BY BLAKE GOPNIK
THE DAILY PIC (#1673): This is a still from Bruce Conner’s great 1976 art film called Crossroads, which is a collage of clips from the government’s own footage of the 1946 Bikini Atoll nuclear test. (See a clip here.) The piece is now showing in the exhibition called “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016” at the Whitney Museum in New York, after also starring in the recent Conner survey at MoMA. An apocalyptic crossroads – how could I not run it on this particular morning in American history, where blowing things up seems the order of the day?
Looking at Crossroads for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how “sublime” its imagery is, in the original, 18th-century sense of leaving us awestruck at the power and majesty of a force that is greater than us. Romantic theorists as well as artists like J.M.W. Turner were thinking mostly about natural forces and cataclysms – volcanoes and floods – whereas Conner’s images are of a completely man-made catastrophe. But I do wonder if the emotional pull of the natural and the man-made might not be the same in this case, meaning that there’s a certain pleasure for us in contemplating the majestic scale of the horror we have wrought. Is that why we can entertain the thought of using nuclear weapons, rather than sanely destroying every last one of them? Is that why we don’t take immediate steps to keep ourselves from cooking the planet – because we’re simply too impressed, too awestruck, by the spewing volcano we have become?
Sometimes we even elect one.