Test House - First Light, 2008
Oil on Canvas
36 x 48 inches
(c) Robert Beckmann 2008
"I have become death, the destroyer of worlds," J. Robert Oppenheimer spontaneously said upon witnessing the first detonation of a nuclear bomb on July 16, 1945. The statement is a slight mistranslation of a passage from the classic Hindu text the Bhagavad-Gita. It is hard to imagine that Oppenheimer's declaration is even an overstatement. The bomb has one purpose: to destroy. But even something as seemingly straight forward as the atomic bomb never remains clear for very long. We can't help but to begin to question ourselves: What does the bomb mean? Why do we feel compelled to build them? Is it protection for ourselves or from ourselves? In a surprisingly direct way, we are confronted with these questions and more when we are looking at Ashland artist's Robert Beckmann's new paintings of the Nevada Test Site that are part of a group show at Jim Kempner Fine Art in New York this month.
A photo from Operation Gable, an explosion similar to Operation Cue, that took
place in November 1951
When you think of nuclear weapons it is hard not to think of the strange vocabulary that was developed in the 1950's to describe it like massive retaliation, collateral damage and mutually assured destruction. The premise is that nuclear weapons keep Americans safe because the result of using even one bomb is so devastating and catastrophic that neither side in a conflict would want to risk a full scale exchange. The result is that conflicts and wars can be framed by these parameters that guide behavior. It was our way of trying to create stability in an unstable world. The bomb becomes a way of ensuring our safety at any cost. A failure to follow the guidelines would result in total annihilation of the whole planet. The result, in theory, is that it would be too risky for a country like the Soviet Union to invade the continental U.S. because of a fear of a nuclear retaliation. They would inevitably be destroyed along with ourselves. This formed the basis of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.)doctrine. Of course, the retaliation only works if there is a country to strike back against and it is considerably less effective in retaliating against a group of multinational individuals. The result is that by trying to go to illogical lengths to ensure our safety, we become not only extremely vulnerable but the world becomes incredibly dangerous.
Houses were placed at different distances from the blast so that scientists would be
able to study how standard construction methods would withstand the shockwave
These ideas become even more complex when you consider the tests that were performed at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950's and 1960's. Some of these tests were to determine how the United States would survive a nuclear attack. This is where things get a little strange for me. The U.S. does not want to use nuclear weapons because that would result in the destruction of the entire planet but just in case we should test our weapons against our infrastructure: houses, schools and factories to determine their survivability in case of a nuclear exchange. Now the houses and schools were inhabited only by mannequins, a subject also explored by Robert in a different series of paintings. We inevitably become what we fear. The whole program has a circular logic to it: we want to remain safe at all costs even if it means destroying ourselves. Why is it easier to destroy yourself than your idea of safety? If you are willing to accept the possibility of your destruction in the first place, you should realize that you do not need the feeling of safety provided by nuclear weapons simply because they do not make the world a safer place but only considerably more dangerous. The great contradiction is that by insisting on your personal safety (or the safety of your country) at all costs, you make the world more dangerous for everyone including yourself.
Test House - Fire, 2008
Oil on Canvas
18 x 24 inches
(c) Robert Beckmann 2008
In Test House, we never get to see the actual nuclear blast in these paintings. It is always waiting just outside of the frame. We only get to experience the effect, the deliberately devastating result of any nuclear blast. The blast itself bathes the house in an other worldly light for a few microseconds before it dissolves. In Test House, time slows down, a microsecond becomes an eternity and the paintings generate an unexpected gravitas. When everything slows down, we are allowed to examine the experience holistically. We see that the whole struggle is motivated by the most basic human need of protecting ourselves and our family and the result was a weapon that would destroy life as we know it, for everyone. The recognition of our desire for dominance and stability in an unstable world and the fear that someone else would use the weapon before we could. As time slows down, we can look at the experience from all sides. We are allowed to learn as much about ourselves as about what the test site means about our country. The longer that I stood in front of Robert's paintings the more I was bothered about whether the event that represented the worst part of our secular selves, was not in some deeper way profoundly sacred.
Joseph Campbell thought that all battlefields were offerings to the great Hindu goddess Kali. Kali is the goddess of time and time is the great destroyer. Time inevitably levels governments as well as mountains. You could say that time is the manifestation of everything that is impermanent and fleeting whether something survives for five minutes or 5000 years it must all end sooner or later, it is the nature of our existence. Time is inevitable. Change is inevitable. As human beings, we naturally want to avoid suffering. We crave the permanent and the eternal especially to prevent more suffering or loss. We are even willing to fight wars to ensure that we do not suffer. Whether wars are fought out of anger or safety of family and home, both experience are equally impermanent because there will inevitably be another conflict. Campbell felt that the battlefield was an altar to the goddess Kali because it was the vivid demonstration of everything that makes us human. It is the embodiment of our struggle against the transient nature of our existence. Even the light from the battlefields of a nuclear exchange evolves from a secular to a sacred light. The light is radiant proof of our humanity, our flaws and our folly.
Close up of the mushroom cloud from Operation Grable, November 1951.
Joseph Campbell thought that the mushroom is the embodiment of the
Hindu Goddess Kali, the goddess of change and death
In the mid 1950's at the Nevada Test Site, it was common for houses to be built at different distances from a nuclear blast to study the survivability of different types of housing. As part of Operation Cue in May 5, 1955, houses at differences were filmed being exposed to a nuclear explosion to see the potential effects on any occupants. Basically, they wanted to find out how far you have to be from a nuclear blast for the infrastructure of a city to survive. The houses and schools were called euphemistically "Survivor's Town" by the test program but "Doomstown" by the workers. We have all seen the famous images of the house being obliterated by the shock wave of a nuclear blast. The images echo in our collective consciousness and belong to all of us. It describes some essential quality of what it means to be an American. Here is the clip on Youtube:
It is hard to deny the symbolic significance of destroying houses. Everything gets twisted around, we are destroying exactly what we wanted to protect: our family, our home, ourselves and our way of life. The reason that I am writing about Robert's painting is that even though the images belong to all of us, the vision is his. His paintings are a meditation on the impermanent, transient nature of our existence. Ultimately the paintings are much more than images of the Test House, they become about the way that we experience our existence, about what it means to be human. Rather than leaves flowing down a gentle country stream, we are confronted with the blast of the radioactive shockwave but the result is the same. We can hear the gentle Hindu mantra: everything is impermanent; everything is without self. The transient nature of our existence is revealed in still images from 14 seconds of film footage that are framed forever in these paintings.
One of the houses from Operation Cue that was located 7500 feet from the blast
as it stands today
If we began the text quoting Hindu scripture, maybe the best way to end is with certain symmetry by quoting a different text:
Asato Ma Sat Gamaya
Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityor Ma Amritam Gamaya
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.
(Lead Us From the Unreal To Real,
Lead Us From Darkness To Light,
Lead Us From Death To Immortality,
Let There Be Peace Peace Peace)
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28.
Test House - Concussion, 2008
Oil on Canvas
18 x 24 inches
(c) Robert Beckmann 2008