On 16 July 1945, the first nuclear bomb exploded on Earth. It happened at a testing site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, as a part of the Manhattan project, a huge US-led initiative to develop atomic weapons during the second world war. And though the project was officially disbanded in 1945, nuclear testing sites in the United States continued to emerge all over the country for decades.
“It’s a history that has managed to stay hidden even though it’s so full of spectacle,” says the American artist Cara Despain. “[These tests] released particles and isotopes that permanently altered this planet. They were testing above ground for years, and many people don’t know this.”
In her new solo show Specter, which opened earlier this month at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach and was curated by Leilani Lynch, Despain illuminates an obscure history that – amid an escalating war between Russia and Ukraine – has come back to haunt us.
Despite the reduced size of the show (there are five pieces in total), the artist manages to deftly evidence the expansive collective and individual consequences of a ghastly subject. And perhaps her ability to do so is related to the fact that this is history she’s familiar with.
Despain was born in Utah and works between Salt Lake City and Miami, Florida. Her mother’s side of the family grew up in St George, a town less than 150 miles from the Nevada test site (which also happens to be a mere 65 miles away from Las Vegas). “Being from this region and having a family that grew up in this era of testing, the development of nuclear arsenals and the kind of collateral damage that comes with it is something that’s always on my mind,” she explains.
At first sight, Iodine-131, a gecko green cast made from gypsum concrete backlit with LED lights, appears to merely be a 3D rendering of a mountainous terrain that catches the viewer’s attention due to its beauty. A closer look reveals it is a detailed casting of the topography of Yucca Flat, a major nuclear testing region within the Nevada testing site, where many craters from atomic explosions are visible from space. Despain says she retrieved the image using Google Earth and chose to focus on this section of the testing site since it “began to communicate the magnitude of what happened”.
Adjacent to Iodine-131, on a large screen, house of cards (2022) presents declassified black-and-white footage of testing sites, bomb craters and mushroom clouds, with the words “The End” blithely superimposed on the films meant to explain test outcomes. In one shot, a crater at a nuclear testing site is layered with a drawing of a football field to illustrate the bomb’s capacity for destruction.
In Specter, Despain also presents works featuring mass-produced Depression-era consumer glass dishware and antiques that emit a bewitching viridescent glow under UV lights due to the presence of uranium oxide in their composition. This chemical was widely banned in the US upon the emergence of the Manhattan project in 1942, which redirected all uranium to bomb production. With the artworks that incorporate fluorescent glassware, entitled under the rainbow and the desert shall blossom as the rose, Despain hopes to bring the subject of domesticity to the forefront of the conversation on nuclear weapon development.
“I think the dishes speak to the people living in the fallout region. They were regular families, who were just living their lives,” she said. “For decades, nobody believed the people in that area – some of which I descended from – nobody believed they were getting sick or dying, or that they were seeing burns on their animals, or that their milk was irradiated. For decades, they were gaslit by the government. And the same [happened] with uranium miners.”
Despain’s “trick”, as she describes it, is the ability to capitalize on duality and present difficult subjects through a mesmerizing lens. She draws her audience in through spellbinding forms and hues, and once they are under that spell she reveals inescapable and gut-wrenching realities.
This ability is best evidenced in the standout piece of Specter, test of faith (2022), a cinematic three-channel digital video installation that transports viewers to an otherworldly setting for a bit more than three and a half minutes. Created using declassified footage from atomic bomb tests at the Nevada test site intervened by Despain with radiant colors and alterations that result in a set of soul-stirring Rorschach tests, the visuals of the work are greatly elevated by a chilling rendition of the Mormon hymnal Love One Another, which booms in the background as brightly hued colossal mushroom clouds morph into hundreds of unintelligible forms. The inclusion of the hymn, Despain explains, alludes to the call for “united patriotism” made by the military to Mormon settlers in the fallout region but also to the entire country.
“Nuclear war is always looming in the background,” Despain said. “It’s not at the top of our minds until a conflict ramps up like it has with Russia and Ukraine. But the truth is that we’re sort of always on this precipice.” With Specter, she hopes visitors will begin to understand the gruesome implications of developing nuclear arsenals and the brutal collateral damage that comes with testing. “If I can convey even just a fraction of that through this backchannel of art, I think I’ve done my job to uncover this history,” she says.