ART SEEN: Bruce Conner's work make BOMBHEAD memorable

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.

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ART REVIEW | Martin Herbert’s pick of March exhibitions, Bellas Artes Projects

Bruce Conner, Bellas Artes Projects, Manila, 24 February – 24 May

Affiliated with California’s neosurrealist assemblage scene from the 1950s onwards but a mystic-minded outrider even there, Bruce Conner was determinedly elusive in life. He announced his own death twice, officially renounced art in 1999 and earlier operated under aliases including Emily Feather, BOMBHEAD and the Dennis Hopper One Man Show. Conner was also, as his recent resurrection within the artworld reflects, something of a visionary.

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ARTNEWS | The Four Horsemen of America’s Apocalypse: Their Work Unearths the Seething Muck Beneath the Shiny Surface of American Culture

Conner, Shaw, Pettibon, and Wojnarowicz burrow into moments in America’s recent past when the forces of darkness seemed ascendant. Conner’s reflections on the allure of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, Shaw’s fascination with religious sects that resist the pull of modernity, Pettibon’s exploration of the rubble left by the failure of the 1960s utopian dreams, and Wojnarowicz’s evocation of the AIDS catastrophe of the 1980s all belong to a tradition of anxiety rooted in Apocalyptic thinking. But they also remind us of the ambiguity at the heart of the eschatological narrative. 

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artnet NEWS | Apocalypse Now? Like the election, Conner's nuclear-test film at the Whitney reveals the pleasure we take in destruction.

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?

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THE GUARDIAN | Horribly compelling: Bruce Conner's nuclear test film still holds us in rapture

A beautiful day on the atoll. Water lapping at the beach, ships out on the water. Sea birds screeching, a light breeze mussing the palm in the foreground of a black-and-white view of the lazy Pacific. Then the bomb goes off.

It is 25 July 1946. “Things happened so fast in the next five seconds that few eyewitnesses could afterwards recall the full scope and sequence of the phenomena”, wrote the physicist WA Shurcliff, in the official report of Operation Crossroads, a series of US nuclear bomb tests held less than a year after bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

And then it happens again, and goes on happening, time after time in Bruce Conner’s 1976 film Crossroads, recently restored in high definition and now the sole exhibit at Thomas Dane Gallery, in London.

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ARTFORUM | Critics' Picks: CROSSROADS @ Kohn Gallery

Watching the recent digital restoration of Bruce Conner’s thirty-six-minute film Crossroads, 1976, which depicts 1946 footage of the first underwater atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll, is a vertiginous experience of telescoping back in time. Conner obtained this government-shot film from the U.S. National Archives and with minimal interventions (editing and, most notably, the addition of music), turned it into a resonant meditation on the apocalyptic sublime, rendering the familiar nuclear mushroom cloud strange again. The mushroom cloud is one of Conner’s signature images, appearing in A Movie, 1958, and briefly in Cosmic Ray, 1961, as well as in his collage works and drawings, some of which are also on display here.

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LA TIMES | Bruce Conner's restored mushrooms clouds: You Can't look away

It begins with one explosion. And then another. And another. Mushroom clouds emerge from under the ocean, expand over the horizon, and churn up the environment in violent upheaval. For more than half an hour, at ever slower speeds, the explosions continue for a work of art that is as hypnotic as it is devastating.

The footage Conner found in the National Archives was of the first underwater atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1946. It contained views of the explosion from every imaginable angle. (Bruce Conner Estate / Kohn Gallery)

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VOGUE.COM | Watch an Exclusive Clip of Artist Bruce Conner’s Beautiful and Terrifying Film CROSSROADS

Dennis Hopper credited Bruce Conner with inventing the music video, and Bruce Jenkins, the former director of the Harvard Film Archive, once wrote, “what the Cubists wreaked on painting . . . Conner inflicted on cinema itself.” For every iconoclastic film that the renegade West Coast artist made before his death in 2008, there are sculptures, collages, paintings, and drawings, too. Simply put, if you’re not yet familiar with Conner’s work, now’s the time for an introduction—well ahead of the retrospective that MoMA and SFMoMA are rumored to be jointly planning for next year.

