The exhibition statement for Helmut Schweizer’s “Melancolia. 8/6–3/11. A Chi di Competenza” (Melancholy. 8/6—3/11. To Whom It May Concern) begins with Walter Benjamin’s famous description of the angel of history. Benjamin’s angel does not perceive the past as a chain of events, but rather as “one single catastrophe” that “keeps piling wreckage.” And though the angel would much rather “make whole what has been smashed,” it is blown onward by the “storm” called “progress.” This vision of a tempestuous, historical pileup is what directed the selection of old and new works in this show, which addresses a singular aspect of human history: atomic energy and its impacts.
Two key installations are deployed to great effect in this meta-historical mapping. Atomic Elegy, 2013, is a three-part assemblage, each component with its own title: Part I) HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND to Bern Porter; Part II) HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND to Yvan Goll; and Part III) THE END OF THE WORLD to Paul Celan. It presents three metal shelves, upon which beakers of various sizes are positioned as if suspended in a process of chemical experimentation. Most are filled with fluorescent green/yellow fluid, some with ruby-red liquid. Printed on these beakers are graphs and texts, including a transcript of a secretly taped conversation that took place, just after the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, between German nuclear physicists incarcerated by the Allies for their ostensible roles in Germany’s “uranium project,” which explored how nuclear fission (discovered by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in 1938) might aid in the war effort. (The project was scrapped due to Germany’s lack of resources.) Hahn was particularly disturbed by the course of events (he later campaigned against misusing nuclear weapons). In the transcript, he confesses: “Once I wanted to suggest that all uranium should be sunk to the bottom of the ocean.” Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Hahn’s statement has taken on an eerie resonance, since plutonium, tritium, and uranium have all been leaked into the Pacific Ocean and inevitably impacted contemporary oceanic ecology.
Next to Atomic Elegy is The mountains are not mountains anymore & Charivari to Naoto Matsumura, 2013, another assemblage that mirrors the controlled space of a closed scientific inquiry. Encased in a glass vitrine are fluorescent lights colored green and blue, positioned like nuclear rods on either side of an experiment in process. A glass orb containing gelatin was placed over a bowl of chrysanthemums, while a small lamp slowly heated the substance so that it dripped over the flowers below, encasing them in a symbolized representation of nuclear waste. The work’s title refers to Naoto Matsumura, a fifty-four-year-old fifth-generation rice farmer who went back to what had become a “dead zone” around Fukushima to tend his livestock and other animals. Matsumura’s image, from a German newspaper article depicting the effects of the catastrophe on local agriculture, is pasted to the wall behind the assemblage many times over.
The reference to Matsumura adds yet another layer to this mapping of human disaster and underscores the immediate and personal impact of an event with a traceable historical lineage. Drawing an arc from the first developments in nuclear energy in the twentieth century to the present, this exhibition visualizes an ongoing crisis brought on by man’s innate drive for progress, reflecting a singular vision of, to borrow Benjamin’s words, catastrophe and wreckage.