On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear bomb exploded on Earth. It happened at a test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, as part of the Manhattan Project, a massive US-led initiative to develop atomic weapons during World War II. And although the project was officially disbanded in 1945, nuclear test sites in the United States continued to emerge across the country for decades.
“It’s a story that has managed to remain hidden even though it is so rich in spectacle,” says American artist Cara Despain. “[These tests] released particles and isotopes that permanently altered this planet. They’ve been testing above ground for years, and a lot of people don’t know that. »
In his new solo exhibition Spectre, which opened earlier this month at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach and was curated by Leilani Lynch, Despain sheds light on a dark history that, in the midst of an escalating war intensifies between Russia and Ukraine, has come back to haunt us. .
Despite the reduced size of the exhibition (there are five pieces in total), the artist deftly manages to highlight the vast collective and individual consequences of a dreadful subject. And maybe her ability to do that has to do with it being a story she knows.
Despain was born in Utah and works between Salt Lake City and Miami, Florida. The maternal side of the family grew up in St George, a town less than 150 miles from the Nevada test site (which is also just 65 miles from Las Vegas). “Being from this region and having a family that grew up in this era of testing, the development of nuclear arsenals and the type of collateral damage that comes with it is something that always concerns me,” she explains.
At first glance, Iodine-131, a gecko-green cast of gypsum concrete backlit with LED lights, appears to be simply a 3D rendering of mountainous terrain that grabs the viewer’s attention due to its beauty. Closer examination reveals it to be a detailed cast of the topography of Yucca Flat, a major nuclear testing region at the Nevada Test Site, where many craters from atomic explosions are visible from space. Despain says she grabbed the image using Google Earth and chose to focus on this section of the test site because it “began to communicate the magnitude of what happened.”
Adjoining Iodine-131, on the big screen, House of Cards (2022) features declassified black-and-white images of test sites, bomb craters and mushrooms, with the words “The End” cheerfully superimposed on the supposed films explain test results. In one shot, a crater at a nuclear test site is overlaid with a drawing of a football pitch to illustrate the bomb’s destructive capability.
In Spectre, Despain also features works featuring Depression-era consumer glassware and antiques that emit a hauntingly searing glow under UV lights due to the presence of uranium oxide in them. their composition. This chemical was largely banned in the United States when the Manhattan Project emerged in 1942, which redirected all uranium to bomb production. With the artworks that incorporate fluorescent glassware, titled Beneath the Rainbow and the Desert Will Bloom Like the Rose, Despain hopes to bring the subject of domesticity to the forefront of the conversation about nuclear weapons development. .
“I think the dishes speak to people who live in the fallout region. They were normal families, just living their lives,” she said. “For decades, no one believed the people of this region – some of whom I am descended from – no one believed that they were getting sick or dying, or seeing burns on their animals, or having their milk irradiated. For decades they have been gas lit by the government.And the same [happened] with uranium miners.
Despain’s “trick”, as she describes it, is the ability to capitalize on duality and present difficult subjects through a compelling lens. She draws her audience in through spellbinding shapes and hues, and once smitten, she reveals inescapable and harrowing realities.
This ability is best evidenced in Spectre’s remarkable piece, Test of Faith (2022), a cinematic three-channel digital video installation that transports viewers to an otherworldly setting for just over three and a half minutes. . Created using declassified footage of atomic bomb testing at the Nevada Test Site by Despain with vibrant colors and alterations that result in a series of moving Rorschach tests, the visuals of the artwork are greatly enhanced by a chilling rendition of the Mormon hymn Love. One Another, which explodes in the background as clouds of colossal, brightly colored mushrooms transform into hundreds of unintelligible shapes. The inclusion of the anthem, Despain explains, alludes to the military’s call for “united patriotism” to Mormon settlers in the affected region and the country as a whole.
“Nuclear war always looms in the background,” Despain said. “It’s not our focus until a conflict escalates like the one with Russia and Ukraine. But the truth is, we’re kind of still on that precipice. With Spectre, she hopes visitors will begin to understand the horrific implications of developing nuclear arsenals and the brutal collateral damage that comes with testing. “If I can convey even a fraction of that through this side channel of art, I think I’ve done my job to uncover that story,” she says.