The Kelowna Art Gallery is hosting a show about nuclear exposure, until July 18.
The gallery’s promotional leaflet says, “BOMBHEAD is a thematic exhibition organized by guest curator John O’Brian that explores the emergence and impact of the nuclear age…encompassing the pre- and post-war period from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daachi in 2011.”
It’s not just about nuclear war, although the visual images do include mushroom clouds and flattened cities.
It’s also about the invisible threat of nuclear radiation.
In my younger years, we feared nuclear attacks. We were drilled to get down under our desks and tuck our heads between our knees – so that, as we small boys always smirked, “you can kiss your ass goodbye.”
I took the nuclear threat seriously enough after reading Neville Shute’s On the Beach that I applied to emigrate to New Zealand. I reasoned that it would take radioactive fallout longer to reach there than anywhere else.
I have to admit that nuclear dangers had largely slipped from my mind, pushed aside by climate change and the global pandemic. And, for four years, the Trump presidency.
BOMBHEAD reminded me that the dangers of nuclear destruction and radiation have not gone away.
At the same time, I have to say, I felt that the exhibit failed.
BOMBHEAD is a visual arts display. But how does an artist portray something invisible?
What you can’t see CAN hurt you.
Even as I viewed the galley, I knew that I might be breathing radioactive particles leftover from the nuclear testing of the 1970s.
In infinitesimally small quantities, true. But because they’re infinitesimally small particles, I can never know if I have just inhaled a Strontium-90 or Cesium-137 atom. Which, lodged in my lungs, could cause cancer, that could kill me. If I don’t die first.
Ha! I have become Schrodinger’s cat!
Pigment on paper, no matter how skillfully applied, is necessarily static. There is no shock value in a symbolic diagram of a radioactive atom. Statistics overwhelm the mind, but not the heart.
Only one display piece elicited a sense of shock for me – an animated video tracing Canada’s complicity in nuclear development, from the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bombs, to the present.
The video lit up sites where the uranium that went into Fat Boy and Little Boy were mined, transported, and processed. Port Radium in the Northwest Territories. Uranium City in northern Saskatchewan. Port Hope refinery in Ontario. Chalk River, the first nuclear reactor outside the U.S. – and the first to suffer a meltdown. The diamond necklace of nuclear power plants strung across southern Ontario and out into New Brunswick.
The video worked, because it included an element of surprise.
Drama could do the same. So could music. Possibly poetry.
BOMBHEAD moved me to anger. But not to tears.
It seems to me that we humans are complacent when facts hit us only in our heads.
We have to be hit in the heart to get out of our comfortable ruts and start changing the world we live in.
I wish BOMBHEAD had hit me in the heart.
Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.