Fallout, exposure, and narrative
A new installation at the List Art Center at Brown captures the narrative of the first atomic blast in New Mexico, in images of new geologic formations and in human narrative as witnesses
PROVIDENCE – The talk on March 17 by Gabriel Martinez about his work, “Mountain War Time,” at the List Art Center at Brown University, took place a few hundred yards upwind from an earlier gathering that day, hosted by Sen. Jack Reed at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Reed’s forum addressed the political fallout of the Trump presidency, in opposition to efforts to zero out the federal budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. It drew more than 300 people, according to WPRO’s Steve Klamkin.
Martinez’s work captured images of the radioactive fallout from the first test of an atomic weapon that took place on July 16, 1945, at the desert test site known as Trinity in New Mexico, in human, x-ray and geological forms. It drew about 40 people.
But the narratives were connected.
Mountain War Time
The images by Martinez included photographs of x-ray films of trinitite, the glass created when the bomb exploded, fusing about 75 acres of gypsum silica into glass.
As Martinez described it, “The blast transformed the desert into photo paper.”
The radioactive trinitite captured in the show’s images was actually collected by Martinez’s grandmother at the ground zero site when it was opened to the public in the late 1960s, and then stored in a coffee jar.
In his talk, Martinez described what the practice of what the government did as a kind of “public nuclear waste disposal,” something no longer permitted.
“The government said, you can take as much as you want, but don’t make it into jewelry, and don’t give it to the kids, which, to my grandmother’s credit, she never gave me,” Martinez said. “I was told not to ever touch or open the jar.”
When they opened up the test site, Martinez continued, and people took the trinitite, “it was a kind of public nuclear waste disposal.”
Recording the range of the fallout
The decision to use x-ray film to capture the images of the trinitite was made after Martinez discovered as part of his research the distance the radioactive fallout had traveled from the first atomic test.
As Martinez explained his choice, “I was thinking of an incident I learned of in my research, in which several batches of x-rays had been mysteriously compromised. Eastman Kodak later discovered [that] the paper mill in Ohio that produced the cardboard dividers [for the unexposed x-ray film had] contained bits of pulp contaminated by fallout from the blast.”
The sensitivity of the x-ray film, Martinez continued, “provided an unintentional record of the range of the fallout.”
The human narrative
The installation includes a video of Henry Herrera, who witnessed the blast as a young child. In the video Herrera described the roiling cloud and the volatized silica that covered his family’s clean laundry hanging on the line.
Herrera also plays a song, which he has performed at many of the funerals of the group known as the Tularosa Basin Downwinders.
Unlike other groups of downwinders, those who were living in New Mexico at the time of the first atomic test have never been granted official government status. In Martinez’s show, Herrera’s testimony refutes the official story, which claimed that the fallout blew away from the local population.
“Henry witnessed the blast,” Martinez explained in his talk. “He is very important [to the narrative]. His testimony refuted the official story; the government claimed that the radioactive clouds blew in one direction, and that the area was unpopulated, which was not true.”
Herrera is an amazing person, Martinez continued. “He plays 12-string guitar. He actually went to school with my grandparents’ siblings. He plays at the family funerals of the downwinders.”
One of the images used in his first showing of Mountain War Time, Martinez explained to ConvergenceRI in a brief interview after the talk, was a photograph of Enrico Fermi, an atomic scientist working on the Manhattan project, meeting with Maria Montoya Martinez, a Pueblo potter who was credited with introducing indigenous design to modernism.
“They were both manipulators of materials at this earthly level,” Martinez said, describing the importance of the image to him.
For Martinez, the focus on geology was also part of what he described as the “intertwined colonial narratives” which had brought uranium mined in the Belgian Congo to the Apache Mescalero land in southern New Mexico.