How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

The sublime revives as God withdraws from an immediate participation in the
experience of man.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Thomas Weiskel


Vladmir is giving odds on salvation. Always more contemplative and philosophical than Estragon, his wager is leveraged against his knowledge of the Gospel of Luke (23:42-43) where one of the two thieves astride the Savior avoids eternal ruin at the hour of death pleading: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Christ, Luke recounts, answered reassuringly: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Vladmir reasons for Estragon: “Two thieves. One is supposed to have been saved and the other ... [He searches for the contrary of saved] ... damned.” It’s a fifty-fifty chance at salvation, should Godot ever arrive... Then Vladmir’s prospects for an even break begin to unravel when his knowledge of scripture gets the best of him; he remembers that it is Luke, and no-one else in the Bible, who recounts the second saved soul on Calvary. Skepticism is on the rise. “ is it,” he wonders, “that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved. The four of them were there – or thereabouts – and only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?”

Estragon: “Who believes him?”
Vladmir: “Everybody. It’s the only version they know.”
Estragon: “People are bloody ignorant apes.”

Vladmir’s even odds are now but one in four.
According to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, when it comes to salvation, Vladmir was dot on. The current odds, they tell us, of not being blown to kingdom come by the 5,000 nuclear weapons that remain on alert in our post-cold war era are roughly one in four. Of the world’s 43,300,000,000 human inhabitants, about 10,825,000,000 of us would likely survive an all out nuclear exchange, only to witness the onset of a nuclear winter; salvation of a sort. Probability equations can vary of course, depending on the population density of target cities, and it can make a difference if you forget to account for disparities in blast, heat, and radioactive fallout, but one in four is in the ballpark. Like Vladmir, we are resigned to these dire odds, and it is hardly difficult to understand why; the doctrine of “Mutual Assured Destruction” was already wilting when Ronald Reagan demanded that Mr. Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, and by the time the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty was enacted, living with the arms race seemed largely a memory.

As I write, forensic experts have identified one of the bodies found in the Madrid apartment building raided by the police on April 4, 2003 as Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, a Tunisian for whom a Spanish High Court judge had issued a European arrest warrant as the "leader and coordinator" of the bombings that killed 191 people and injured more than 1,400 in Madrid just weeks ago. Between the destruction of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on the USS Cole, the airplanes that were flown into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, the synagogues in Tunisia and Turkey, the mosques in Baghdad and Karbala, and the nightclub in Bali, all left in ruins, and the bombing of military barracks in Saudi Arabia, the current risk of nuclear war on a global scale, only plays a supporting role to the abundant fear of “dirty bombs,” or rogue nuclear scientists, like the Pakistani, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sell fissionable materials and know-how to the highest bidder, or the conventional bombs you mistake for delivery trucks on your way to work. The chance of being sacrificed to the opposing superpower in the era of great-power politics has been supplanted by the dread of a nonstate actor; the “asymmetrical” threat posed by a group of religious extremists at the very bottom of the international system, who have the capability to inflict devastating damage on the very pinnacle of the international system.


The gnawing fear of Al Qaeda is, without doubt, taking a psychological toll; to torque fear and cultivate pessimism within the enemy is centrally strategic to the success of terrorism. We are demoralized by terrorism. But how is that expressed, to forecast as did Vladmir, as our own expectations for salvation? One answer comes from Dr. Magne Raundalen and Ole Johan Finnoy of the University of Bergen in Norway who, eighteen years ago, published a study describing what the children in Scandinavia perceived as the world’s most gloomy tribulations, and how such dismay affected their feelings about their own future. Between 1984 and 1985, Raundalen and Finnoy asked 3,000 Norwegian and 1,000 Swedish boys and girls, aged 12 to 19, to list ten problems facing the world, in an ascending order of magnitude. Predictably, the nuclear threat ranked first over all age groups. In the end the researchers were able to conclude that “44 percent of those surveyed were pessimistic about the world – an attitude we define as a profound hopelessness towards the possibilities of peace and future life on earth, including their own survival.” Their study is illuminating as a historical document of the cold war era, and as a predictor of long term psychosomatic after-effects of growing up with the bomb. But Raundalen and Finnoy’s work also invites us to deduce that the odds of escaping our own psychological warp, more misshapen with every act of terrorism, are stacked against us. We are living lives that rarely touch bottom in our own sea of pessimism. It is a good bet that terrorism would rank first were a similar survey conducted today, though difficult to imagine only 44 percent of adolescents expressing a profound hopelessness towards their own survival.


