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Challenging NM’s nuclear ‘myth’

SANTA FE, N.M. — It’s being called the “Atomic Summer.”

Shows, talks and exhibits, all centered around the country’s nuclear history and New Mexico’s role in it.

Most of the screenings or talks are inspired by the Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Doctor Atomic,” which follows Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer as he grapples with the decision to detonate the nuclear bombs he helped create at Los Alamos during World War II.

The New Mexico History Museum has joined in with its “Atomic Histories” exhibit and by co-sponsoring the Opera’s Tech and the West, a two-day symposium with lectures on the history of the U.S. nuclear enterprise and its effects on the present.

In response, one group is hosting an art exhibition and lecture to add another voice to the mix – one that screams opposition.

“Resist the Romance: Nuclear History in the Land of Enchantment” will be held Saturday at the Phil Space Gallery.

“Our voice is just a pure ‘no,’ ” said James Hart, a local photographer and head of the Friends of Tony Price. The organization put together the lecture event to go with an exhibition of the work of Price, a local, anti-nuclear sculptor who died in 2000.

“It’s not a romanticized voice – we don’t accept any of it,” Hart said. “That’s Tony’s voice. It’s a more extreme voice.”

Hart tapped Greg Mello, head of the Los Alamos Study Group, as the evening’s main lecturer. He will be joined in discussion by local filmmaker Godfrey Reggio.

Mello says there are “myths” about the history of the atomic bomb that he wants to debunk.

He says, for instance, that there is evidence to show that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was less about defeating Japan and more about proving to emerging power Russia that the U.S. had a destructive new technology.

Mello also disputes the idea that dropping the bomb was a “morally complex” issue for many American leaders, who he said had “numbed themselves” to mass casualties.

“Most of the senior leadership of the U.S. (thought) that using the atomic bomb would damage the prestige of the United States and spur development of nuclear weapons in an arms race,” he said. “For them, it wasn’t complicated; dropping a bomb and incinerating an entire city. There were a lot of people that expressed revulsion at the time.”

He also said he wants to examine the world’s “fascination” with leaders like Oppenheimer, who famously wrote that when he saw the Trinity test explosion in southern New Mexico, he thought of a line from Hindu scripture: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Friends of Tony Price are also planning another lecture the following week touching on the atomic industry’s effect on Native American communities, with a representative from Albuquerque’s Nuclear Issues Study Group.

The exhibition of about 40 Price sculptures will be on display at the gallery until August 19. He was known for making works resembling spiritual masks out of scrap metal from LANL – or, as Hart described it, metal that once played a role in the creation of “weapons of mass destruction.”

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Tony Price made mask-like sculptures out of old scrap metal from Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Courtesy James Hart)

“He was known as the atomic artist, but he was more of a magician,” said Hart. “His vision was to invert that energy and it would be reflected back to people who saw it.”

Both Mello and Hart said they aren’t taking aim at any particular event or artistic endeavor scheduled as part of the Santa Fe area’s “Atomic Summer.”

Hart said “Doctor Atomic” and artist Meridel Rubenstein’s installations at the History Museum do address varying viewpoints on the bomb and its use.

It’s simply the large quantity of atomic-themed events all taking place at the same time that the group worries contributes to what Hart describes with an issue over how the area’s nuclear history is perceived and discussed.

“It’s a slow acceptance of all of this, almost,” he said. “And to be extreme, its almost to the point where Santa Fe as a tourist town sort of uses Los Alamos as a tourist attraction … . We feel that’s a softening or slow softening. It’s romanticizing that whole deal. We feel that’s wrong, and that’s a very, very destructive thing.”

The Santa Fe Opera acknowledges that the Manhattan Project can be romanticized, says Andrea Fellows Walters, the Opera’s director of education and community engagement.

But she said that’s why the Opera wants to “mitigate” that by hosting many of the Atomic Summer events, like Tech and the West and a lecture at the Lensic on the issues raised in “Dr. Atomic.”

Other efforts include having members from the The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium – the group that seeks compensation for health issues in communities surrounding the Trinity Test Site – onstage during the production.

She said the Opera wants to spark discussion about what the country’s choice to test and use the atomic bomb meant and what it means for the world’s future.

New Mexico History Museum’s Melanie LaBorwit, who curated “Atomic Histories,” takes a similar tack. She said citizens can’t just “walk away” from what happened, and the collective educational events and artistic works around town can help those who are troubled by these histories to better understand how it fits into what is happening politically today.

“History, no matter what we do, is not necessarily a celebration of an event or series of events,” she said. “It’s telling the story and bearing witness to what happened.”

But Mello has a different take on what acknowledging this part of history means for the future. He said a false narrative puts the country in a politically dangerous place, one in which it cannot see past the “mistakes” of 1945.

“By anchoring ourselves in the past, we can’t embrace the future,” he said.

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