6 Artists Who Aren't Afraid to Work with Radioactive Materials

Warning: This art may be bad for your health.

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Oct 8 2015, 5:30pm

Trinity Cube by Trevor Paglen. Courtesy the artist

We don’t want to call this a trend—it’s more like an intense dedication from cerebral artists investigating the effects of nuclear power, industrialization, and apocalyptic human feats. Creating radioactive art is about process and research, figuring data and science into tangible objects. The artists who create works with radioactive materials do so with teams of researchers and usually with the support of larger government or art institutions. The collaboration is also a part of the dialogue and adds to the greater vision of the outcome of the art itself. To create such works, these artists display incredible patience and venture to dangerous contaminated areas in the world. Their vision, their art ceases to be their own. It is offered up to the world, to time, to history.

Many of the radioactive artworks below will be inaccessible to public displays for thousands of years, like Taryn Simon’s black box contained in a nuclear plant in Russia, but it’s this integral processing that affords the virility of the artwork. It exists to mark a timeline and perhaps our own demise. Here are six artists whose chemical compositions may very well withstand the rest of time:

Hilda Hellström:

Image courtesy Hilda Hellström

In 2012, Swedish artist Hilda Hellström created dishes made from radioactive soil culled from the evacuation zone of Fukushima, Japan. Hellström stayed with Naoto Matsumura, a rice farmer and the last person living in the zone, for four days and collected soil from the contaminated rice fields. She took the soil back to UK to mold it into dishes to display at the Royal College of Art in London's graduate show as symbols of memory and devastation. The series of food vessels attempt to speak to the wasted agriculture of the area. 

Taryn Simon:

Taryn Simon's Black Square XVII void in the wall at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Garage.

Earlier this year, we interviewed Taryn Simon on her radioactive art. Her Black Square XVII is currently in an active nuclear plant somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow, processing out radioactive properties for the next 1,000 years. Through the vitrification process, Simon worked with the top secret Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation to repurpose nuclear waste to create a compound suitable and safe for disposal. The end result, which will not be unearthed until 3015, will be a glassy black square.

Chim↑Pom:

Chim↑Pom is a Tokyo-based artist collective that was established in 2005 by six core members, Ellie, Ryuta Ushiro, Yasutaka Hayashi, Masataka Okada, Toshinori Mizuno, and Motomu Inaoka. Over the years, the group has made a name for itself on a global scale for its provocative social themes. For the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster that devastated the region, Chim↑Pom collaborated with Eva and Franco Mattes to bring international attention to the radioactive contamination in the area by staging an “inhibition” with international artists like Trevor Paglen and Ai Weiwei titled Don’t Follow the Wind. The art installed in the area, mean as a monument to the disaster, will not be visible to the public until the area is clear of radioactive dangers.

Trevor Paglen:

Image courtesy the artist

The artist Trevor Paglen recently unveiled his Trinity Cube, a site-specific radioactive piece installed in the Fukushima exclusion zone. The piece is made of irradiated glass collected from the zone. Inside, the glass is filled with Trinite, created in 1945 when the first nuclear bomb turned the surface of the New Mexico desert into green glass. On Facebook, Paglen says the piece will “open to the public when the exclusion zone opens, any time between three and 30,000 years from now. The sculpture was commissioned as part of Don’t Follow the Wind project with Chim↑Pom.

The Unknown Fields Division:

Photography by Unknown Fields in collaboration with Toby Smith, Ceramics work in collaboration with the London Sculpture Workshop, Animation assistance from Christina Varvia

The Unknown Fields Division, a nomadic design studio lead by Liam Young and Kate Davies, collected mud from a toxic lake in Mongolia to create a set of radioactive Ming vases. The region is notorious for its black chemical waste said to be the actual toxic waste from our electronic gadgets and dumped from nearby refineries in and around Baotou. The group sculpted the vases as a statement against the mass production of luxury products around the globe. The project describes that each vessel "is proportioned as a traditional Ming vase and is made from the amount of toxic waste created in the production of three items of technology—a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery." Watch the accompanying video here

James Acord:

Image via jamesacord.com

In his lifetime, the sculptor James Acord devoted more than 20 years to create art out of radioactive materials, from traditional sculptures, to process art. One art installation contained reams of paper amassed over a 12-year time frame in conjunction with his application to obtain a license to handle nuclear materials. He dedicated his life practice to being technically competent in nuclear engineering and nuclear science and in 1993 he became the only person in the US to receive a Radioactive Materials License. He was dedicated to creating nuclear age shrines of radioactive materials—inspired by sacred Christian objects—that could persevere and stand the test of time to warn future humans. He committed suicide in 2011, but his work lives on. 

What artists working with radioactivity did we miss? Let us know @CreatorsProject or in the comments below. 

Related:

Nuclear Waste Is Art in the Work of Taryn Simon

These Ming Vases Are Made of Toxic Sludge

Trevor Paglen Documents The Invisible And Analyzes Government Secrecy Through Photography

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