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ARTFORUM | Conservation at a Crossroads

IN 1996, I was working at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. Although I was the cataloguer, Edith Kramer, the PFA’s director at the time, knew I had a background in film printing and processing, and she let me hang around the screening room when the archive was preserving Crossroads (1976), Bruce Conner’s profound reworking of the 1946 Bikini Atoll atomic-bomb test footage.1 The film, a thirty-seven-minute montage choreographing twenty-three black-and-white shots of the underwater nuclear explosion to the accompaniment of a transcendent dual score by pioneering synthesist Patrick Gleeson and composer Terry Riley, is today considered Conner’s masterpiece and one of the most provocative and compelling works to address the atomic era. Having only recently joined the PFA, I was honored to be a fly on the wall as my colleagues worked.

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INCITE | Representing the Unrepresentable: Bruce Conner's CROSSROADS and the Nuclear Sublime

"Since 1946, selections from archival footage of Operation Crossroads—especially footage of the Baker test—have become a familiar source of nuclear explosions in innumerable documentaries and feature films... robably their best-known appearances have been in the apocalyptic conclusion to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and at the mid-point transition from despair to hope in Michael Jackson’s video 'Man in the Mirror.'  But in my view the most creative and compelling recycling of Baker test footage appears in Bruce Conner’s thirty-six minute, black and white film Crossroads (1976). In sampling the critical literature on 'nuclear movies' and other cultural appropriations of nuclear imagery, however, I have found only one passing reference to Conner’s film—in a Wikipedia entry on Operation Crossroads. More surprisingly, no thorough discussion of the film appears in the (admittedly not very extensive) critical writing on Conner’s films. I hope to remedy these oversights—to some extent at least—in what follows."

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FILM QUARTERLY | Fallout: Some Notes on the Films of Bruce Conner

Given the concern for our present and future ecological welfare, it is timely and brilliant Bruce Conner to have selected the birth of the Atomic Age as the subject of his newest film, Crossroads. From material recently declassified by the Defense Department, Conner has constructed a 36-minute work, editing together 27 different takes of the early atomic explosions at Bikini, all un-altered found footage in its original black and white. The film is without dialogue or descriptive factual detail. It consists simply of the visual record of these first bombs' destructive capability.

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ARTWEEK | Bruce Conner's New Films

With the continuing democratization of the “nuclear club” on the international relations scene, perhaps it is only a matter of time before a few bombs fall into the itchy hands of some of our busy conceptual artists. You’ll have to admit that an atomic explosion would make a memorable happening (I’ll skip the opening, thank you), atmospheric sculpture or…something to wrap, by Christo! The artist who has come closest to seriously treating this material, this stuff of Armageddon, is Bruce Conner with his long-awaited new film Crossroads. As Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1934-36) was political theatre introducing the adamantine unity of Nazi Germany to the world, so was Operation: Crossroads America’s raised gauntlet to the postwar era.

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SF SUNDAY EXAMINER & CHRONICLE | Bruce Conner — The Master of The Non-Narrative Movie

Like most of Conner’s earlier films – which in include such “underground” classics as “Cosmic Ray,” “A Movie” and “Report” (based on the assassination of John F. Kennedy) — “Crossroads” is a moving “collage” of spliced and edited footage, although in this case of a highly unusual kind: Working with a grant from the American Film Institute, Conner gained access to film depicting the first underwater A-bomb test at Bikini in July, 1946, now housed at the National Archive in Washington. Much of it was declassified for his use. 

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SF EXAMINER | Film study of an atomic mushroom

There seems to be no bounds to Bruce Conner’s vision. The noted San Francisco artist, who works both as a painter and film-maker is one of our most tirelessly creative experimentalists and proves it again in his latest film, “Crossroads,” a poetic study of the mushroom-cloud formations of an atomic bomb.

It is Conner’s most eccentrically imaginative work – a 36-minute, black-and-white mood piece, which is, in effect, an awesome and fearsome poem to a nuclear explosion.

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BERKELEY BARB | Bruce Conner’s Yogic Study Of The Bomb

It has been three years since Marilyn premiered. Conner returned to print-making for a while and last year collaborated with Photographer Edmond Shea on photo-print sculptural pieces entitled “Angels.”  During this time Conner scored an American Film Institute grant and he began a new project in collaboration with composers Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. That film is Crossroads.

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