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“Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Jan. 26

“Jim Sanborn:

Penetrating Radiation”

At Numark Gallery to Dec. 20

I blame Robert Oppenheimer. Not so much for heading up the Manhattan Project, which designed the atomic bombs that killed a couple of hundred thousand Japanese and ended World War II. And not so much for quashing the Los Alamos distribution of a petition, already circulated around Oak Ridge, calling for an end to the project’s experiments after the German surrender. No, I blame him for the portentous quotation that ushered us into the age of nuclear science’s metaphysical mystification.

You may recall that when the first A-bomb was detonated down at the Trinity Test Site near Alamogordo, N.M., on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer had a remark at the ready. By legend a man who was fluent in two languages—English and profanity—Oppenheimer stepped outside his proficiency and, using a questionable, grandiose translation of a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, mused as he saw the mushroom cloud: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

And now, nearly six decades after Grand Moff Tarkin obliterated Alderaan—what? oh, sorry—local artist Jim Sanborn gives us “Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction,” an extended mood piece that fails as art, doesn’t really even try to be science or science pedagogy, and succeeds only as a monument to Sanborn’s own formidable obsession and as woozy, tendentious theater. In attempting to summon the gravitas of Oppenheimer’s historic moment, Sanborn draws on the alluring dread of his quote but chucks the intellectual rigor that otherwise defined the scientist. The heart of Sanborn’s Corcoran Gallery of Art show is Critical Assembly (1998-2003), a crepuscularly lit sequence of his conceptions of the bomb assemblies and tabletop criticality experiments that were composed or conducted at Los Alamos.

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Sanborn has placed racks of vintage equipment, much of it acquired from retirees and enthusiasts who snapped it up at sales when it became obsolete, around fake fissile materials and custom-machined but inexact simulations of bomb cores—the originals, for obvious reasons, not having been made available to the public. Assembled into a muddled presentation that inadequately distinguishes the specific historical context and scientific aims of each setup and ignores the geopolitical forces that shaped the era, these installations are to be marveled at, not understood. An equipment tower against the far wall glows and whooshes as Geiger counters, harmlessly rigged into action around the room, cry wolf. The effect is supposed to be pure menace, but sounds instead like a Pole record before the beats are put in. In a particularly infelicitous touch, snarelike coils of heavy electrical cords—not live, of course—are snaked around the floor and screwed in place; you’re told not to tread on them, as though they were dozing cobras. This bit of theme-parkery serves mainly to make it a little more difficult to look around “Atomic Time.” You enter and exit the dim chamber via a passage lined with spectral images produced by the radiation from chunks of uranium ore Sanborn collected, pictures that owe their implicative air to early-20th-century spirit photography and Globe shots of the Virgin Mary in a sticky bun.

Full disclosure time: Back in the mid-’80s, I was a Los Alamos “collaborator.” (Nothing sinister about the term, folks—it’s like a cross between “independent contractor” and “underpaid student laborer,” and I didn’t have a security clearance.) I was a theory guy, but I hung around the lab long enough at Wake Forest that I get a little misty whenever I see a ‘scope with the old Tektronix logo on it. And I’m in no hurry to fault war-era scientists for our subsequent policy failures in managing the nuclear threat. So I’m probably not the audience Sanborn had in mind. But I had a good time just the same, checking out the multivoltage dry cells, the test leads and slide rules, the power lights and chickenhead knobs. The old Variac in Assembly for a Los Alamos Prototype really took me back. And the Rubicon Instruments potentiometer in Device for Measuring the Electromagnetic Flux of a Blast Wave was a pretty sly joke.

The time I spent as a grad student teaching “experimental” physics labs (more accurately, teaching students to replicate the experiments of yore) and prowling the halls at night during coffee breaks leads me to see the glowing screens of Sanborn’s oscilloscopes as something other than Satan’s TV sets, to view his gloomily lit tabletop setups as more than altars dedicated to some dark and mystical rite. But a whiff of the demonic is exactly what “Atomic Time”‘s heavy-handed visual rhetoric is trying to evoke. Sanborn is endeavoring to transmute ignorance into awe, bypassing any sort of enlightened engagement with the object of veneration. And that, of course, is the stuff of religion. The artist, acting as priestly intercessor, is looking to put the fear of God—or, in this case, Atom—into his viewers by marching them through the Stations of the Bomb, each pool of light in the exhibition marking one chapel in a cathedral dedicated to a fundamental power that exceeds the viewer’s understanding. It’s a tacit critique of the marriage of science and politics, a critique whose effectiveness hinges on your faith in art’s good intentions.

