Cai Guo-Qiang, Color Mushroom Cloud 2017

Art has figured prominently in the University of Chicago’s recent series of events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. To some degree, this is nothing new, for Henry Moore’s seminal bronze has marked the reaction site since 1967. Moore’s sculpture is also the site of a temporary installation designed by Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects as part of the university’s commemorative program. The large-scale, celebratory works of art that have multiplied across campus are particularly ill-suited to ethical reflection upon the institution’s role in developing nuclear energy, and Cai Guo-Qiang’s spectacular firework commission, in particular, exemplifies how not to do politically-responsible public art in the year 2017.

Launched from the top of Regenstein Library on December 2nd, Cai’s piece, in the words of a university news release, took “the form of a multicolored cloud” intended to “harmlessly dissipate after about one minute.”1  As such, it follows in the vein of Cai’s recent pyrotechnic works, including a “large-scale explosion event” in Hiroshima in 2008. Presumably, this sort of work appealed to the university for several reasons. First, Cai is, like Henry Moore, an international art star; an appealing quality for a university that likes to conceive of itself as a global player. Second, his works mingle art and science in facile form, exemplifying the ways in which the university has increasingly conscripted art and artists to boost its profile at the expense of robust dialogue about its actions. Finally, Cai is known for making big, public art.

India Weston, who organized a kind of counter-performance to the piece, pointed out that Color Mushroom Cloud’s very specifications convey some of the more problematic aspects of the university’s relationship with nuclear power. Cai’s massive, multi-colored explosion intentionally evoked the atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud in its form and explosive force, its shape making clear the direct relationship between the 1942 reaction and the horrific destruction wrought on Japanese soil three years later. While the piece may have been intended to “harmlessly dissipate” after about a minute, Weston noted that the effects of a nuclear disaster linger on. Indeed, the long aftermath of radiation poisoning was crucial both to the purported success of nuclear bombs in ending the Second World War and to the transformative impact that nuclear weaponry left on global geopolitics (according, at least, to the proponents of nuclear deterrence). Moreover, it’s hard not to read the vivid qualities of the color and motion animated in Cai’s work, so unlike the somber black of his 2008 Hiroshima works, as celebratory. Not only did the piece decline to critically confront the legacy of nuclear power, it seemed to lionize the worst, most violent features of nuclear history.

These aspects of Cai’s piece square neatly with the university’s own relationship to the chain reaction sustained in 1942. Although official press releases and campus events have made much of the diverse uses of nuclear energy, especially in the fields of physics research and medicine, the scientists working on campus in the 1940s had no such intent. They were part of the Manhattan Project that sought to make weapons of mass destruction rather than medical imaging machines. Later, campus researchers experimented on human subjects with plutonium. The university covered up the experiments, leading to a minor scandal2 when they came to light in 1994.

India Weston, It Does Not Bring Its Own Light, 2017

In short, Cai’s pyrotechnics became the public face for a campaign of institutional misdirection. In stark contrast to the works of artists like Trevor Paglen and Kota Takeuchi, whose contributions to the exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone use art to interrogate the conditions of nuclear life or the street art of Ed Eisenberg and REPOhistory in the 1980s and 90s, art became a means of complicity rather than critique. In Takeuchi’s Time Travellers, for example, the artist dons the clothes left behind by evacuees fleeing the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Less spectacular than a pyrotechnic cloud, the piece quietly chronicles the human cost of nuclear technology, all the while confronting the viewer with a distinctively nuclear politics of presence and visibility. Nuclear thinking demanded scaling up society’s understanding of the potential damage, that damage’s persistence, and, as critic James Purdon describes, artists working in Hiroshima’s aftermath have repeatedly tried to grapple with this new reality by “engineering a sensory equivalent for what is otherwise inapprehensible.”3 Paglen’s Trinity Cubemade from irradiated glass at the Fukushima disaster site and reinstalled in the Exclusion Zone, cannot be accessed by the viewer. Here, the artist has moved beyond a fascination with the demiurgic force of nuclear power, and recognized that human institutions have played a significant role in rendering portions of the world inapprehensible.

Cai’s piece wasn’t just complicit in the university’s rewriting of its own history, however. It was complicit in the university’s ongoing political battles against unionization and its abdication of public responsibility. Launched from the top of the library, the site of drastic budget cuts and staff layoffs,it illustrated the degree to which administrators have preferred publicity stunts and high-profile art commissions to the support of students.4 The large sums of money expended on the piece stand in stark contrast to the university’s refusal to provide its graduate student workers a living wage or to bargain with the democratically-elected unions of graduate students or student library workers.5 Ironically, the Smart Museum’s Curator of Public Practice asked for graduate students—the same students with whom the university refuses to bargain or fairly compensate—to volunteer to help with the work. In an age of righteous iconoclasm, when fallen Confederate monuments have occasioned a vigorous debate about what public art is really for and how it should behave, this was a dramatic object lesson in failure.

As the cloud went off, Weston and a number of other students performed a piece entitled It Does Not Bring Its Own Light. Lying before Moore’s sculpture, they conjured images of fallen bodies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Artists skeptical of nuclear optimism drew on similar imagery in the 1960s ( i.e. Colin Self’s searing sculpture Nuclear Victim [Beach Girl]), and spectators huddled outside the library were confronted with the unmistakeable vocabulary of death.  Their attempt at critical dialogue, an attempt to use public performance to push back against the university’s celebratory rhetoric rather than to take it up, is what public art should be in 2017.

Full disclosure: Luke Fidler is a student in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago and an organizer with Graduate Students United, the certified local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who worked on the recent campus union election. Some of the events discussed above were planned and facilitated by his colleagues.