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Note: ELIN O’HARA SLAVICK’s Flags for Hiroshima is on exhibit at the Cosign Project in St. Louis from September 5 through October 30, 2009. What follows is her artist’s statement for the project.
On August 6, 1945, the United States of America dropped an atomic bomb fueled by enriched uranium on the city of Hiroshima. 70,000 people died instantly. Another 70,000 died by the end of 1945 as a result of exposure to radiation and other related injuries. The history of the atomic age is intertwined with that of photography. The discovery of the radioactive energy possessed by natural uranium was via a photograph that launched the nuclear age. In 1896 Henri Becquerel placed uranium on a photographic plate, intending to expose it to the sun. However, because it was a cloudy day, he put the experiment in a drawer. The next day he decided to develop the plate anyway. To his amazement he saw the outline of the uranium on the plate that had never been exposed to light. He correctly concluded that the uranium was spontaneously emitting a new kind of penetrating radiation and published a paper, ‘On visible radiation emitted by phosphorescent bodies.’
Following in the steps of Henri Becquerel, I worked in close collaboration with the staff of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum for 3 months during the summer of 2008. I commenced a pilot project on the use of autoradiography (capturing on x-ray film radioactive emissions from objects), cyanotypes (natural sun exposures on cotton paper impregnated with cyanide salts), frottages (rubbings) and subsequent contact prints from the frottages, and traditional photography to document places and objects that survived the atomic bombing. I made hundreds of exposures while in Hiroshima, digital and analog, color and black and white, images of survival and images of destruction. There is a large series of dandelion heads about to disappear into the wind, a small gesture in the midst of a profound event. This gesture hails back to the many flowers that blossomed shortly after the atomic bomb was dropped. As John Hersey writes in his unforgettable book Hiroshima, “The bomb had not only left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them. Everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goosefoot, morning glories and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean, purslane and clotbur and sesame and panic grass and feverfew.” The blooming of flowers offered a false and fleeting hope to the victims and survivors of the A-bomb. And like this sign of regeneration, a dandelion vanishes, perhaps with a child’s breath of a wish, but usually it disappears without notice – small, wispy, fragile balls, tiny-stemmed stars, blooming, blossomed, temporary.
Flags for Hiroshima is made up of three flags, each one holding an image of a Hiroshima dandelion. Each flag displays a city’s name on the back: Hiroshima, Baghdad and St. Louis. Exhibiting these flags at Cosign Gallery in St. Louis, I wish to connect these faraway places to the local, as well as the past to the present (and possibly the future) and to help people make those connections. The atomic bomb would never have been dropped and the war in Iraq would never have happened without the complicity of the American people. I hope no bombs are ever dropped on St. Louis. To that end, we must recognize our role, as American tax-paying citizens, in global destruction and the importance of U.S. foreign policy in the dismal state of our world. There is always another war.
Flags for Hiroshima is an attempt to reshape how we think about war and the aftermath. Trying to record the gruesome effects of war and to expose the indiscriminate cruelty of aerial bombardment have been major concerns of mine as a visual artist for the past 10 years. Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century, (Catherine Lutz, Beacon Press, 2001), includes over 30 of my photographs of the Fort Bragg military base in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography (Charta Books, Milan, Italy, 2007) a monograph of a series of drawings of places the U.S. has bombed is my first book.
Like Homefront and Bomb After Bomb, Flags for Hiroshima attempts to engage in ethical seeing by addressing the irreconcilable paradox of making visible the most barbaric as witness, artist, and viewer. As a hibakusha (A-bomb survivor) said in Hiroshima, “There are now over 30,000 nuclear weapons in this world. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not past events. They are about today’s situation.”
Elin o’Hara Slavick is a Distinguished Professor of Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she teaches studio art, theory and practice. She received her MFA in Photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her BA in poetry, photography and art history from Sarah Lawrence College. Slavick has exhibited her work in Hong Kong, Canada, France, Italy, Scotland, England, Cuba, the Netherlands and across the United States. She is the author of Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography, (Charta, 2007), with a foreword by Howard Zinn.