The Atomic Cowboy: The Daze After 1992

Solo show at Daniel Saxon Gallery, Los Angeles, California, 1992

The atomic bomb known as “Dirty Harry” was just one of ninety-seven nuclear tests that took place in Nevada between 1951 and 1958. Many “Cowboy Western” style Hollywood movies were being filmed on site at exactly the same time as these tests, in the deserts of the American Southwest. Questions have been subsequently raised about the rate of Hollywood-industry related cancer deaths and their possible link to 1950s atom bomb tests. There are an unusually high number of cancer deaths among the cast and crew members of the movie “The Conqueror,” which was filmed near the nuclear testing range at Yucca Flat, Nevada, in 1954. The film was based on the conquests of the 13th-century warrior Genghis Kahn, starred the late John Wayne, and had a script that called for some of the dustiest, grimiest battle scenes ever filmed. During the shooting, actors and extras rolled in the dirt in mock battle scenes, while desert winds blew incessantly.

Of the original two hundred and twenty cast and crew members of “The Conqueror,” one hundred and fifty were later contacted. Ninety-one had developed cancer. Forty-six of those, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and producer-director Dick Powell, died of the disease by 1980. The 1950s refrigerator that resembles an open casket contains the earth moves in a subtle motion as if it was breathing. The songs of Roy Rogers’ and Gene Autrys’ cowboy music were emitting out of the fridge.

The photographs represent the actors, actresses, and the movie extras who were involved in the movies, filmed near the nuclear test sites, and died by cancer, or illness due to their possible exposure to the radioactive contamination during their height of their career. The victims were not only the film stars and the crews, but also the three hundred Native American Shivit tribe people used as extras for the movie, and the residents of St. George, Utah, though the latter lived 145 miles from ground zero. More than 950 residents and former residents of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona have filed $2 billion in claims against the federal government, seeking compensation for damages they say are related to nuclear fallout.

The Hollywood aspect of the tragedy continued when 60 tons of radioactive earth from Utah was transported to a Culver City studio by RKO Pictures in order to recreate a desert set for additional filming. After the filming was completed, the dirt was distributed over the Hollywood area. To this day, parts of Hollywood may still be radioactive, since the half-life of plutonium is estimated at 24,000 years.

The two illustrated images are silk screened on to a sheet of acetate and hung a few inches from the wall, creating a shadow on the wall. This shadow refers to the well-known photograph of the shadow of a person and a ladder taken by the flash of the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Opposite from the image of the 1950s “good American homemaker” is the display of ”Nuke-Cuisine” with 835 “Cloud of Mushroom” Soup. 835 is the number of the “announced” nuclear test in America since 1945 to present. An old fashion can opener is attached to the wall. The soup can introduces, a recipe called, “Split Peace Soup.” 835 is the number of the “announced” nuclear test in America.

The Atomic tests were done during the period when Pop Art emerged in an American culture, and the silkscreen of Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup series hit the galleries. Characterized by themes and techniques drawn from popular mass cultures, such as advertising and comic books, as seen in the image of Dick Tracy advertising the safety of the Atomic Flash, the location of the Atomic test became a popular tourist’s destination targeted for the Nuclear Family.

A few hundred cookie cutters in a shape of soldiers glitter on the floor. They represent the soldiers known as the “Atomic Soldiers,” who died for allegiance, while they were exposed to the nuclear tests in the American desert. The entire wall paper is a print out of “announced” American bomb texts data from 1945 to present.

The red and black plates on the wall depict an image of a Mushroom Cloud turning into a brain. The image is silkscreened on a sheet of lead because lead is used for shielding in X-ray machines, nuclear power plants, labs, military equipment, and other places radiation may be encountered. Each plate has a hand carved text, describing the names of the bombs, the date of its detonation, and the weight of the bomb.

The “Trinity” was the first test of technology for a nuclear weapon. It was conducted by the United States on July 16, 1945, at a location 35 miles (56 km) southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, on what is now White Sands Missile Range, headquartered near Alamogordo. In this installation, the “Trinity” is displayed with a “birth certificate,” describing its blood type as A and its “personal relationship” to the people involved in the making of the A-bomb. In the back yard of the gallery is a lead lined bomb shelter that resembles a green house for plants. The shape of the entrance is the same shape as the cookie cutters displayed on the gallery floor. As visitors enter, they can check out their radiation count and confronts a haunting specter of fear through the mirror and the Geiger counter.

The installation reviles that the United States government had complete awareness of the danger of the nuclear tests since the research shows that the bombs were detonated only when the wind blew east, away from California, and toward Utah and northern Arizona, which are inhabited primarily by Mormons and Native Americans. For reasons unknown to Hollywood, the producer Howard Hughes withdrew the movie “The Conqueror” from circulation, and the only person who saw the movie was Hughes him self, who screened it night after night during his paranoid last years. “The Atomic Cowboy” addresses an array of Nagasawa’s ecological concerns by bringing to light a human frailty, buried beneath the glitz and machismo of Hollywood’s “Cowboy” genre.






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