Editors' pick

Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction

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Editorial Review

Chamber of Secrets
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2003

I can't think of anyone who shouldn't see Jim Sanborn's "Critical Assembly," an installation that went on view yesterday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in downtown Washington. I can think of one person, who lives in a big white house around the corner from the show -- the most powerful person on the planet -- who may choose to visit often. Sanborn's installation brings us face to face, in the most immediate way imaginable, with what it means to make an atom bomb. That may turn out to be the most pressing issue our species will ever face.

There's a fairly simple story behind this latest work by Sanborn, who's been a leading figure on the Washington art scene for almost three decades.

Over the last five years, he has made frequent trips to Los Alamos, N.M., site of the Manhattan Project's work on the first atomic bombs. During World War II, the government built secret labs for some of the world's biggest brains, in an effort to come up with a weapon that could guarantee an Allied victory against the Germans and the Japanese.

After extensive research, and with the help of retired scientists and atomic hobbyists and souvenir collectors, Sanborn acquired lab equipment left over from early A-bomb research. Original identifying tags and property numbers are often still in place on it. (At the media preview for his show, Sanborn explained that the Los Alamos labs once got rid of outdated equipment at regular clearance sales -- not fire sales, thank goodness -- from which his sources stocked their basements and memento shelves.) Back in his studio in Northeast Washington, Sanborn used photographs and documentation of that first atomic work, as well as research by a Milwaukee truck driver who's a Manhattan Project junkie, to assemble his finds into a life-size re-creation of a hypothetical atomic lab.

Where he hadn't been able to acquire original parts or period equivalents for them -- especially, of course, parts once made out of plutonium or uranium or polonium -- he had facsimiles made from scratch by specialized machinists, or even by jewelers, using materials that mimicked the originals. In the case of missing "pusher shells" -- beach ball-size aluminum spheres that helped compress the plutonium inside to critical, explosive mass during a detonation -- he managed to have them turned on a lathe from the original program's surplus blanks, which had survived as birdbaths and gongs in Los Alamos back yards. He replaced the burned-out vacuum tubes in electronics racks with parts still sold in Russia. He was given surplus equipment that once belonged to nuclear pioneer Enrico Fermi, or so was told. And out of these bits and bobs, old and new-made, Sanborn assembled various lab benches that seem to have landmark experiments in progress on them.

One bench holds the gleaming top half of the kind of "physics package" -- the explosive core -- that was used in the first atomic bomb, known as the Trinity Device, exploded in the New Mexico desert at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945.

Another bench holds a pile of fleshy paraffin bricks set around a metal sphere, which together make up a "Device for Measuring the Neutron Flux of a Uranium Core" -- the formal title of this component in Sanborn's installation.

There are more heavy steel tables that hold experimental apparatus such as an "Assembly for Determining Critical Mass" -- more finely machined spheres, this time surrounded by blocks of brooding, matte graphite -- or a complex "Device for Measuring the Electro-Magnetic Flux of a Blast Wave."

Each table is surrounded by looming racks of electronic components, all dials and glowing tubes and warning lights. Sanborn says they would have mostly been used to keep precise track of the radiation produced in this research. Two scientists died when early hand-tended experiments went critical on them; postwar experiments were conducted by remote control. A host of Geiger counters and oscilloscopes still click and flicker as they pretend to count the radiation in the Corcoran installation. (Sanborn keeps the counters active by sticking harmless radium watch dials up against their inner works, where visitors can't see them.)

At least one rack of electronics, marked "Firing Unit Control Panel," had a more sinister function in actual detonation trials. A classic white-on-blue, hand-made Dymo Tape label is stuck above a harmless-looking button beneath a red warning light. It reads "DET SWITCH."

And Sanborn's whole collection of components is presented in a sterile, white-walled Corcoran gallery whose floors have been painted an industrial gray and whose only light comes from hanging metal fixtures with a pared-down, war-effort look. (These lights are dimmed to a spooky, Halloween glow, and that's the only serious misstep in the whole installation. The result is theatrical and overdone in a work that otherwise achieves an almost-documentary directness. Luckily, the lights can always be turned up again.) Massive electrical cables snake across the room.

Sanborn has even installed vintage brown-plastic electrical outlets along the gallery's walls, to guarantee a period look.

So much for the impressive individual components in Sanborn's installation. There are lots more of them, and they can be fiendishly complex, but with enough time you could get to know them all. The work's effects will always be much harder to pin down.

The installation's effects are so layered, and novel, and interesting -- so important, even -- that "Critical Assembly" may count as the most significant work of art to come out of Washington since the pioneering abstract painter Morris Louis worked here in the early 1960s. Actually, I've not come across anything quite like Sanborn's installation anywhere, ever.

The first thing that struck me about this installation is its unique immediacy. "Critical Assembly" doesn't seem so much to be about early atomic-bomb research, as to be a direct example of it. It gives unimpeded access to its subject matter in a way that almost no other modern artwork has.

It's tempting to think of it as a kind of sculptural version of a straight, documentary photograph. But even that doesn't do it justice. Any representation -- whether a photograph, painting or sculpture -- operates at one remove from the thing it shows. It takes the real world, then figures out how it should be rendered in paint, or marble, or on film. You don't ever truly feel you're seeing reality in it; you always know you're looking at some kind of image. That means that you can always choose to pay attention to how the representation is made -- to the surface of the paint, or the angles in a bust, or the grays in a photograph. And that to some extent takes you away from the real-world stuff that it reveals to you. It keeps reality at bay. The more you think about van Gogh's brush strokes, the less you think about the sunflowers on the table.

