More than a half-century after his death, J. Robert Oppenheimer — or “the father of the atomic bomb,” as the charismatic, conflicted, poetry-quoting nuclear physicist is often called — is popping up all over his old stomping grounds this summer. In July, Santa Fe Opera presents Dr. Atomic, the story of Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project scientists in the weeks that led up to the July 1945 Trinity test of the bomb. The opening of Dr. Atomic also coincides with a symposium, Tech and the West, which brings together artists, scientists, historians, and activists for panels aimed at examining the historical truths and consequences of the Atomic Age — 73 years after Trinity.
Before all that, however, visitors to the New Mexico History Museum can ground themselves in an exhibit on the state’s nuclear history that has far-reaching literal and moral applications. Opening Sunday, June 3, Atomic Histories: Remembering New Mexico’s Nuclear Past begins with the origin story of the Los Alamos Laboratory, which Oppenheimer helmed during World War II. From there, the interactive show moves forward to the Atomic Energy Commission, the Cold War development of the Sandia and Los Alamos national labs, and the exploration of uranium mining near Grants, as well as the present-day Waste Isolation Pilot Project at Carlsbad and the uranium enrichment plant near Eunice. Atomic Histories curator Melanie LaBorwit explained, “New Mexico has many atomic histories. It’s not just about the bomb. Our story is as long as the story of nuclear science in the world. We’re probably the only place in the world that is involved in every aspect of what they call the nuclear cycle, which is everything from the mining to the enrichment to the scientific application to weapons.”
A number of items in the exhibit are on loan from institutions that include the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Bernalillo, and the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants. Full-scale replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man provide a skin-prickling sense of just how relatively small the weapons of mass destruction dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 really were, compared to the magnitude of the annihilation they wrought. Vintage sales models of fallout shelters show the Cold War-era commercialization — and normalization — of these backyard safeguards. A 1950 Zenith “Lincoln” porthole TV is retrofitted with duck-and-cover videos and other (sometimes absurd) period public education segments about what to do in case of a nuclear attack. A scale model of a truck with a cutaway demonstrates how nuclear waste is securely transported. Amidst it all sits an unassuming wooden office chair, which was occupied by Dr. Oppenheimer at Los Alamos while he directed the construction of the bomb that secured his place in history. “It’s not a remarkable office chair — except for who sat in it,” LaBorwit said. “That sort of thing has a presence.”
But the metaphorical, artistic, and emotional center of Atomic Histories is rooted in another version of Oppenheimer’s chair, which resides in a semi-dark gallery beyond all the text panels and display items. That room contains a pair of photographer Meridel Rubenstein’s most thought-provoking large-scale installations, which weave together two threads of atomic history: The Meeting (1993) and Oppenheimer’s Chair (1995). (Rubenstein also appears on a Tech and the West panel with Diné photographer Will Wilson on July 13, moderated by art historian Alison Fields and focused on “A Sense of Place.”)
Rubenstein’s exploration of the Atomic Age in her art began with CRITICAL MASS, a multimedia extravaganza that was first installed at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Mexico Museum of Art) in 1993. Made in collaboration with performance artist Ellen Zweig, along with video artists Woody and Steina Vasulka, CRITICAL MASS takes up the politics of place as they applied to Los Alamos in the 1940s. Beginning in 1943, during dinners at hostess Edith Warner’s run-down adobe house at Otowi Bridge, two worlds collided — that of the international scientists who had recently settled atop Pajarito Plateau, and the older ways of the neighboring San Ildefonso Pueblo Indians, whose ancestral lands were permanently disrupted by the new development. The Pueblos served the newcomers Warner’s famous chocolate cake and worked as maids and janitors on the mesa.
Warner’s tea room, which she maintained with Tilano Montoya, her longtime companion from San Ildefonso, is memorialized in Peggy Pond Church’s 1960 book The House at Otowi Bridge. The scientists treasured their weekend escapes to Warner’s modest digs, where they ate her home-cooked ragout of lamb by candlelight on black ceramic plates coiled by famed San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez. Of the transplants to New Mexico, Church writes, “Edith’s house became a kind of sanctuary for them in the tense years before Hiroshima.”
