Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction An Exhibition by Jim Sanborn
The physical sciences, archaeology, and mythology have influenced the art of Jim Sanborn since the mid-1970s. In his earliest pieces Sanborn sought to fathom the invisible forces of nature. Since the 1990s, his art has focused increasingly on the disjunction inherent in presenting information that is intimate, private, and sometimes secret on a scale that is monumental and public.
For this exhibition, his latest body of work, Sanborn has combined his long-standing interests in invisible natural forces and secrecy. Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction featured Critical Assembly, a major installation inspired by the Manhattan Project (1942-55), the first nuclear weapons program at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, and a series of photographs titled Atomic Time.
Critical Assembly is an artistic representation of what was once a secret site of government-sponsored research. The installation includes actual examples of electronic instruments, hardware, furniture, tools, and materials from the Los Alamos Laboratory of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s that Sanborn acquired from retirees living in New Mexico who had worked on the Manhattan Project. To complete the installation, Sanborn augmented the original devices with additional hardware, assembled parts, and furniture that he fabricated to match the vintage examples he had obtained. Where information was lacking, Sanborn used his imagination. The result is a complex amalgamation of the historical and the created. It is not based upon functionality or scientific need but rather upon atmospheric effect and the precise demands of the artist’s vision.
Critical Assembly is both a re-creation and an interpretation of the criticality experiments carried out at Los Alamos. Evocative of both the brilliance of the collective human mind and the devastating power of knowledge, the installation stimulates a dialogue about the allure of pure science and the ethical dilemmas scientific researchers have faced for decades. The installation invites visitors to ponder the tension between the seductive elegance and beauty of the tools of atomic science and the destructive power of the bomb they ultimately created.
The photographs of the Atomic Time series are distinguished by an intense color resembling cobalt blue, similar to the true color of radioactivity. Sanborn made one part of the series, hauntingly beautiful abstract images, by exposing sheet film to actual pieces of uranium ore taken from old mines around the world. After approximately three and a half weeks, the ore samples photographed themselves, using their own radioactivity to expose the film. The tonality of these faceted forms is brightest where the uranium was most radioactively potent or where the ore touched the film.
The second part of the Atomic Time series represents images of radium-dial alarm clocks manufactured between 1920 and 1950. At one time these clocks glowed in the dark, due to the radium-rich paint used to make them. While the faces no longer visibly glow, Sanborn discovered that he could make photographs of the faint dials by using a three-week exposure. The artist acquired these clocks from regions around the Trinity Site in New Mexico where the first atomic bomb exploded. On July 16, 1945, residents might have been awakened by the first atomic flash, an artificial sunrise, to see the time of day, 5:30 a.m., which is depicted in all of the Atomic Time photographs.
Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction was organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Funding for the exhibition and accompanying catalogue is provided by anonymous donors, The President’s Exhibition Fund, the Artist-in-Residence Program, initiated by a bequest from Nancy Maloley, and The Andrew W. Mellon Publications Fund at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.