Just before this issue was wrapped up, I learned about Light’s installation One Hundred Suns at the UC Berkeley campus: one hundred government photos of US nuclear tests from the years these were being conducted above ground. Printed on 3’ x 3’ squares of canvas and pegged into the ground, images of atomic fireballs stretched out for 345 feet along a walkway just north of UC’s main library. Because of the university’s unique relationship to the development of these weapons, the installation plays on a web of shadowy undertones, but standing there, I couldn’t quite understand how I felt about these beautiful images of destruction. The layers were too complex, and then there’s the inundation of charged imagery we all endure with its relentless manipulation of desire and constant dissimulation. Standing there, I felt my distance from these images as I moved from one to the next. Yet these photos were not lies, not some corporate advertising strategy. These images are a call to consider what seems too large to consider.
Originally published as a limited edition artist’s book, each photo is accompanied by text citing the particulars of each explosion, the type of weapon tested, its deployment, etc. As I moved along reading, what began to strike me was the small size of many of the weapons, all of them nuclear. The first atomic bombs were massive. “Little Boy,” dropped on Hiroshima, weighed 9,700 pounds and exploded with the destructive force of twelve and a half thousand tons of TNT. But as I moved along reading, I noticed, for instance, “Hood,” which was detonated in July of 1957 with a force of 74,000 tons, six times that of “Little Boy.” Hood weighted 383 pounds. “Wheeler,” I read, was detonated September 6 1957, a 158-pound nuclear weapon. Eventually I came to “Little Feller” which, at a mere fifty pounds, was suitable for use by individual soldiers with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers. This was over forty years ago. According to Richard Rhodes, “a modern nuclear artillery shell packs the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb.”
One can’t help wondering what other “advances” have been made. Although the first deliverable H-bomb weighed 21 tons, in all likelihood lightweight thermonuclear weapons also exist.
Many students were stopping while others paid no attention as they made their way to and from classes. I understood. Maybe it was just another assault in the media spectacle, or even another good cause competing for a share of mental territory. One thing was sure, stopping to look could only be disturbing.—RW
Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.
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