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‘Bombhead': John O'Brian's Covert History of Deadly Weapons

At Vancouver Art Gallery, the curator brings to light the insidious normalization - and romanticization - of North American nuclear development 

After the end of the Cold War, as home bomb shelters began to be used as cellars and storage rooms, North American nuclear anxiety appeared to fizzle out. But nearly three decades later, a younger generation yet to fear the bomb finds themselves on edge. As the trigger-happy North Korean and equally unstable US figureheads taunt each other and teeter-totter through negotiations, it’s worth asking if we’ve entered a new atomic age. Across the Canadian border at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the exhibition ‘BOMBHEAD’ revisits last century’s nuclear tensions as we navigate our contemporary crisis. Spread across the museum’s third floor, the exhibition was curated by Canadian art historian John O’Brian, whose extensive research into all things nuclear has fuelled previews shows on the same theme in Toronto, London and Copenhagen. O’Brian first became interested in the subject several years ago after realizing that Canada has long been quietly engaged in nuclear weapons development; the peace-preaching nation was involved in the Manhattan Project, and helped supply and refine the uranium for the bombs that US planes dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

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Gathie Falk, Boot Case with Nine Black Shoes, c. 1973, earthenware. Courtesy: Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery; photograph: Rachel Topham/ Vancouver Art Gallery

These and other covert histories are illustrated in the exhibition, which draws from O’Brian’s personal archive and the Vancouver Art Gallery’s collection and is divided into four categories: ‘fear’, ‘protest’, ‘documentation’ and ‘the bomb’. Documentary and press photography are major components of the show; during his research, O’Brian unearthed lesser-known images such as Robert Keziere’s 1971 suite of photographs of the twelve Greenpeace activists who boarded a US navy vessel in Alaska to protest nuclear tests there. Resembling photographic test strips, Japanese-Canadian artist Roy Kiyooka’s silver gelatin prints of discarded workers’ gloves (Stoned Gloves, 1970) range from highly exposed to near-black, alluding to both the white flash of an explosion and recalling images of personal effects strewn about after atomic catastrophes. Similarly, Gathie Falk’s earthenware boot sculptures, (Boot Case with Nine Black Shoes, 1973) presented in a coffin-like cabinet, recall disembodied limbs. Works on paper also draw attention on the body, such as Nancy Spero’s grotesque, bloody-looking gouache painting Bomb Victims (1967), which resonates with Carbon (1987), Betty Goodwin’s gestural geofilm depiction of corpse-like figures, both made by artists in response to the atrocities of war.

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Roy Kiyooka, Stonedgloves, 1970, silver gelatin print. Courtesy: the Vancouver Art Gallery

The exhibition takes its name from Bruce Conner’s newspaper and photocopy collage Bombhead (1989/2002), which shows a figure clad in military fatigues, his head replaced by a billowing mushroom cloud. Indeed, the mushroom cloud is a predictably pervasive motif, appearing again in Bob Light and John Houston’s morbidly satirical movie poster Gone with the Wind (1983), and in MIT engineering professor Harold Edgerston’s photograph Atomic Bomb Explosion before 1952 (1952). During World War II, Edgerston worked with the Atomic Energy Commission to develop a camera equipped with the one-billionth-of-a-second shutter speed necessary to capture nuclear explosions; the image’s inclusion in the exhibition serves to highlight the uncomfortable relationship between nuclear weaponry and mainstream technological development. Yet for such a historical show, this one was largely free of explanatory didactics. A short text by O’Brian has been printed to resemble nuclear-preparedness pamphlets issued by the Canadian government during the Cold War, several examples of which, drawn from the curator’s archive, appear in a vitrine. One of the most interesting group of objects is also from O’Brian’s own collection: a large grouping of 20th century postcards featuring nuclear-related images such as sunny photographs and watercolour renderings of reactors, mines, explosions and bombs. Looking at the images, it strikes one that normalizing, if not romanticizing, deadly weaponry has always been part of North American culture since the first colonies appeared here.

‘Bombhead’, curated by John O’Brian, ran at Vancouver Art Gallery from 3 March to 17 June 2018.

Main image: Robert Keziere, Ben Metcalfe, Jim Bohlen (from the Greenpeace Voyage to Alaska series), 1971, archival pigment print. Courtesy: the artist

Issue 197

First published in Issue 197

September 2018
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