ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Less than a year from now this country will reach a milestone of the nuclear age as we mark 75 years since the explosion of the first nuclear device here in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, respectively, during World War II.
No fanfare, however, acknowledged the 40th anniversary last month of the July 16 (that date again), 1979, Church Rock, New Mexico, uranium mill breach, which resulted in the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history into the Puerco River.
“I wanted to start the conversation before the (75th) anniversary, to tell a story that is different from the one Los Alamos (National Laboratory) tells about the bombs ending World War II,” said Barbara Grothus, curator of “Black Hole/Atomic City (State of Decay),” an exhibit up through Aug. 30 at Sanitary Tortilla Factory gallery, 401 Second SW.
“We (New Mexicans) were the first people contaminated by the first atomic explosion. We are the national sacrifice zone.”
The show at Sanitary Tortilla Factory plays out an alternative narrative of the nuclear age through 28 works by 17 artists, some from outside New Mexico.
Thomas Powell, a Sacramento, California-based artist submitted two large metal sculptures of dead or dying insects, “for Camus,” a fly, and “for Kafka,” a cockroach, his take, perhaps, of the most dire results the nuclear age poses for all of life.
Taos artist Serit Inez deLopaz Kotowski’s entry in the show, “Sacred Trust: BROKEN,” sets of charred, cracked and crusted plates and mugs, expresses the downwind effects of tritium and yellowcake on everyday life. “Vanishing Point,” a large depiction of a mushroom cloud created by Albuquerque’s Mitch Berg, needs no explanation.
Grothus said New Mexicans, especially indigenous and rural populations, have been exposed to actual or possible adverse affects of radiation from that first atomic detonation at the Trinity test site, 35 miles southeast of Socorro, on what is now the White Sands Missile Range; through uranium mining and its tailings-piles aftermath; the storage of radioactive waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant east of Carlsbad; the transportation of hazardous materials to WIPP; and accidental spills. The Church Rock incident unleashed radioactive mill waste and radioactive tailings solution into the Puerco River and on downstream 80 miles to Navajo County, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation, contaminating both the river and groundwater.
“The nuclear business, as my dad called it, is just bad,” Grothus said. “We really don’t talk that much about it. We need to have a broader conversation.”
Bed and ashes
Grothus, 66, grew up in Los Alamos. Her late father, Ed Grothus, went to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1949 and was employed there for 20 years before leaving and becoming an anti-nuclear weapons activist. He was famous for the Black Hole, a Los Alamos store from which he sold surplus equipment – Geiger counters, X-ray machines, circuit boards, oscillators – he acquired from the lab. But Barbara Grothus said her parents also owned the Shalako Store, which sold Indian jewelry, rugs, pottery and kachina dolls.
“My dad loved the indigenous cultures, and he was outspoken about the effect of the nuclear business on the health of the people of the state,” Grothus said.
One of Grothus’ two contributions to the show is “Pox,” a small Navajo rug with tiny yellow, felt spots attached to symbolize diseases – smallpox, flu, measles, nuclear poisoning – inflicted on American Indians by settlers who came to this country later.
Anna Bush Crews of Ranchos de Taos entered a piece consisting of a metal bed frame supporting small ceramic, human-shaped figures, some of them containing ashes. She said a favorite Ed Grothus quote “Dying is not exciting” gave her the title for the work.
Primarily a photographer, Crews, 70, was moved to enter this show because the issue has remained part of her internal conversation since she was a student at Taos High School in the 1960s and took part in a debate about whether nuclear escalation is good or bad.
“I did not know what form (my entry) was going to take until a few days before the show,” she said. ” The bed has been outside in my yard for 10 years. I make ceramic things and over the winter I have a wood fire, so I have ashes. Ashes seem to be part of so many disasters going on now with the heating up of the planet. Then I had the idea of figures on a bed. The bed can be seen as the one we have made for ourselves to lie on.”
The largest and most colorful work is “J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Nuclear Pancake House” by Santiago Perez, who lives in the mountains south of Tijeras. Perez had to construct his work, a small house, inside the gallery space. Its exterior walls are painted in oils with scenes of power and destruction from the Bible and Aztec and Hindu mythology.
Oppenheimer was the scientist in charge of the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos Laboratory. He said the Trinity site explosion made him think of the words “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita. That’s what gave Perez his theme.
“It kind of relates to the legacy of what the atomic bomb has left, not only in New Mexico but for the whole world,” Perez, 69, said. “You can’t stop science. Its progress affects us in ways we can’t foresee. It has its consequences.”
And now, Grothus said, a second nuclear waste disposal site is being considered for southeast New Mexico.
“We have not resolved the waste issue, where we are going to put it,” she said. “Nobody wants the stuff, so they are just going to bring it here. Because ‘Oh, well it started there. And they have so much open space, who is it going to hurt?’ ”