The Manhattan Project

Hello and welcome back to my blog. Recently we had our first exhibition of the year, and in this post I will talk about the experience as well as the project which went along with it.

To begin, the idea of the project which we would showcase at the exhibition was to tie together the idea of conceptual art with the Manhattan Project and start of the nuclear age. We would be making conceptual art pieces about the development of nuclear weapons.

In the beginning of the project, we explored many aspects of the Manhattan Project, like the science behind it, the geopolitical context of the period, and the consequences of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War. In regards to this, we read and critiqued the book Hiroshima by John Hersey, which I previously wrote a critical summary on that you can see here. The goal of reading this book was to understand the consequences of the bombings, but more significantly to warn of the consequences if a full scale nuclear war were to break out afterwards. As well as the critical summary at the end, throughout our reading of the book we went through 3 Socratic seminars where we discussed various aspects of the literature and debated on topics such as historical significance of individuals, the book, among others. These discussions allowed for us to generate a more developed perspective on the meaning behind the book and historical significance as a whole.

But the consequences of the Manhattan project aren’t all bad, we also looked into the advances in medicine, power generation and culture which in many ways contributed to current prosperity in much of the world, including Japan.

On the conceptual art side of the project, we began by learning the history of the art form and how it came to be. To explore the topic further, we went as a class on a field trip to the Contemporary Art Gallery, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. At the Vancouver Art Gallery there was an exhibit about the works of Yoko Ono, a very prominent conceptual artist probably best known for her relationship with John Lennon.

In this gallery our understanding of conceptual art was tested as we had to choose a piece of art to analyze. I choose a piece called “Bag Piece”, which was a black cotton bag in which an individual or two would go inside and do whatever they wanted. The viewers couldn’t see what was happening inside the bag, but the performer could vaguely see outside. My evaluation of the meaning is two fold, the first being that the individual is the art, and the bag just compliments it, giving it variation. The second being that it forces you to use your imagination and highlights the preconceived notions that may come to mind when you are forced to come up with your own meaning for what you are seeing.

Once we understood both concepts, it was time to tie them together with our exhibition pieces. I decided that for my art piece, I should attempt to convey a message and raise concern about government and military secrecy in how they created and continue to develop weapons which raise significant ethical concerns, yet there is no consultation on. I chose this because the Manhattan Project is the greatest example of this in history, having not even most of the workers know what they were making, and there were hundreds of thousands of them.

To accomplish this I decided to pull on the knowledge I acquired learning about the Manhattan Project, and base my piece on Chicago Pile-1, the secretive first nuclear reactor build below a stadium in downtown Chicago, which kickstarted the Manhattan project. I choose this because it both literally and metaphorically has the world changing “beneath our feet”, as well as being without public knowledge.

To represent this, I used a photo of the stadium the real reactor was built below, and mounted it on a black box with a translucent black curtain in front. On the curtain was the prompt “What is the cost before we ask questions? 200k lives? The human race?”, as to highlight the inaction of the people in probing these issues, and the potential for these weapons to destroy humanity. Inside the black box I placed a remote controlled arc generator which emitted light and sound. This had several meanings, the first being to serve to sort of scare yet intrigue the viewer into the reality of what happens behind closed doors. The auditory and visual affects are meant to give a hint of the big picture yet obscure it, just like the situation of the Manhattan Project workers. Also, it just serves to represent the reactor. Attached is my written explanation shown on exhibition night.

Now, for the exhibition we were put into various groups of similar art pieces. My group was science and technology, which my piece fit somewhat well for. For the room we were presenting in, we decorated with a scientific theme, wearing lab goggles, white shirts to represent lab coats, and put general items that related to the topic around the room. With some music and a introduction video at the entrance, the room came together quite well to fit the theme.

Additionally I also participated in the production of an introduction video at the entrance to the entire class’s exhibit.

The exhibition night itself went quite well, and many of the visitors were interested in my art piece and the meaning behind it. The arc generating device I had in my piece definitely got attention as well as surprised many. I think I was able to communicate both my art’s personal message, and the historical significance of the Manhattan Project quite well. Here is what the pieced looked like, however it is difficult to understand when not in person.

Having been able to learn, communicate and evaluate the consequences of the Manhattan Project, I think that it is clear that it’s effects reverberate throughout the world and it undoubtedly is one of the most historically significant events of recent centuries.

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