Developed by a team of scientists over several years and shrouded in secrecy, the atomic bomb would eventually be used on human beings twice, in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombings were widely regarded as a way to end World War II and to save thousands of lives, but it wasn’t long before people from all nations were shocked by the scale of the devastation and the long-term effects of radiation. Soon, nuclear weapons inspired fear, with world leaders pumping their arsenals full of nuclear bombs and using them to wield global political power. The United States continued testing its nuclear bombs in the Pacific Ocean and the Nevada desert until signing the Limited Test Ban Treaty on August 5 , 1963.
The austere new photography exhibit at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Michael Light: 100 Suns, compiles declassified United States military photos of the 216 above-ground nuclear tests performed after World War II, from 1945 to 1962. San Francisco-based photographer Michael Light procured the photos from the U.S. National Archives and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He re-photographed or scanned the images and rendered them as portrait-sized landscapes, albeit ones that portray a man-made horror on a terrific scale. The images collected here were captured seconds after detonation, and they signal the powerful human potential for destruction.
The symbolic suns represented in Light’s photos are the soaring mushroom clouds and eerie flame shock waves produced by these atomic eruptions. The tests are observed from a distance, and each explosion forms a dense layer of clouds extending to the sky. The images are almost as startling for their somber beauty as they are for the destructive force they convey, and they range from black-and-white shots to bold, color-saturated prints. Each blast is given a strangely endearing code name, beginning with “Little Feller 1,” a small atomic rocket in 1945, and ending with five images of the H-bomb “Mike” from 1952. Light also provides the date, location, and size of the explosion. The result of this assemblage is a compelling collection culled from history’s own perplexing truths, a pictorial statement on weapons of mass destruction.
100 Suns isn’t just an array of abstract forms. In a telling black-and-white photo from a 1953 test entitled “Dog,” a group of soldiers gaze at the explosion in the distance, their faces astonished. The soldier in the foreground has a cigarette dangling from his lips, his eyes transfixed on the sky in front of him. “Simon” shows a 1953 site in which soldiers seek refuge in a trench from a downpour of sparks from the nearby test. In another, a group of onlookers casually sit on the beach in chairs lined up in rows and watch the burst like a movie. These more personal photos give the exhibit its emotional impact, and the juxtaposition of the surreal blasts and the candid snapshots are remarkably effective.
Surprisingly, 100 Suns provides very little contextual information for the viewer other than the titles. A brief statement about the content is posted, and Light’s economy of words is refreshing for a big museum show. It leaves the viewer some room to breathe among the images, which really do tell the story themselves. Light mostly leaves his comments to the large book that accompanies the show. KMA has provided handouts featuring an atomic timeline, particularly linking the role of Oak Ridge’s Y-12 electromagnetic plant to the development of our nuclear capabilities.
Light’s brilliant play on history maybe isn’t the kind of art you would expect at the KMA, but it’s one of the hardest-hitting shows in recent memory. It’s the kind you’ll hear people talk about, and one that should appeal to folks of all ages. It’s already a key component to an upcoming performance at the museum.
Knoxville’s Momentum Dance Lab will perform a site-specific modern improvisational dance piece in conjunction with the exhibit as part of the annual Art Moves dance-and-sound series. (The troupe will also be performing in other parts of the museum.) Local composer James Carlson has also written music and soundscapes for the event. It will be interesting to see how sound and dance play off these arresting images.