In "Critical Assembly," however, representation has given way to simple presentation, and that's a much more powerful effect. You're seeing the stuff itself, not some fancy picture of it.

Of course, as with any work of art, you can choose to pay attention to the aesthetics of Sanborn's installation. Many of its gleaming, perfectly machined parts could have come off a Constantin Brancusi sculpture. But when you admire those aesthetics, you're reacting to the beauty of real scientific apparatus, not to some artist's arty image of it. And that makes all the difference.

"Critical Assembly" doesn't provide the "real thing" of the Manhattan Project -- only a time machine could give us that. But it comes close enough for us to fully suspend disbelief, and pretend it does.

This installation puts us right there, in the place and at the moment where our current world predicament was born. It gives us access to a crucial modern moment of epiphany. In Sanborn's words, it puts us right beside the "manger" of our nuclear age.

We're forced to confront just how easily the atomic bomb was made, and how easily other bombs could be made now. Sanborn's piece suggests that the Manhattan Project wasn't so much about abstract forces of physics or history, as about a very human kind of effort. We can almost feel the physicists eagerly at work, trying to perfect their artful experiments. (Their absence from the installation is particularly eerie, since their presence is so strongly felt in it. It seems as though they've just gotten off their stools -- exactly the mushroom cloud-shaped stools that archival photos show they used -- and might return at any moment. Of course they never do, and that leaves us feeling that something has gone wrong.)

This installation makes it clear that the bomb is just the product of human ingenuity and knowledge -- of 1940s vintage, yet -- that played out in a messy laboratory space. All these years later, if plutonium got into open circulation, there could be a bomb in every desert training camp. The first CD player also took years to make, and took up an entire lab rack, too. Now I've got one in my pocket.

"Critical Assembly" also forces us to come to grips -- not just in our heads but in our hearts as well -- with what it means when pure, elegant science produces world-threatening technology. (Sanborn himself is particularly intrigued by this aspect of his art.)

Even for those of us who can't understand the physics -- which is most of us -- witnessing the allure of the gorgeously made and brilliantly conceived objects in this installation lets us feel how difficult it would have been for the scientists involved to consider pulling out of their experiments. (Surprisingly, at one point during the war, a good number of them signed on to put a stop to this research; they were ignored.) We can sense the creative, even obsessive pleasure that Sanborn got from getting his piece just right. It's a pleasure shared by reenactors everywhere, by anyone who's ever made a reproduction of anything, or for that matter by anyone who's re-imagined any moment from the past as described in a novel. We can also get direct pleasure from the hours to be spent exploring all the tiny facets of the world that Sanborn has erected for us.

And all those different forms of creative and exploratory pleasure also evoke the seductions that the Manhattan Project's scientists must have felt as they prepared their bombs. The world's a fascinating place, and who can resist the urge to poke around in it?

There's an inevitable sense of celebration in Jim Sanborn's piece -- of the splendor and seduction of technology and science, and of boyish tinkering in general -- even as it provokes a sense of dread.

It's a mistake to try to pull a simple set of messages out of this installation. It brings up all the conflicted issues that a visit to the real Los Alamos labs, circa 1946, might have brought up. And it's that open-ended sense of simply being there, rather than any particular agenda that it forces down our throats, that makes "Critical Assembly" such an impressive, satisfying work of art.

Centuries ago, the art of the West aimed to play the kind of role that "Critical Assembly" does. In Renaissance Italy, artists built entire dioramas meant to transport a viewer back to the moment of Christ's birth, or death. In Spain, they perfected the art of the buffalo-skin crucifix, which seemed to suffer and bleed like real flesh does. But then, almost as soon as artists perfected their lifelike representations, they began to get credit for how cleverly the things were made -- "Ooh, look how well they've painted on that blood!" -- instead of for the subjects they evoked. Almost as soon as perfect trompe l'oeil is achieved, that is, it becomes a kind of special effect, more valued for the artifice that goes into it than for the content that it makes so real and present. You could argue that art has always wanted to be presentational -- to simply give us direct access to a world that's far away -- but that representation, with all its impressive tricks, tends to get in the way.

The only object guaranteed to keep its evocative power is a relic -- the thing that transports you to a crucial moment in the past because it was really there. A relic doesn't have to look like much. It doesn't even have to be proven real. (Medieval Christians knew that there were enough pieces of the "true cross" to crucify a hundred Christs.) It just has to link us, almost magically, to a distant place and time.

Special-effect art gets the most praise when it looks entirely real but turns out to be very fake. (A realistic nose made out of squishy rubber is more impressive than the actual nose that it's modeled from.) Relic-based art such as Sanborn's gets praise the more real it convinces us it is. Authenticity is what's at stake here, rather than illusionism.

Sanborn hasn't managed, or even tried, to make an absolute facsimile of a single moment in our nuclear history. Who would ever know, or care, if things at Los Alamos were precisely the way he's shown them to be? It's enough that he has used a pile of relics, helped along by a few modern imitations, to put us in a place we all need to know, and think about.

Now it's up to us to deal with it.

"Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction" features a major installation titled "Critical Assembly," as well as a suite of photographs called "Atomic Time," which includes photos of radium clock dials as well as images created when uranium is left to sit on film.

The exhibition was organized by Corcoran curator Jonathan Binstock. A 96-page color catalogue, with essays by Binstock and others, is available for $29.95.

"Atomic Time" is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW, at New York Avenue, through Jan. 26. The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, but is closed Tuesdays. It stays open every Thursday except Thanksgiving until 9 p.m. Adult admission is $5. Call 202-639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.