After the war, when a new bridge was built north of the original single-lane suspension bridge, Warner had to move to avoid the flow of traffic. “When the new bridge brought the road to Los Alamos so close to the house that life there could no longer be endured, some of the same men whose minds conceived the atomic bomb worked side by side with the Indians to build a new house for Edith and Tilano,” Church writes. Rubenstein and her CRITICAL MASS cohorts, inspired by this collaboration between cultures, conceived The Meeting to reflect the shared labor of love.
The enormous photo-narrative of The Meeting, installed over two back walls of the museum gallery and framed in a steel grid, is a triptych of sorts. The two panels, each consisting of 20 palladium prints, are divided by a steel “hearth,” which represents Warner’s fireplace, and includes a 20-inch screen with a looped video of a woman braiding and unbraiding her hair. The woman, played by Rubenstein’s former mother-in-law Mildred West, is a stand-in for Warner; her braid becomes a montage of the elements projected onto it: fire, rocks, and cloud formations.
On the left panel are latter-day portraits of 10 Pueblo people who knew Warner, served at her tea room, or helped build the second house in 1947 with the scientists. Carefully interspersed between the Pueblos are photographs of objects selected from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture to represent them, which were chosen with the help of cacique Gilbert Atencio. Opposite the Pueblos are portraits of 10 aging Manhattan Project scientists that Rubenstein took in the early ’90s, as well as images of tools that aided in the bomb’s construction.
“This was the world that met at her house,” the artist said in an interview at her sunny studio in Lone Butte. “What we were doing was trying to bring everyone to the table, to be equal.” Rubenstein remembered the process of photographing the key players in The Meeting. “This was during the time that the north and south sides of San Ildefonso were feuding. So it became really difficult to assemble this, because no one would want to be next to each other.”
She also vividly recalled one afternoon in 1990, when several scientists gathered at physicist Murray Gell-Mann’s house to be photographed after having visited the Trinity site for the first time since 1945. “Robert Wilson — he says, ‘You know, we never should’ve dropped it.’ And Robert Christy — he says, ‘Oh no no, I know we had to drop it. I’ve been to Hiroshima, I’ve seen the boats. We had to do it.’ And I said, ‘Well, gentlemen, haven’t you discussed this before?’ Because they were on lots of panels together!”
The idea of balance is central to The Meeting. Rubenstein described the arrangement of objects as a painstaking process. In the center of the Native side is an ear of corn; its counterpart on the right is a Coca-Cola bottle, its green glass having turned gold when exposed to radiation. A rawhide San Ildefonso shield corresponds with, on the scientists’ side, a 1945 image of the plutonium bomb tested at Trinity in the world’s first nuclear explosion. Rubenstein remembered the words of one attendee at a talk she gave at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, where CRITICAL MASS was shown. “Some guy in the back says, ‘This is disgusting. How can you make these things so beautiful?’ — with all those objects, Fat Man and the tools. And I said, ‘You know what? They are beautiful. That’s why these guys like them. They can’t stop, because they are beautiful.’ ”
AN image from the Pueblo side, of a tall-necked jar with the sacred plumed serpent figure of Avanyu, made by Julian and Maria Martinez circa 1930, seems to span the metaphorical landscape between The Meeting and Oppenheimer’s Chair. As Edith Warner once noted in her diary before she came to live at “the place where the river makes a noise,” as the Pueblos called it, the snake Avanyu represents the natural energies of water. Avanyu wields powers of devastation through flooding, and healing through cleansing. After CRITICAL MASS, SITE Santa Fe commissioned Rubenstein to create a large-scale installation — which became Oppenheimer’s Chair — for their first international biennial in 1995. That year also coincided with the 50th anniversary of Trinity. For that occasion, the artist said, “I was feeling that I wanted to make a healing piece.”
