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Ambushed at 50
By Brian Freer
James L. Acord and the nuclear age entered 1995 with
something in common: 50 years on planet earth. Art merges with science and
spins a seamless web in this tale of a nuclear community recast through the
membrane of a sculptor. The sculptor lives in a “24 hr. a day
studio” on the border between Richland and the Hanford Nuclear Site
in southeastern Washington State. And believe me, Mr. Acord had a 50th
birthday bash few remember. As for the nuclear age, today’s
establishment has tended to view the mid-century mark as a postmodern duck
and cover air-raid drill.2
Upon the 50th year marking our entry into the nuclear
age, our relationship to things nuclear remains shrouded in fear and
loathing. Unable to shake visions of three-headed fish floating behind
Three Mile Island, the nuclear establishment must truly wonder why so many
little disruptions have thwarted their Faustian bargain of “power too
cheap to meter.” Unresolved questions concerning America and the
nuclear age are being handled like nuclear wastes. They are being
entombed. Tough, honest assessment of the consequences of the first 50
years of the nuclear age has been given a pre-emptive burial in the very
land where it first took form.
|| James L. Acord’s
sculpture project calls into question “complicit inattention”
of pervasive, dominant representations of the nuclear age. As a means of
confronting “complicit inattention,” I have been at work on a
field project during the past two years which has focused on the pursuits
of a contemporary artist. By focusing on the day to day existence of this
artist, we cannot help but confront the subtle yet pervasive forms of
“complicit inattention” which allow the powers-that-be to
provide ways of knowing about the nuclear age which perpetuate fictions
Mr. Acord is the world’s only known individual to possess a radioactive materials license. And among his peer corporate license holders, he is surely the only Radiation Safety Officer to have the license number tattooed on the back of his neck (Washington State Radioactive Materials License # WN-10407-1). The art that is Acord prefers his whiskey neat and opts to bind his scrotum with wet government issue rawhide in order to complete the paperwork which inundates this project. One morning, rawhide drying in the desert sun, one of Mr. Acord’s granite chisels shattered the left lens of his glasses as he was putting the finishing touches to an Old Icelandic translation of his sculpture proposal. The cost of survival being what it is, James L. Acord decided to keep his phone service another month. Then he glued the shattered remains of the lens back together with epoxy. Which brings us to the now cultish question: Is Acord’s life mirroring Michael Douglas’ in Falling Down or could it be the other way around?
American comprehension of the use of the atomic bomb to end WW II is sanc-
timonious at best. Far from Acord’s studio, faint pulsing blips on the Hanford radar screen illuminate the fate of Martin Harwit, the former (read resigned) curator of the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay3 exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum. Mr. Harwit, his spectacles spattered with the same blood protesters used to cover the fuselage of the Enola Gay exhibit on July 2, 1995, now sleeps peacefully knowing the real secret of the atom bomb. Mr. Harwit was an early casualty of the “careful
editing”4 of official observances and celebrations relating to the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. The turmoil over the Enola Gay exhibit has emphasized just how asinine things can become when once dominant voices of the historical record perceive a threat from those with a different perspective. As Helen Slade has recently written, “Did Japanese civilians die unnecessarily, or did the bomb prevent the death of hundreds and thousands of both United States and Japanese citizens? This kind of
question is not answered by silence.”5
1. James L. Acord, Interview, 20 October, 1993. Fremont Fine Arts Foundry, Seattle, WA.
2. ”So What’s New? The Postmodern Paradox,” in Stanley Aronowitz, Dead Artists Live Theories (Routledge, 1994).
This footnote parodies references to the postmodern. Also, look for Acord’s footnotes to my text as an additional component of our continuing dialogue.
3. The Enola Gay was the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on a human population. It was detonated on August 6, 1945 over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. The nuclear materials that provided the explosion for this bomb came from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The materials for the second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945, came from Hanford, Washington. Bockscar was the bomber used on this mission.
4. Susan Platt, “Subversive Strategies” in Reflex, Dec./Jan. (1994-1995), p. 7.
5. Helen Slade, background information section of text describing “Yes, In my Back Yard?” This exhibit examines how the history of Hanford is perceived by people that live in the locality. The exhibit opens at Cheney Cowles Museum, Spokane, WA, 12 October (1995). For further information contact Helen Slade (206) 767-6512. Italics in original.