 1963 Marvel comic book in which the villain Loki has to be sealed inside a lead-lined tank after he obtains radioactive superpowers. We see how the world looked as atomic science moved into the mainstream vernacular, becoming a pop culture trope.
A comic book like this can be regarded as a commercial version of the personal artworks that Kirk saw people creating "for themselves, their peers and their families."
"Remembrance takes on a special meaning with things atomic," he concludes. "The incomprehensible geologic times involved in discussing atomic legacies is one reason people will always need to keep thinking and wondering and memorializing this history. Most people are never going to dig deep into archives to see historic documents, which makes work like Linder's so important. Her art brings life to official documents that could be dismissed as dated relics.”
We can reflect that both Kirk’s book and Linder’s artworks are now atomic artifacts as well. They have taken their place in time and history next to everything they document. And, in the future, people may study them too.