The Manhattan Project got its start—and its name—on the East Coast, in an office building on the lower stretches of Broadway, before moving on to the southwestern deserts and finally to Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the other side of the Pacific. On its westward journey, it made a stop in Chicago: the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction went live under the stands of the University of Chicago’s abandoned football stadium and the supervision of exiled Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. Perhaps the location was chosen deliberately: the university had abolished its varsity sports teams in the Thirties in order to instill a more rigorous, scientific atmosphere. This critical stopover in the Midwest is not one that the University of Chicago would like anyone to forget. In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the first artificial nuclear reaction, it staged a series of events culminating in the release of a rainbow-colored mushroom cloud by the Chinese art star Cai Guo-Qiang from the roof of the main library, which was built in the late Sixties next to the site of Fermi’s reactor.
As the press materials for the event explained, coloring in the mushroom cloud was meant to represent the dual nature of nuclear energy—the representation of its “most destructive form” is enlivened “with color as a profound symbol of creativity and peace.” This was appropriate since, according to the PR write up, the Manhattan Project itself had a “complex legacy,” and nuclear power has a “paradoxical,” “yin-yang nature”: the work is meant to capture the inseparability between the good, creative side of nuclear energy and the wicked, destructive one. Of course, the same physical processes allow the flattening of cities and the treatment of cancerous tumors. Is it so self-evident though that radiation therapy, or nuclear power (perhaps more controversially), can’t be had without thousands of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles pointed at one another across the Pacific?
At 3:25p.m. on December 2nd, 75 years to the minute after Fermi’s reactor achieved criticality, Cai’s cloud explosion was set to go off. A crowd of several hundred gathered next to Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy, a sculpture commissioned by the university for the 25th anniversary of the experiment and placed on the site of Fermi’s reactor. Moore’s sculpture takes the shape of an abstract bronze mushroom cloud and the configuration of its contours and and cavities are said to evoke a human skull. If More’s sculpture borders on moralizing literalism, Cai’s remarks before the performance repeated the press release: nuclear energy is a subject of enormous “complexity and sensitivity,” all the more since we live in a “sensitive and complicated time.” None of this complexity seemed to prevent a slight air of carnival. Curious passersby and their dogs enjoying an uncharacteristically warm Chicago afternoon, undergraduates taking a break from exam revisions. Most of the audience had their phones trained squarely at the library rooftop while they waited for the spectacle to begin. One man walked back and forth with an American flag on a stick, held firmly over his shoulder. No one seemed particularly attuned either to complexity or sensitivity. For the most part, the briefness of the display seemed to leave the audience confused: a single blast, which unfurled into a loose, multicolored mushroom cloud that dissipated in less than half a minute. Once it became clear that this was all there was to see, a half-hearted round of applause went up, followed by a cheer.
At the turn of the millennium, the U.S. Department of Energy held a contest for a monument to be placed over a massive nuclear-waste disposal site in the New Mexico desert. The monument was to deter any future of human beings from tampering with the ground and releasing the toxic substances buried there. In the reading of the art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson, the episode marked a shift in the aesthetics of the nuclear threat. Instead of a singular and instantaneous explosion, represented visually by the equally singular and iconic mushroom cloud, nuclear power now threatened as a slow moving, invisible toxicity that would poison anyone who encountered it for ten thousand years and which seemed to defy representation.(Though the monument was never built, the winning entry avoided any direct reference to nuclear power in favor of a generically ominous field of spine-like stone columns.)
The University of Chicago piece wasn’t Cai’s first attempt to turn the mushroom cloud into an art object, either. In the late Nineties, he set off small, handheld smoke bombs in front of the Trinity test site in New Mexico (where, in 1944, Fermi’s Chicago experiment found its culmination in the detonation of the first atomic bomb) as well as on the New Jersey waterfront, with the still-standing World Trade Center in the background. That earlier aestheticization of destruction worked. The presence of the artist’s figure holding the firecracker, the relatively small scale of the pieces, the ephemerality of the small clouds of white smoke hanging in front of the expanse of desert or skyline—these all were in tension with the reference to apocalypse contained in the faint outline (in the photos, you can see a mushroom cloud if you know what you’re looking for, but it’s ambiguous). There was no grandiosity in the earlier series; the rainbow mushroom cloud in Chicago, meanwhile, was seventy-five meters tall and required the services of a professional pyrotechnics firm. The impulse to blow things up (in more ways than one) is symptomatic of many artists who specialize in creating “immersive” or atmospheric sculpture. The massive, hyper-choreographed environments created by Olafur Eliasson’s army of technician-laborers or Anish Kapoor’s monumental sculpture installations come to mind as analogues.