On 16 July 1945, the first detonation of an atomic bomb, code name ‘Trinity’, took place in the New Mexico desert. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where the development of the bomb took place, was reportedly inspired in his choice of name by the poetry of John Donne, quoting lines from ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’ (c.1623) in a letter to one of the observers: ‘As west and east, in all flat maps – and I am one – are one, so death doth touch the resurrection.’ Donne’s advocacy for the unity of opposites has an eerie accord with ‘The Shadow of an Unseen Power’, the German artist Lisa Wilkens’s first solo show in the UK, which marks the 70th anniversary of this historic event with a body of work drawing on her experience of growing up in West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the anti-nuclear activism of her parents.
In PAPER’s tiny gallery space, tucked away behind the arches of Manchester’s Victoria Station, and dedicated to artists for whom paper is a central concern, small-scale drawings on aged paper stock glowed from dark grey walls. The images floated like fragments of a dream, evoking the vague carousel of childhood memories. A single walnut, drawn in Chinese ink in such detail that it is rendered almost 3D, is a nod to the period after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986 when the West German population was told walnuts could no longer be eaten. Titled A New Note of Uncertainty (all works 2015), the nut seems precious, isolated and even exotic, privation giving it greater allure. The power and politicization of information during the cold war period was represented through found archival images from newspapers and online. In one, a roadside sign declared: ‘If you get your information here, leave it here’; another asserted ‘Talk means trouble, don’t talk.’
At points, a sense of childhood nostalgia combined with the history of nuclear activity. A cropped newspaper image of a cake being cut seems to be celebrating an atomic bomb explosion: the hands doing the cutting belong to torsos clad in medal-adorned military uniforms and the frosting takes the form of a mushroom cloud. It must be from the 1950s – the dawn of the nuclear age and a time in which the cheers for technological progress were accompanied by growing anti-nuclear sentiments. Childlike associations with birthday parties evoke a certain naivety, the age’s fearless attitude to nuclear power and, with it, a stunning lack of awareness of the immense potential for damage. Nearby, Atoms for Peace showed people sunbathing on a beach around the time of the Chernobyl disaster, with a nuclear power plant looming in the background.
Strategies for dealing with nuclear waste were touched upon via images from an informational brochure on vitrification – a process (used in both the UK and Germany) in which radioactive materials are neutralized by ‘fixing’ them in glass. The images show hands holding or passing around an inky-black glass disc, the customary colour produced by this method. The headless figures in The Invisible Medium place their hands on the black glass oval as if divining the future, drawing comparisons with crystal balls or black magic. There is an air, echoed in the show’s title, of a form of dark power, with some found pictures conjuring ghosts or skeletons. The sources of the cropped and repurposed images are not made explicit, although some are more obvious than others, giving licence to interpret through multiple associations. The show’s flexible narrative interwove educational materials and official information with ideas of secrecy and suspicion, positivity and hope alongside underlying fear – juxtapositions that characterize the cold war period.
Contributing to the retro atmosphere was the support on which these images appeared: aged sheets of paper belonging to a family friend of the artist who lived in West Germany during this period. Daylight has damaged the edges, causing darker browns to bleed into the once-pristine cream surface. Wilkens’s choice of material could be viewed as a subtle form of activism, highlighting the impact of degrading environmental conditions perhaps not initially known about or acknowledged. Emphasized by the small size of the images, this expansive and quietly expressive ground is integral to the work – a fitting base on which to present fragmented remnants, somehow both personal and removed, of a complex period of social and political history.
First published in Issue 175