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Atomic history at center of new exhibit

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If we live in glass houses, no arsenal can protect us.

Two installations by Santa Fe artist Meridel Rubenstein form the fulcrums of an atomic history exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum opening June 3 in Santa Fe.

Melded of metaphor and myth, the installations bring together both physicists and puebloans.

Rubenstein’s “Oppenheimer’s Chair” and “The Meeting,” comprised of photos, videos, glass and steel, ground the exhibition of artifacts and photographs documenting the creation of the atomic bomb.

SITE Santa Fe commissioned Rubenstein to make “Oppenheimer’s Chair” for their first International Biennial in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the first Trinity Site test at White Sands. Rubenstein created a glass house with a steel frame filled with white sand. A suit of armor guards the house, projected onto the chair’s back. The artist sandblasted the ghost of a tree onto the back of the house.

“The ghost tree retains the molten landscape,” Rubenstein said.

Oppenheimer was the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and is among those who are credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb” for their role in the Manhattan Project, the World War II undertaking that developed the first nuclear weapons used in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Rubenstein envisioned the project while she was recovering from a head injury caused by a car accident. Both its materials and subjects were triggered in part by watching the Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary.

“At the end of the Civil War, a million glass plates were lost or sold to gardeners to build greenhouses,” she said. “I also had a picture of Oppenheimer’s chair.”

The work is a meditation on nature and the shedding of defensive postures after 50 years of the Cold War. An armored sentry figure, made of transparent film in a standing steel frame, guards the portal.

“We all sit in that chair and it’s made of glass,” Rubenstein said. “I’m trying to say that our houses are made of glass; the bombs can’t protect us.

“All they had to do was demonstrate at Trinity; they didn’t have to drop it,” she added.

Two years earlier, “Critical Mass,” a collaborative photo/text video, explored the worlds of scientists and Native Americans as they intersected at the home of Edith Warner at Otowi Bridge during the creation of the first atomic bomb in 1944. “The Meeting” portion of the installation examines this event.

Warner operated a tea house on the Chile Line from Santa Fe to Denver with her partner Tilano Montoya, the former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo, Rubenstein said.

“She’s the mystery; she has an illness; she was a recluse,” the artist continued. “Oppenheimer would stop by for chocolate cake.

Tilano had a little garden. They were going to build a road right by their window. The (scientists) got together and built them a house.

“‘The Meeting’ is what happens to ordinary and great people when they meet,” she added.

The works combine palladium prints, steel mounts, texts, performance and video by Rubenstein and Ellen Zweig, with technical assistance from Steina and Woody Vasulka.

The museum exhibition also gathers many never-before-seen artifacts, including a chair used by Oppenheimer in his Los Alamos office.