Jone Kvie was fourteen years old and growing up in Stavanger, Norway when Raundalen and Finnoy concluded that 57% of the fourteen year olds they surveyed saw nuclear war overshadowing every other fear. It’s easy to imagine the children of Stavanger ranking it even higher once you learn that during the cold war their coastal city sat in the midst of a strategic NATO base where great fleets of warships would underline pending doom, steaming in and out of a port only 628 miles from the Russian border. If Raundalen and Finnoy’s study is a statistical expression of adolescent anxiety, in step with the tenor line of nuclear war drums, then Jone’s elegant sculptures of atomic mushroom clouds are the visual corollaries. Trace evidence his apprehension lingers, sociology is confirmed by art.


In 1947, as the debate spiked over whether atomic arsenals would deter future wars or invite them, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the Manhattan Project, voiced a moral ambivalence that would cost him his reputation. “In some sort of crude sense...” he said, “the physicists have known sin.” With these few words Oppenheimer admitted that the bomb, far from being the means of righteous triumphant was hopelessly entangled in its own paradoxical riddle – immoral obliteration wrought from scientific achievement. Oppenheimer framed it as an awful subject, sounding in a register of overwhelming abstract irrationality. But by the time Andy Warhol chose it as a subject, sixteen years later, the image of a menacing mushroom cloud had become so ubiquitous, as to be invisible; he represented the modern age immune to Oppenheimer’s guilt, having been worn away beneath the unremitting odds of total annihilation. The repetitive silkscreen painting from 1963-64 titled Atomic Bomb, sees Warhol’s usual strategy in play; a legendary image, mass produced, into senselessness (Perhaps he understood this better than most; the bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on Andrew Warhola’s seventeenth birthday, August 6, 1945). But Jone’s mushroom sculptures lift the veil of cultural anesthesia Warhol subscribed to the bomb, to capitulate to a version of Oppenheimer’s repercussive moral disquiet over doomsday, that Jone’s own "Generation X” grew up with. An armchair psychologist might conclude that creating miniature atomic clouds is the attempt to invoke and morally confront deeply imbedded fears.


I have always thought of those early 1950’s atmospheric tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site, which elegantly blossomed into biomorphic and translucent globes - code named HOW, HARRY, and HORNET - as far more glamorous looking than the routine mushroom shaped explosions. But this is a matter of taste sitting far from the delicate equation between an aesthetic sublime and nature’s capacity for creating a fearful sublime which is at hand in Jone’s sculptures. Today, the Nevada Test Site is under the direction of the United States Department of Energy. Larger than many small countries, the test site is a massive outdoor laboratory and experimental center used for programs such as hazardous chemical spill testing, and conventional weapons testing, or and waste management studies. It’s been that way since the nuclear weapons testing moratorium of 1992, but originally the test site was established as the Atomic Energy Commission's on-continent proving ground, and saw more than four decades of nuclear weapons testing. On June 4, 1957, as a part of Operation Upshot/Knothole, a 61 kiloton device was detonated at the test site, code named CLIMAX. Jone’s vivid red-orange untitled sculpture, on mirrored base, from 2003 cannot help but bring to mind the vivid red-orange photographs documenting CLIMAX as it rose into the dessert sky. Still, these sculptures by this Stavanger veteran are historical mementos, and seen through the Raundalen and Finnoy’s study, they resound as artistic impressions of sublime fear.


In his Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant wrote: "When in aesthetic judgment, we consider nature as a might that has no dominance over us, then it is dynamically sublime. If we are to judge nature as sublime dynamically, we must present it as arousing fear." Kant is a touchstone for Jone as his sculptures knit together the physical, psychological, and aesthetic, to problematize nature’s fearful awe as atoms split. Edmund Burke, in The Sublime and the Beautiful, upholds Jone’s strategy: "I know of nothing sublime which is not some modification of power, [which]...rises...from terror...the common stock of everything that is sublime." The historical connection between the sublime and fear and morality, made repeatedly by Kant and Burke, is Jone’s instrument for boring down into the wonder and fear of the domination and power of nature (the latent dread Raundalen and Finnoy discovered amongst his peers) while negotiating from it art’s transcendent beauty. “Fearfulness without fear,” Kant said. Along this course, his sculptures aspire to be beautiful in a way aligned with Dave Hickey’s nomination of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs as expressions of overwhelming beauty. "The task of these figures of beauty was to enfranchise the audience and acknowledge its power,” Hickey wrote, “to designate a territory of shared values between the image and its beholder and, then, in this territory, to argue the argument by valorizing the picture's problematic content." And it is along this frontier, triangulated by Kant, Burke and Hickey’s problematization of the sublime as a terrible beauty, that Jone’s sculptures stake out their first and most lasting significance.

Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est ("Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary") reads the inscription beneath the choir inside The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Originally built in the 4th century by Helena, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, the church is a shrine to the Savior’s birth in Bethlehem. Nine hundred years later, in Padua, Giotto painted his Nativity as a part of the celebrated fresco series in the Arena Chapel. He represents the manger on the site where presumably, Helena had built her church. With the exception of the ox and the ass, Giotto follows along with the Biblical descriptions of the Christmas scene. Here is Christ, born and wrapped in swaddling clothes. Joseph kneels apart from the central scene, and Angels herald the birth. The Virgin, Giotto employs as a light of human drama; in her prescience she gazes sadly at her newborn, somehow knowing His fate.
Bethlehem, where St. Luke recounts (2:1-4) the Virgin birth took place, is no where to be seen. The proto-Renaissance landscape surrounding the manger is rocky and barren and at the very back, Giotto has placed a stalwart mountain, or very large rock whose craggy monumentality brings to mind Jone’s ponderous sculpture The Mountain, 2002. In the middle-ages, real mountains were held in general awe and horror; rough country populated by wild animals or perhaps hermits, like St. Jerome who sought to discover humility though isolation. But in Christian iconography, mountains or rocks, like Giotto’s, symbolize the presence of God, “Our Lord the Rock of Salvation,” and in this light, it is impossible to ignore that set together, Jone’s mountain sculpture and his mushroom clouds, present the perfect antithesis to one another. Salvation found and lost, just as for Vladimir.
The Nativity, from infant to the mountain, play starring roles in the Christian creation myth that tells us Jesus was not anything other than fully human and fully divine; the pre-existing agent of creation. The newborn in Giotto’s painting would later claim, according to the Gospels (John 8:58), to have been at the creation, and elsewhere the New Testament attributes to him the role of Creator (Hebrews, 1:2).

Jone has a fondness for subjects that were witnesses’ to beginnings and the endings. His sculptures are an expression of something primordial and apocalyptic. In this sense, it is fair to say that they represent the emergence of an independent genre, as autonomous as was the genre of 19th century mountain paintings that were in some cases, as in Norway, the means for young nations to characterize the eminent sublimity of the domain they had settled and were struggling to cultivate. August Wilhelm Leu’s picture Norwegian Landscape with a Waterfall, of 1849 comes quickly to mind. It is a scene of natural splendor, an expression of the omnipresent logic of the universe - the movement of the stars, the changing seasons, and the endless thunder of waterfalls – that in its infinite and unswerving power can only ignore humankind’s most noble achievements. Jone’s sculptures of meteorites, stalagmites and stalactites are examples of just such a genre.

