By Emilio Comay del Junco
This critical stopover in the Midwest is not one that the University of Chicago would like anyone to forget. In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the first artificial nuclear reaction, it staged a series of events culminating in the release of a rainbow-colored mushroom cloud by the Chinese art star Cai Guo-Qiang from the roof of the main library, which was built in the late Sixties next to the site of Fermi’s reactor.
As the press materials for the event explained, coloring in the mushroom cloud was meant to represent the dual nature of nuclear energy—the representation of its “most destructive form” is enlivened “with color as a profound symbol of creativity and peace.” This was appropriate since, according to the PR write up, the Manhattan Project itself had a “complex legacy,” and nuclear power has a “paradoxical,” “yin-yang nature”: the work is meant to capture the inseparability between the good, creative side of nuclear energy and the wicked, destructive one. Of course, the same physical processes allow the flattening of cities and the treatment of cancerous tumors. Is it so self-evident though that radiation therapy, or nuclear power (perhaps more controversially), can’t be had without thousands of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles pointed at one another across the Pacific?
[…] If More’s sculpture borders on moralizing literalism, Cai’s remarks before the performance repeated the press release: nuclear energy is a subject of enormous “complexity and sensitivity,” all the more since we live in a “sensitive and complicated time.”
That earlier series, then, does far more work than coloring in a symbol of destruction is capable of. Besides failing to question whether the “good” and the “bad” of nuclear power are really quite so inseparable, the use of color also seems to miss something basic but crucial about the semiotics of the mushroom cloud: namely, that it is already an ambivalent symbol. The fact is that there is hardly a consensus that nuclear weapons are even a necessary evil because there is hardly a consensus that they are evil at all. The press materials do, inevitably, refer to the “destructive” aspects of nuclear power. But no one, not even the most hardened pro-nuclear security advisor, would deny that nuclear weapons are destructive. That, from a military perspective, is precisely the point of having them around, at least as long as one can sustain the fantasy that only we, and perhaps close friends, will have them. A more contentious claim which the work—and certainly the curatorial-promotional staff—has consistently avoided making is that they are also evil.
By assuming that a mushroom cloud needs to be colored in for the so-called positive aspects of nuclear energy to be made manifest, the work neglects that for many people (Americans more than anyone) mushroom cloud is already a positive symbol, if also one of destruction. Using bright colors to represent the good side of of mushroom clouds makes too easy the so-called “duality” of nuclear power.
Seeming to grapple with the complexity of a human phenomenon of massive destruction that is entangled with creative potential fits the self-image of a research university perfectly. Less so, perhaps, celebrating its role in ushering in the era of the human capability for self-annihilation. Nothing makes the point more clearly than a glance at whom the University of Chicago chose to invite to its anniversary events. In its promotional materials, it notes with great pride that the sole living witness to the 1942 reaction will be present, a guest of honor at the celebrations. It is hard then not to ask what of the more than one hundred thousand survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (known as hibakusha)?