UP AND ATOM

Get out your Raybans and suntan lotion because the Valley's art season opens with a nuclear blast this year. Ground Zero is Scottsdale Center for the Arts, currently housing "Critical Mass" and "The P2 Project," two exhibitions which examine the relationship between human beings and their seemingly genetic propensity for violence.

"Critical Mass," a collaborative installation by photographer Meridel Rubenstein, writer Ellen Zweig and videographers Steina and Woody Vasulka, was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the explosion of the atomic bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Emphatically postmodern in format, the multimedia show claims to go beyond the legend surrounding the superphysicists of the Manhattan Project lab by illuminating their relationship with Edith Warner, whose tea room was a favorite hangout during their breaks from atomic endeavors.

Located on New Mexico's Rio Grande and convenient to the lab, Edith's home and her famous chocolate cake attracted a diverse crowd which included A-bomb scientists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, Edward Teller and Phillip Morrison (who put together the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki), as well as area artists and Pueblo Indians who lived nearby.

The show does not substantiate the claim in the least. In fact, while "Critical Mass" manages to be quite interesting visually, the conceptual underpinnings fail miserably. In attempting to discard the "myth" surrounding the Manhattan Project (a myth never defined in the show), the artists succeed in sending out bizarrely mixed messages about Oppenheimer, et al., and somehow raise Edith Warner to the status of Lady Bountiful. But you never really figure out why.

Rubenstein's palladium print photo collages are featured in the first room, framed in heavy steel that recalls the innards of a nuclear reactor. The prints are warm against the cold steel, juxtaposing the barren beauty of the desert and domesticity with destruction and science, a constant thread throughout the show. In "Oppenheimer/Archimedes #2" Oppenheimer's face gazes across the room toward evocative collages of photographs contrasting the faded warmth of Warner's and the Pueblo dwellings with the desolate New Mexican desert landscape.

In "Archimedes Chamber," the secondary phase of the installation, the mood becomes increasingly dour. At the room's portal, four screens repeatedly show "If Archimedes" at staggered intervals. The video compares Oppenheimer to the ancient Greek mathematician who sacrificed his quiet life of theory to build war machines to use against Rome during the Punic Wars. Archimedes, by the way, as legend has it, is the gent who discovered the principle of displacement by a floating object while taking a bath, then ran nude through the streets of Syracuse crying, "Eureka!"

The visuals of "If Archimedes" by Rubenstein are eerie and depressing, but the soundtrack made me feel as if I were in an existentialist play. Why the artists chose to turn Ellen Zweig's cryptic and meandering poem into an annoying vocal stew of four voices running over each other is beyond me. One can barely pick out a word. For a show that professes to combine art with history and even provides a reading table with background literature about the development of the atomic bomb, this high artiness is annoying and out of place.

Also annoying is the image of a hand projected onto the floor of the darkened chamber. The hand bubbles and burns, probably alluding to Archimedes' lenses, built to nastily scorch the approaching Roman legions. Or is it flesh burning to gristle during a nuclear holocaust? With the yammering videos behind my head and a burning hand at my feet, I was feeling more NYU film schoolesque by the moment. With a little Operation Rescue thrown in.

Things got a bit better at "The Meeting," but not much. Talking video heads portray Warner, Los Alamos scientists such as Fermi, Bohr, Einstein, Oppenheimer in his signature wide-brimmed hat and Pueblo governor Tilano Montoya, discussing dreams, the ethics of science and the wonders of chocolate cake. A very cool idea, but the actors' detached voices continually collide over some industrial clanking sound, once again making it difficult to understand what is being said. Maybe I'm making a big jump here, but I would assume that the artists want the installation to be accessible.

As there are few more intriguing dining experiences I can imagine than the one proposed by "The Meeting," it was bothersome that (perhaps owing to the acting abilities of those chosen to portray the characters) everyone at the table except Warner and the taciturn Montoya comes off as annoyingly full of himself.

Wait now, I thought we were comparing Oppenheimer to the great Archimedes.
The messages in this show are all over the map. Two steel-framed photo collages corner the room--one showing portraits of the scientists with some tools of their trade, the other featuring the women of the Pueblo displaying their craftwork. Propaganda alert. Read: Women equal Domesticity which equals Good. Men equal Science which equals Bad.

"Critical Mass" seems to be done in by too many spoons stirring the soup. I think the artists may have realized the lack of focus. The opening statement of the catalogue reads like a caveat: "This work is about the impact of large historic events on ordinary people. Most of the pieces in the exhibition are complex portraits . . . Our portraits are ambiguous: We enlarge the lives of ordinary people, we strip the mythic characters of history down to their ordinariness, and we replace the usual metaphors about historical figures with images of fallibility and their connection to place."
Huh?
It's too bad. Many of Rubenstein's photographs and the video images are quite powerful. The factual story of the interaction between Warner, the Pueblo Indians and the legendary 20th-century physicists is a fascinating one; some of the scientists wrestled quite vocally with the ethical questions posed by the Los Alamos project. But the point about "the impact of large historic events on ordinary people" got lost in a storm of messages and thus failed to tell me what that impact was.

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