Midterm: Art in the Atomic Age

Monstrance for a Grey Horse by James Acord

“The mid 20th century was defined by an important scientific and cultural shift: the dawn of the atomic age. The detonation of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in this new era as the potential applications of nuclear power became realized worldwide. James Acord was the first and only artist licensed to work directly with nuclear materials as a medium ‒ a right that took him nine and a half years to earn. Acord’s magnum opus, Monstrance for a Grey Horse, addresses his identity as an artist living and producing during the atomic age and the common concerns surrounding nuclear energy such as destructive power and waste disposal. Completed at the end of the 20th century, Monstrance is a one-ton granite sculpture that consists of a horse’s skull carved atop a hollow pedestal with the interior of the sculpture designed to store radioactive material. Acord’s piece raises the issue of access, as the handling of nuclear material is still only reserved for scientists. He considered it inevitable for artists in the nuclear age to use nuclear materials, yet he has been paradoxically the only artist to do so successfully.” (The introduction to my paper).

For the midterm, I explored the work of James Acord, an artist discussed in the Wilson textbook who incorporated nuclear matter into his sculptures. As mentioned in my introduction, he was the only individual to ever be granted a license to work with nuclear material. He created Monstrance for the purpose of placing  the statue on the borders of nuclear testing sites as a warning for future living beings that dangerous territory was near by. The statue is made out of granite because it was designed to last as long as the half lives of radioactive materials such as plutonium, approximately 30,000 years. The term “monstrance” is the name for the vessel that Roman Catholics would use to store sacred objects such as the eucharist. Acord viewed nuclear matter as the sacred material of our time and intended to store it in the hollow pedestal of Monstrance. He even wanted his art to have the reputation of being a known source of nuclear matter for future generations to be able to dismantle in case they needed it. Unfortunately, despite taking years of nuclear engineering courses to earn a Radioactive Materials License, he was still unable to obtain a canister of nuclear matter to realize his design for Monstrance. This raises the issue of access. When technology is used for scientific gains, it is seen as a benefit to society, but when technology is used for artistic endeavors, the merit of the work is inherently “questionable”.

-Rebecca Fisher


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