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Here's an Essential Guide to Radioactive Art

Over 60 artists find new ways to explore nuclear post-disaster in 'The Nuclear Culture Source Book.'

Catherine Chapman

Artistic trips to nuclear sites and exclusion zones have inspired photographs, paintings, film and other interpretations, many of which, are found in The Nuclear Culture Source Book. This is a photo of Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 in 2011 taken by Merilyn Fairskye. All images courtesy the artists

30 years have come and gone since Chernobyl, the catastrophic nuclear power plant disaster that left the Ukrainian city of Pripyat an abandoned radioactive wasteland. The calamity—and others, like the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, or the 2011 accident in Fukushima—have called international attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons, while inspiring artists and activists alike to create new works. Charting through this field of nuclear aesthetics and artistic practice is The Nuclear Culture Source Book, a publication documenting creative work from nuclear sites around the globe, aiming to be a resource for future vision, both in science and art.

Presenting original visual and written content from over 60 artists, from drawings, watercolors, or sculpture, The Nuclear Culture Source Book builds on four years of research by editor Ele Carpenter. “I'm trying to do something different,” says Carpenter, who also convenes the Nuclear Culture Research Group, a collective of artists and academics, at Goldsmiths in London. “Nuclear is something uncanny and present in our domestic spaces and pastoral landscapes, instead of some far away spectacle.”

From The Nuclear Culture Source Book David Mabb’s A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament

In 1951, artists based in Milan formed group arte nucleare—art for the nuclear age—in response to the use of atomic weapons. Commenting on the threat of nuclear warfare, movements like this demonstrated the inevitable shift that was coming to Earth’s geology, one that would be forever marked by mankind’s physically impactful activities. Scientific developments also gave way to an evolving culture, where artists discovered new materials and themes, such as Yves Klein’s 1958 letter to President Eisenhower requesting the color of automatic weapons be blue. In his letter to Eisenhower, the artist requested assistance in taking over the French government so he could effect a “Blue Revolution... aiming at the transformation of the French People’s thinking.”

Now, with 444 nuclear reactors on the planet, ways of thinking have adjusted. “Artists have a very different understanding of nuclear aesthetics now,” explains Carpenter to The Creators Project. “These are no longer solely based on the manufacture of Cold War fear, but reflect a variety of conceptual frameworks, aesthetic, and political concerns.” Working with a variety of mediums, artists including Lisa AutogenaThe Otolith GroupTrevor PaglenTaryn SimonChim↑Pom, and many more have participated in the project, hoping to bring their interpretations of 21st century nuclear to an audience of filmmakers, activists, policy makers and the wider population.

Check out The Creators Project's documentary on Chim↑Pom's radioactive art project, Don't Follow the Wind, here: 

Martin Howse’s Uraninite 3 Day Exposure, March 2016

“The nuclear culture project is about creating a more formal space in which the nuclear can be understood critically while respecting people that have different political positions,” says Carpenter. “I hope that the book will reveal the complex ways in which artists deal with nuclear aesthetics, developing new forms of critical language, and understanding which open up the debate.”

A photograph of Greenlandic Uranium Ore at Riso, Denmark, 2016 by Autogena L. Joshua Portway

An Underground Research Laboratory for Radioactive Waste, Horonobe, Japan in 2014, by Ele Carpenter

As part of the European Commission’s directive on long-term storage for radioactive wasteThe Nuclear Culture Source Book is set to be released by Black Dog Publishing on October 2, 2016, in line with The Perpetual Uncertainty exhibition at the Bildmuseetcontemporary art museum in Sweden. Find out more here

Related:

A Guide to Nuclear Detonation at Tribeca Film Festival

Ai Weiwei on the Perils of Nuclear Power

Nuclear Waste Is Art in the Work of Taryn Simon

6 Artists Who Aren't Afraid to Work with Radioactive Materials