Meridel Rubenstein and Ellen Zweig

Critical Mass

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through March 22

By Mark Swartz

The first A-bomb threw off such a blinding light and cast such long shadows that ordinary film couldn’t really register the explosion. Photographs of the bombing of Hiroshima exist, as do pictures of the victims, but they are too abstract and too gruesome respectively to bring into focus the mysterious specter that haunts the middle of this century.

In Critical Mass, a photography-based multimedia installation six years in the making, Meridel Rubenstein and Ellen Zweig undertake the challenge of seeing the unseeable by focusing on the genesis of the bomb, at the laboratory and test site in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Both artists have some ties to the project: Rubenstein received her MFA from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and Zweig holds a PhD in literature from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where back in the late 1930s, at summer school for theoretical physicists, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Samuel Goudsmit, George Uhlenbeck, and others met to exchange news of developments in the race to harness nuclear power. The artists used their own photos as well as archival photographs from such sources as the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in New Mexico and the Bradbury Science Museum at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

One of the many goals of Critical Mass is to show that the Los Alamos physicists were not mad scientists but intelligent, talented individuals who read literature and philosophy. As a young man, Oppenheimer devoured the novels of Joseph Conrad, and Niels Bohr incorporated Soren Kierkegaard’s dilemma of double consciousness in his theories about matter, arguing that two mutually contradictory abstractions could coexist. They both enjoyed the conversation of Edith Warner, a Pennsylvania Quaker who through a special arrangement of Oppenheimer’s cooked dinner three nights a week for a handful of scientists and their wives. Her chocolate cake was famous. A video portion of the installation “re-creates” a conversation that might have taken place around Warner’s table: television sets, each featuring an actor playing the part of the hostess, a scientist, or a Native American from the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo, “talk” to one another. (Steina and Woody Vasulka provided technical assistance on the video portions of Critical Mass.)

Together with the daily lives of the physicists Rubenstein and Zweig have braided loving appreciations of the New Mexico landscape and the cultures that dominated the area before, during, and after it served as a testing ground. Braiding is in fact a central image of the exhibition; a video screen shows a pair of hands braiding long, gray hair. Because the artists juxtapose many, many photographs in odd, even startling ways, the exhibit takes a long time to absorb: images enjoyed for purely aesthetic reasons have a way of taking on more emotional significance the more you delve into them. A lithograph stone with what might be a sample of Japanese calligraphy turns out to be the instrument for printing a warning from the United States to the citizens of Hiroshima about the bombing. “The content of this paper is very important,” the translation reads in part. “You should read it very carefully.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Edith’s House” by Meridel Rubenstein.