In-Security – Materialising Radiation

Penly nuclear power plant, France
Photo © Jürgen Nefzger / Courtesy Galerie François Paviot, Paris

On my first day in Geneva, I heard about a photo exhibition on nuclear power at the Red Cross Museum. Since its conception, nuclear power has been a subject of controversy stemming from a mixture of hope for a solution to our energy problems and fears about the side effects including the production of large quantities of material that can also be used in nuclear bombs. Recently, it has been in the UK media after Blair’s and Brown’s announcement of a ‘nuclear future’ for Britain.

One of my previous projects, ‘Mutation’ had been partly been inspired by a drawing of the artist Cornelia Hesse-Honegger of mutated bugs near Chernobyl and other power stations. I found her engagement with the subject very interesting and was very curious how the artists featured in the Red Cross exhibition would portray radioactivity, which is, unless you count its visible release of energy, invisible. As the exhibition was taking place at a peace and human dignity promoting institution, I expected to see graphic images of bomb victims or deformities from the Chernobyl disaster, which was, indeed, the case. However, within this familiar imagery there were many unexpected twists and turns. The most troubling aspect was the temporal closeness of the images: these were not images from the time these disasters happened, but recent images from these sites: ghost towns, socially excluded survivors, their on-going struggle with their deformed and diseased bodies, people returning to contaminated sites to regain a sense of home. There were also very surprising images in this exhibition, for example, those of nuclear plants placed in idyllic landscapes. These illustrated extremely well people’s ambiguous relationship with this method of energy generation. A film about the history and impact of the discovery of radioactivity was also shown, and a diagram illustrating the ‘relationship between energy and armament’ covered the wall of the final room of the exhibition alongside nuclear power related magazine covers from around the world.

I will give a brief summary of my impressions from the photographs, but you can instead visit the online exhibition here.

Sedan Crater, Nevada nuclear test site, United States of America, 1996
Photo © Emmet Gowin / Pace MacGill Galery, New York

According to the leaflet, In-security ‘tells of a scientific journey from the discovery of radioactivity and the developments that followed in the fields of matter, space, energy, health and armament’. It also portrays the way the discovery and utilisation of radioactivity has changed and continues to influence our lives and the face (and substance) of the world. Ten photographers were featured in the exhibition, all of them asking questions about nuclear power with very different approaches.

The exhibition started with the theme of ‘Truth and Consequences’:
Emmet Gowin, a photographer who became fascinated with scarred landscapes after flying over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation shows haunting images of moon-like terrains. Although the series is called ‘Changing the Earth’, Gowin tries to communicate his feeling of irreversibility of these changes. This does not, however, mean for him that the landscape is ‘dead’ – it is ‘always deeply animated from within’.

Next were Mutsumi Tsuda’s unbelievable souvenirs from the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque: key rings of the bombs ‘Little Boy’, ‘Fat Man’ and the aeroplane ‘Enola Gay’ that dropped these bombs. Contrasting with this were Hiromi Tsuchida’s burnt and deformed artefacts from Hiroshima on the opposite wall.

Guillaume Herbaut exposed the daily realities of the survivors of the Nagasaki explosion who have to struggle with long-term diseases, discrimination and psychological trauma. He also documented the effects of Chernobyl on its surrounding population and their transformed relationship with the environment and with each other. It was interesting to see in Ricky Davida-Wood’s contribution that Cuba is taking care of a lot of Chernobyl’s children who cannot afford care in the Ukraine.

Gerd Ludwig communicates his feelings about the disrespect Soviet governments show for human life and the environment. His images of people who have returned to the contaminated zone because they would otherwise feel dislocated are particularly thought-provoking.

Geiger counter registering toxic levels of radiation, Muslyumovo / Chelyabinsk, Russia
Photo © Gerd Ludwig

What follows is the theme of ‘Precautions’, which mainly features images of functioning or ‘retiring’ nuclear plants, and nuclear weapons, such as Nigel Green’s images of the Dungeoness power plant, which tell a story of future-orientated engineering and the human ‘quest for unlimited energy’.

Jürgen Nefzger’s ‘Fluffy Clouds’ series reminded me of the environment of – and the controversy about – the nuclear plant near my home town, Kruemmel, which we visited with our physics class at school. Showing idyllic landscapes with a nuclear power station in their midst, Nefzger leaves plenty of room for mixed reactions.

Paul Shambroom’s aim was to ‘produce a concrete visualization of the hardware of nuclear annihilation’ right after the end of the cold war. At the time he hoped that nuclear weapons would be a thing of the past. The recent use and development of new nuclear weapons seem to have urged him to show this moment of hope.

Peter Goin uncovers the (material) history of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the consequences of the rush to produce nuclear bomb fuel.

After internalising this cocktail of images and commentaries, as well as the permanent exhibition about the Red Cross, wars and human rights violations, one can only hope that our ‘nuclear future’ will not shine too brightly…

3 thoughts on “In-Security – Materialising Radiation

  1. Hello
    I am an architect and i study in Ph.D.
    Now i study about nuclear museum in the world.that get information about nuclear to people.can you help me to give me name of this museum?
    Thank you.

  2. The French name of the museum is
    Musee International De La Croix-Rouge Et Du Croissant-Rouge Geneve. The URL is in the first sentence of this post!

    MM :)

  3. Hi there Mutablematter,

    Just wish to say thanks for putting this up on the web. If anyone wishes to know more about this show – perhaps help us (REAL – a non profit NGO) tour the exhibition to other countries: now presently showing till Feb 09 at the Gernika Peace Museum, Spain, then please get in touch with me.

    Here’s hoping for a world without nukes.

    Best wishes

    Ashley Woods
    Producer of the Nuclear Dilemma exhibition & website

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