During the conceptual phase of Oppenheimer’s Chair, she had on her wall a photograph of Robert Oppenheimer’s actual office chair and an image of molten glass from fused sand at Trinity, which also appears in The Meeting. She had also tacked up a print of a suit of armor from the Higgins Armory in Worcester, Massachusetts, following a car accident that left her with a short-term head injury and an obsession with photographing armor. Then a friend told her about Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War, which was first broadcast in 1990. In it, Burns recounts that after the war, leftover and unwanted photographic glass plates of battlefields and soldiers were often bought by gardeners — not for the scenes they showed, but for the glass panes themselves, which they then used to build greenhouses. In her monograph Belonging: Los Alamos to Vietnam, Rubenstein quotes Burns in a 1991 New York Times article: “In the years that followed Appomattox, the sun slowly burned the image of war from thousands of greenhouse glass plates.” She said, “All the signifiers in that story just catalyzed me on a really deep level. And then I had to figure out how to get the images on glass. I loved the molten glass from Trinity, trinitite. To make the images on glass, the idea that the sun can burn them — it’s kind of like the opposite of sand.”
The installation of Oppenheimer’s Chair comprises a 10-foot-tall glass house, open on one side, filled with a white sand floor and made of several panels that are sandblasted with the spectral image of a leafless tree. The house is guarded by a standing steel-framed image of a sentry-like figure in a suit of armor. In the center sits a glass chair, onto which is projected —from the figure’s solar plexus — a nine-minute video. Each of the four segments of the video, made in collaboration with Steina Vasulka, begin with the firing of a slingshot and end with a snake shedding its skin. Interspersed throughout are the sounds of a rapidly beating heart, as well as elemental images of fire, wood, and water. Glass is forged by fire; a rattlesnake rattles its coils; a baby snake emerges from an egg; an image of chainmail ripples over water; a shadowy dancer gyrates over broken glass.
These seemingly disparate components form the symbolic world of Oppenheimer’s Chair, which Rubenstein describes in her book as “a work that illuminates the fissures.” “I just wanted to make this video about shedding armor,” she said. “I had to think about protective covering, so there’s tree bark, snakeskin, and armor. It’s just this whole thing about questioning: When does self-defense become offense?” The snake imagery conjures up more visions of Avanyu, the serpent deity who embodies earthly and supernatural powers, who can defeat drought and nourish the earth — or flood it and destroy it with overzealousness. The armor and the snake’s rattle become the armaments of Oppenheimer and his colleagues, who sought to end the war with their creation. Pictured on the panes of the glass house — which is “all that protects us,” the artist writes — is “the ghost tree wanting to come back, wanting to reclaim the landscape,” Rubenstein explained.
Viewers cannot sit in Oppenheimer’s glass chair or enter the sand-floored house. But they can stand near the sentry figure, watching the symbolic images flicker upon the chair, perhaps picturing themselves in his position. “I felt very defensive about him, like I wanted to protect him,” Rubenstein said of the physicist, whom his Los Alamos secretary Anne Wilson Marks once described as “enormously empathetic. … He really had an almost saintly empathy for people.”
Oppenheimer’s moral ambivalence about the impact of the weapon he helped to create was nearly immediate. He famously said that after the successful Trinity test — which illuminated the northern sky from a vantage point atop Sandia Peak — a line from the Bhagavad-Gita ran through his head: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And in November 1945, he told the American Philosophical Society, “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world. We have made a thing that, by all standards of the world we grew up in, is an evil thing. By so doing, by our participation in making it possible to make these things, we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man, of whether it is good to learn about the world, to try to understand it, to try to control it, to help gift to the world of men increased insight, increased power.”
Rubenstein expanded on her tangled affinity for Oppenheimer, the much-misunderstood creator-destroyer, as well as for his Los Alamos colleagues who she photographed for The Meeting. “As a photographer, we learn to have great empathy. These guys were just out of graduate school. They were kids. Oppenheimer, I just understood him. … It had to do with this racehorse thing. That brilliance, and kind of not being able to stop.”
Her words seem equally applicable to New Mexico’s own complex atomic history, ever marching forward even as we gaze at its navel. The exhibit brings to mind the last line from The Great Gatsby, published when Oppie, as everyone called him at Los Alamos, was a troubled and talented grad student at Cambridge. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” ◀