ART SEEN: Bruce Conner's work make BOMBHEAD memorable

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Crossroads is big but Bombhead is small.

The sentence may sound like an art koan but it’s not. It’s about two things. One is Crossroads, the name of a video that communicates the incredible destructive power of a nuclear explosion and what it means to live in a nuclear age. The second is Bombhead, the name of the exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery where Crossroads appears. But as an exhibition, Bombhead never really matches the impact of Crossroads.

Crossroads is by Bruce Conner. It’s a 36-minute video created from declassified U.S. National Archives footage of the first underwater atomic bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific on July 25, 1946.  The nuclear bomb had the explosive power of 21,000 tons of TNT – about the same size as the atomic bomb dropped at Nagasaki. One reviewer said it was an example of the “nuclear sublime”. It’s a perfect description.

The video is comprised of the same blast seen from 15 different angles and heights. Some views are so different it’s difficult to believe that they’re of the same event. The explosion produced an incredible column of water that rose to a height of 1.6 km (one mile) which one commentator called “Niagara Falls in reverse”.

The first section of Crossroads has a sound track of what appears to be live sound generated by the action in the video. The sounds include a male voice reciting a countdown as well as explosions and cascading water all of which happen in sync with the visual movement. But those sounds are all added. If the explosions, for example, were diegetic sounds, then there would be a delay between seeing the mushroom cloud form and hearing its aural representation. In fact, the sounds are all part of an added soundtrack, most of which was created on a Moog Synthesizer by Patrick Gleeson. The link of sound and image brought me into the video in the same way they work together in Hollywood movies.

The second section has a different soundtrack. It’s comprised of a work by minimalist composer Terry Riley. I found that Riley’s repetitive music, played by Riley himself on an electronic organ, worked against the image by creating a Brechtian distancing effect. It helped create a critical space so I could really consider the relationship between sound and the moving images and the effect they were having on me.

The central marketing image for the VAG exhibition is a photo collage by Conner called Bombhead. It’s a great image for the way it replaces the neck and head of a figure in military uniform with a mushroom cloud. It’s both funny and surreal: it recalls both a nuclear bomb explosion and the phrase ‘his head is in the clouds’ – a reference to someone with a limited grasp of practical matters.

If Crossroads by Conner is about the big and impersonal, then Roy Kiyooka’s StoneDGloves is about the small and intimate. It’s a series of photographs of discarded gloves worn by workers building World Expo at Osaka in 1970. While the photos weren’t made in direct reference to the two nuclear explosions in Japan, they did make me think of the missing hands and bodies that once animated them. The soft cloth gloves somehow twisted themselves into unusual shapes; some were hardened by concrete and water. Their contorted shapes recalled butoh, the dance form which developed in post-war Japan that often celebrated what was crude, awkward and misshapen.

Also outstanding is the exhibition booklet with the essay by curator John O’Brian. It’s done in the style of a 1950s/1960s government brochure with an official seal of approval at the front and evocative black and red illustrations and graphics throughout. Taken from historic brochures such as Blueprint for Survival No. 2: Basement Fallout Shelter, 1961 and modified for Bombhead, they both harken back to the past and bring the exhibition into the present.

It was looking through the brochure when I realized that virtually none of its great illustrations or graphics made their way from the page into the gallery except for one small exhibition area in a corner where they’re used to illustrate a time-line. A great visual language had been developed in the booklet which could have been expanded and used on several gallery walls to give the exhibition more impact. 

What I thought odd was that Bombhead makes no mention of the number of people killed when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Conservative estimates are that the blast from the two bombs killed at least 120,000 immediately and maybe another 120,000 or more afterwards from radiation poisoning and cancer. Nobody knows the true numbers. I also think it’s significant to mention that was Japanese civilians who were killed by American fighters.

The exhibition is largely comprised of works from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s permanent collection. That probably limited the selection of work but it’s too bad that more of the incredibly powerful photographs of Ishiuchi Miyako weren’t included. She recorded the clothing and personal belongings of people killed by the 1945 bomb on Hiroshima. They included shoes, pants and colourful silk dresses which girls wore under their uniforms. Her haunting colour images brought the clothing and the people alive when I saw them in an exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology in 2011. Bombhead does have some of her work: a photograph of a part of a doll is above a photo book on the subject in a display case opened to a page showing a translucent blue shirt. But the images are so small and displayed in such a way that they’re easily overlooked. Bombhead could have had a bigger impact with more of Miyako’s works that communicate the personal and intimate losses of the first victims of the nuclear age.

Bombhead is at the Vancouver Art Gallery to Sunday, June 17.