Sanborn is also betting—rightly, I’d guess—that the art audience’s lack of scientific literacy permits him to issue proclamations about his own unique powers. In a catalog interview, he frequently makes too much of his past endeavors. “I did a series of installations that made visible the earth’s magnetic field,” he boasts. “I made hundreds of compass needles, magnetized the needles, suspended them from a very fine line, and arranged them in large arrays so they would demonstrate the north/south position of the magnetic field of the earth. And juxtaposed with that, I would arrange the lodestones in such a way that I could deviate the earth’s magnetic field.” Impressed? You shouldn’t be. The compass I had suction-cupped to the windshield of my car until it started leaking all over the dash “made visible the earth’s magnetic field.” As for the deviation bit, well, every magnet does that, even the lacquered red octopus I used to have holding my shopping list to the fridge.

“I represent a phenomenon, an invisible force, a psychological feeling, a terror, or something like that,” Sanborn later explains. “I represent that mechanically in my machines. Lodestones and radioactive stones have a ponderous conceptual weight.” Or so he’d like you to think. Lodestones, which are nothing more than naturally occurring magnets, and radioactive stones may, if they are big enough, have a ponderous physical weight. But any conceptual weight in “Atomic Time” can be attributed to Sanborn’s manipulation of viewers unaccustomed to distinguishing between what mystery means in science (the presently unknown) and what it means in art (the eternally unknowable).

Sanborn also advances his effects through what we students—whenever we were treated to an insufficiently convincing explanation of some arcane effect—termed “hand-waving and table-pounding.” In the catalog, a crew of art-talking explicators bemoan the co-opting of pure science by corporate and military concerns, betraying both a misunderstanding of where research comes from and naiveté concerning the military-industrial complex’s abilities to make use of research it does not bankroll. Along the way, Team Sanborn reinforces the artist’s exalted position by rendering it increasingly obscure—making frequent recourse to “mystery,” “beauty,” and, most annoyingly, “invisible forces.” You know what? All four fundamental forces of nature—gravitational, electromagnetic, strong, weak—are invisible. But if you’ve ever dropped a pencil or misplaced a sock because it got stuck to a towel in the dryer, you have witnessed “invisible forces” at work.

As for beauty, there’s no question that Sanborn’s sculptures are aesthetically appealing, even “seductive.” Critical Assembly’s machined spherical shells and stout rectilinear fortresses of lead, graphite, and paraffin are the result of a fetishistic devotion to structure, materials, and surface that puts you in mind of, among others, Jackie Ferrara, Jackie Winsor, and Sol Lewitt. Recent art-world debates about the meaning of beauty notwithstanding, artistic and scientific beauty are two entirely different animals. Artistic beauty generally characterizes things that have a profound and sweeping emotional effect, but are to some degree impervious to analysis. Science, on the other hand, regards something as “beautiful” when it is elegantly understood.

But scientific beauty is every bit as indifferent as the artistic kind; there’s a chipper sort of dust-your-hands-off-to-hell-with-the-consequences briskness to the whole affair. Although he claims to be working at the intersection of both notions of beauty, Sanborn is really attempting to harness the allure of the unknown and the not-yet-achieved to the immediate visual appeal of scientific equipment. (The catalog only glances upon the original aesthetic intentions of the toolmakers—a tragically missed opportunity.) This conceptual slippage allows Sanborn to pose as both aesthetic voluptuary and hindsight-blessed pomo scold. With all the talk of “seduction,” he exudes the dubious puritanical air of a censor who spends a little too much time with the smut he professes to abhor.

Although the simplified presentation of Sanborn’s Numark show stands in stark contrast to the sheen of complexity that adorns “Atomic Time,” there is a similarly crippling lack of contextualization. The bulk of “Penetrating Radiation” is at least well-lit, but its diptychs of depleted-uranium (DU) shells and their autoradiographs (aura-like images that provide evidence of the ammunition’s radioactivity) provide little in the way of illumination. The debate surrounding DU isn’t over whether it is radioactive, but how dangerous that radioactivity remains. That’s a medical question, in addition to being a physical and environmental one, and it won’t be answered without lots of data. But Sanborn is playing on our fear of the invisible rather than explicitly stating his claims and supporting them quantitatively. If he’s afraid that including such material (or sufficient technical and historical information for us to parse what’s going on over at the Corcoran) will spoil his pristine effects, then—congratulations—he has picked subjects that defy artistic representation.

Sanborn has won kudos for prodding discussion of nuclear weaponry and nuclear materials, but that’s a gimme where presentation of these subjects are concerned. An artist should not win bonus points just for sending you to the library. Or to the gift shop. Back at the Corcoran, that’s where the real action is: In addition to a black-light display of the catalog, which has glow-in-the-dark lettering on the cover, and a selection of retro alarm clocks that rightly picks up on the fact that Sanborn’s photos of vintage radium clock dials (on display in both “Atomic Time” and “Penetrating Radiation”) are more nostalgic than ominous, you can find Richard Rhodes’ award-winning histories of the atomic and hydrogen bomb projects. And John Coster-Mullen’s expensive but extensive self-published collection of documents and photos, Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man. Good thing, too, because Sanborn’s vision of the Manhattan Project is a gimcrack haunted house. CP

Sanborn speaks about his work at 3 p.m. Monday, Dec. 1, and with Rhodes at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 639-1700.