The art of nuclear destruction

A sculptor's installation re-creates the lab that brought forth the first atomic bombs.

November 29, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Geiger counters crackle continuously in a low, ominous mutter as you move through the replica of the first atomic bomb laboratory that sculptor Jim Sanborn has created at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Oscilloscopes hum and flicker blue dancing lines that move across the screens like lunging fencers. Sanborn has re-created almost exactly the work tables where scientists of the Manhattan Project moved uranium and plutonium closer and closer to the critical mass that would release the power of the nuclear bomb. Banks of electronic packages that measure radiation stand like sentinels just as they did in the original laboratories in Los Alamos where the Trinity device and the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were produced. Curling wires and red and green lights look almost festive.

Sanborn's installation has a cool, eerie beauty that recalls a medieval altarpiece or a collection of Roman sarcophagi crawling with sculpted figures celebrating forgotten victories. No human figures manipulate the experiments in the subdued light of this lab. Perhaps it's dawn before the scientists arrive or some post-midnight hour after they've just left. Or perhaps they've gone to see the first test of the Trinity device on its tower over the White Sands National Monument. Or an accident has emptied the lab. They've left behind evidence of their presence: a tape measure at Fermi's Assembly for Determining the Critical Mass of a Hemisphere, a 15-inch, grade-school ruler on the Assembly for Determining Critical Mass, a slide rule on the piece called Assembly for a Los Alamos Prototype I, with its tiny cubes of graphite like a child's building blocks.

The specter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hovers unstated and unseen somewhere beyond the sputtering electronics and the elegant experiments depicted on the work tables. We feel the dead in the processes that led to their destruction.

The Corcoran calls Sanborn's exhibition Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction.

"Scientists, I think, found the objects seductive," he says. "I think they found the science seductive, they found the power seductive. They found every aspect of this science absolutely fascinating. They based their entire lives on it. They based the life of the world on it. The life of the world, of humanity as we know it, was in the balance in this room.

"Some of the scientists like Oppenheimer realized [that] fairly quickly," he says. "Other scientists like Teller and some of the other hawks never realized it. ... A few of them never had any qualms about going as far as they could with it."

J. Robert Oppenheimer was, of course, director of the Manhattan Project. Edward Teller, the assistant director, was a major proponent of the hydrogen bomb.

Sanborn believes his representation of the Manhattan Project lab and the explosive core of the first nuclear bombs is the most accurate ever made. He shows what he believes the inside of the bomb looked like. He explains before the unit he calls Assembly for a Los Alamos Prototype I.

"This sphere you have here is how much uranium you needed to make the Little Boy device," he says. "That's the diameter of how much you need."

About 3 inches across, a little bigger than a baseball, enough to obliterate a city. Little Boy, of course, was the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima.

"I feel as if the historical accuracy adds to the potency of the installation," Sanborn says. "I do installation art in order to have an effect on people. That's why I do it. Either to stimulate their minds or to stimulate their senses.

"People could be stimulated by recalling history. I think there is a certain relevance to including real objects in these things because it gives them a sense that what they are seeing is the real thing."

The spheres in Sanborn's installation are nonetheless quite beautiful. The initiators, which are exactly what the name implies, embedded in the center of the spheres, look like jewels in particularly exotic settings. He had them made by jewelers, as did the Manhattan Project scientists.

"I thought it really stunning that something so dangerous could be inherently so beautiful," he says. "It's the `beauty and the beast' scenario, more or less. It depends. Some people walk into the room and don't know what they're looking at. It has no effect on them. Because they were too young to know what a Geiger sounds like, or the equipment and everything is so unfamiliar to them they don't register what it is.

"Other people immediately recognize the sounds and all of that and the equipment. The hair sort of stands up on the back of their neck and they know exactly what they're dealing with."

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