A 300-foot flame rose into Nevada's pre-dawn desert sky on July 16, and 100 onlookers stood transfixed, watching the moonlike landscape brighten under a fiery mushroom cloud. The genesis of this jaw-dropping spectacle? Six large fans rigged with nozzles spraying a combustible blend of biodiesel and gasoline, manned by an octet of very enthusiastic pyromaniacs clad in silver "proximity suits," led by mastermind Camron Assadi (aka Teiwaz). No, it wasn't the latest Burning Man pre-party, and it was much more than another amazing feat from the Bay Area's fire arts community.
This month's blast came 60 years after the world's first atomic detonation in Los Alamos, N.M., a precursor to the bombs dropped three weeks later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nevada re-creation of the so-called Trinity test is a companion piece to "The Simnuke Project,"which opens this week. The group exhibition ponders the cultural fallout of the post-nuclear age. Co-curator Sasha Harris-Cronin hopes that the show, like the desert performance, will "give you the sense of being near an atomic explosion -- though it seems that nothing could really give you that. ... Perhaps [the art] will reach you emotionally in a way that the facts, dates, and numbers wouldn't."
Indeed, several of the pieces in "Simnuke" are extremely powerful, particularly snapshots from Yosuke Yamahata's "Nagasaki Journey" series. The Japanese army photographer spent 10 days documenting the effects of the bomb, and his arresting images include a portrait of a woman standing in the rubble alongside a skeleton, looking away, as if she can ignore the destruction just by averting her gaze. But lest you think that these horrors are confined to the Far East, Carole Gallagher's photojournalistic character studies of Utah and Nevada nuclear test-site victims show that the physical aftereffects were also experienced on American soil.
Admission is free
Many of the other works explore less somber aspects of the atomic era: Richard Ross journeyed around the world photographing different cultures' homespun bomb shelters; Garrett Izumi's comics depict father of the atomic bomb Robert Oppenheimer as a pen-and-ink caricature; and Tracy Jacobs' kinetic sculpture combines the spinning of the atom with the kicking of a Los Alamos-esque cowboy boot (shades of Dubya?).
Japanese artist Yoshiko McFarland's peace butterflies, fashioned from old fabric, hang throughout the space, giving a renewed sense of hope.
It's not surprising to find that Harris-Cronin is a longtime anti-nuclear activist. "When I was in ninth grade, I read a comic book about Hiroshima that so affected me that three of my classmates and I put together a protest against the local nuclear arsenal," she says. And years later, Harris-Cronin's protests still seek to shed light on the issues.