"The Deeds and Sufferings of Light"
Throughout the world there are only a handful of sites for the creation, testing, and then eventual disposal of nuclear weapons and their waste materials. Nevada and New Mexico host the primary locations for one of the largest nuclear weapons programs in the world, programs which first manufacture and blow up weapons, then store and dispose of the remains (as well as the residue of commercial nuclear waste, in itself a not-so-indirect spin-off of the weapons program). While other areas in the United States host some weapons development, it's always the deserts that inherit the majority of the burden--the deserts because the majority of us incorrectly define them as empty, and because these thinly-populated states lack the political weight necessary to fend off nuclear warfare practice and the disposal of radioactive waste.
Nuclear weapons are a threat most of us have grown up with; nuclear waste will remain a deadly factor in the life of the world for the next ten thousand years, even if all the weapons were dismantled this afternoon. These conditions, which breed anxiety and dread, anger and frustration, terror, and even wonder, have been with us long enough that a significant body of art about nuclear weapons has been created. As important as some of these works are, not only for their subject matter, but also for their level of artistic achievement, only a few come close to creating an aesthetic capable of grasping the immense and profound role that nuclear weapons play in our conscious and unconsciousness lives. Part poetry, part essay, part encyclopedia, The Deeds and Sufferings of Light: The Aesthetics of Nuclear Technology by Joel Weishaus is one of them. The poetry by itself is a dense and almost impenetrable thicket of language, every image directed at the nuclear condition we have created for ourselves. The "paratexts' on facing pages not only explicate many of the images and allusions in the texts, but provide the elements toward a unique history of nuclear technology. Unlike a traditional encyclopedia, however, which is written to be as unambiguous and linear a reference work as possible, Weishaus encourages the reader to participate with him in the construction of the meaning, the 'essay' formed from dialogue between the texts. The resulting interpretations, therefore, vary from reader to reader as each individual imagination assembles the elements.
Such deliberate indeterminacy is a hallmark of contemporary culture, which demands that art bring together disparate elements in unexpected ways, revealing previously hidden or unconscious truths--a technique refined throughout the twentieth century as one of the few sufficient to discover meaning in a world suffering from repetitive and meaningless military conflicts. This distinct aesthetic thread of disjunctive art, at times called "postmodern," has been further characterized by authors not attempting to hide from their readers, by making apparent the governing structural tenants of the text on the page, and by quoting from appropriate sources of any period. These are all strategies designed to push the text into a posture of ironic self-evaluation. So, in Weishaus's work, we find him juxtaposing the English painter Francis Bacon with Hopi creation myths and nuclear weapons nomenclature, and overtly facing prose to poetry, allowing the reader to freely associate fact-to-fact and fact-to-poetry. The reader's co-construction of the work. and subsequent decisions made in reading the text, are as revealing about the reader's psyche as the author's, a process Weishaus encourages us to bring into conscious range.
It has been said that the highest form of human concentration is play--that game rules are as complex an activity as higher mathematics, and that the attention, memory and various necessary skills engage us in greater neural effort than any other activity. Weishaus is asking us to play at a very high level in The Deeds and Sufferings of Light. He sets us down in what is one of the most complicated playgrounds it is possible to publish, doing so in the belief that we better pay attention to and concentrate on this particular subject as a matter of survival. He does this with the devotion of a writer who believes that art can help save us, that it is in fact a necessary condition for saving ourselves.
-William L. Fox
Since my arrival in New Mexico, twenty seven years ago, I have become increasingly aware of the various activities in the scientific, military, mining, medical, etc. industries here in my home state. The historical as well as the contemporary development of the nuclear industry as well as its impact on this state has been my prime emphasis of investigation.
Many of the photographs in Nuclear Enchantment are of actual sites presided over by a cast of ancient mythic figures. I hope that they are captivating and enigmatic. In some of the work I use figures from the great nineteenth century Japanese woodblock artist Hiroshige whose art commented on Japan's transition from ancient Shintoism to Westernization - a path that ultimately led to Hiroshima.
In my work I intentionally show a leveled world. Polluted skies, contaminated earth, nuclear explosions, fantastic happenings are all seen under the same light (regardless of the effect they have on people that are actually experiencing such events, for whom the events are not images, but occupy their moment); natural, social, mythic, physical, and psychological experiences are all leveled as images.
My reality and depiction is within this leveled world. It is within what known scientific information we learn and retain. It is within this social/political/economic period of time. And it is within photography, painting, installation, and performance. I hope that Nuclear Enchantment is thought provoking, yet technically brilliant and richly beautiful.