Tagish Lake
The idea that the most catastrophic of mass extinctions on Earth was caused by a meteor impact some 250 million years ago has been gaining traction, moving from the status of conspiracy theory to a sure bet. Confidence has been recently uplifted by the discovery of a concentration of buckminsterfullerenes, or buckyballs found at the “extinction layer” beneath Earth’s surface. Buckyballs contain a signature cocktail of helium and argon gases found in certain stars, but it is a mixture alien to anything that would have formed naturally on Earth. The existence of the distinctive gas mixture in buckyballs on Earth begs the question: how did they get here? These buckyballs gases, scientists are persuaded were formed billions of years ago in a prehistoric star, floated into interstellar space and later were carried to Earth aboard the killer meteor. The meteor’s arrival set off a cataclysmic chain of events from huge volcanic eruptions to climatic shifts that in turn, killed 90 percent of the marine species and 70 percent of the backboned land animals that lived in the Permian geological period. Cataclysmic, for sure, but if anyone of us would have seen it and then lived to tell about it, “sublime” is probably the word you would reach for first as a description. Afterall, it changed life forever on Earth. In the Triassic period that followed, the Earth's ecosystem shifted from mostly passive creatures like the clamlike brachiopods to more active predators that searched for their food. In effect, the meteor rendered our planet fit for human habitation.
Odds are low that another meteor, the magnitude of the one that impacted during the Permian geological period will plow into Earth any time soon. There is however an asteroid, designated 2000 SG344, about 200 feet in diameter that scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena estimate has a 1-in-1,000 chance of colliding with Earth in 2071. If 2000 SG344 ever ends up on a collision course, it would likely first break into parts called meteoroids, most of which would be observed from Earth as meteors, or shooting stars. If a meteor survived the vaporizing friction of the atmosphere, and slammed into Earth, the results, say scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory would be of a fairly sizable nuclear blast. Meteorites, portions of meteoroids, and sometimes referred to as particles of asteroids, are hardly as devastating and more common by far. Asteroids ultimately break down into meteoroids and meteoroids into meteorites and the family traits they share are being primordial and apocalyptic and witnesses to eons of time; they are a natural subject for Jone’s art. They fit the genre.
If you thought you were seeing a photograph of an actual meteor looking at a photograph of Jone’s sculpture Meteor, 2001, you would think “hoax,” or have to be impressed with the mind-boggling odds that someone had captured this “stop-action” scene of a meteor, entering the side of a house. Where Jone uses the seductiveness of mirrored surfaces to arrest your attention and prompt serious reflection in front of his atomic clouds, it is the shock and awe of an extraterrestrial rock “inbound” that does it for the meteor sculpture.
Just four years ago, on January 18, 2000, a meteor did end up in someone’s house. On that evening, while military satellites tracked it and 70 eye-witnesses watched from Earth, a meteor more than 20 feet wide, weighing 220 tons began its entry into the atmosphere producing sonic booms and a blazing fireball across the sky. In pieces after its ride through the atmosphere, these meteorites landed on Tagish Lake in northern British Columbia, near the Yukon border. Jim Brook, a bush pilot, who lives in a cabin on the lake found a dozen or so meteorites, placed them in plastic bags, put them in the freezer and waited for the planetary geologists to knock on his door. That’s Standard Operating Procedure for collecting newly arrived meteorites. Preserved inside the speciems, which resemble burnt charcoal briquettes, is a bit of the primordial solar system which had changed little from what it originally was 4.5 billion years ago. The Tagish Lake meteorites turn out to be of a type known as carbonaceous chondrites, which contain sizable quantities of carbon and organic molecules. They are rare. Of the nearly 1,000 meteorites recovered from witnessed falls over the last two centuries, only five have been of this class. They are as significant as they are rare. It is generally believed that CI chondrites seeded Earth with water and organic molecules, the building blocks of life. Meteorites, and meteoroids and asteroids, harboring the origins of life, simultaneously threaten its catastrophic and mass extinction; I think of them as the protagonists of Jone’s art.
And now I am thinking of Jone’s sculpture Untitled (archive) from last year, a little scene of perfectly white stalagmites (the ones that grow upward from the ground) and stalactites (the ones that grow down from the ceiling). Stalagmites and stalactites are alien looking-natural stone formations that turn an underground cave into a carnivalisque funhouse. But like Leu’s undying waterfall, and Jone’s sculptures of a mountain and meteorites, they too are witnesses to the ubiquitousness of nature’s intransience. Stalagmites and stalactites are diaries of perseverance. If sectioned like trees they display rings representing periods of growth, but the bands of stalagmites and stalactites are not annual as with a tree, but only form when the weather is warm and there is ample enough rain to find its way into the cave and drop by drop create elongated mineral deposits. Dating a section of a stalagmite is a matter of comparing the relative amounts of certain uranium and thorium atoms. The older the section, the greater proportion of thorium it will contain, because the uranium atoms decay into thorium. More or less thorium attributes wet or dry climates to preceding ages, a weather forecast in reverse. Growing only about one cubic inch in one hundred years, they are, in effect, like meteorites, backwards moving time-machines.
A sixty foot stalactite, a colossal in its own world, would be as young as one hundred and eighty thousand years old. I can only envy the stalactite, this witness to whom we pay tribute with reverent awe, a witness whose indifference towards humankind we will never fully grasp, a witness that was here long before each of us, that will continue to mark time long after we have passed into oblivion. One hundred and eighty thousand years. It is a number impossible to reason with, to be au fait with, to comprehend, and so we deferentially describe it as sublime conveying it into the realm of the unsayable. An arrogant witness it can call monotonous the ponderousness of what we call eternal; it is the mirror image of our own frail uncertainty. It cross-examines our search for something - call it salvation - and finding us lacking, assigns us to the pitiful role of Vladimir.

Jone’s is a struggle to define his own world, one filled with uncertainty in a register sublime, and like Leu, Caspar David Friedrich, James Fenimore Cooper and Lord Byron, he contemplates the power of nature existing beyond our imagination. As it was for poets and artists and the teenagers in the Raundalen and Finnoy survey, his art wonders about the hope of salvation, but finds that it can hardly be described. “The effect of the whole was to create a picture, of which I can give no other idea than by saying it resembled a glimpse through the windows of heaven at such a gorgeous but chastened grandeur as the imagination might conceive to suit the place. There were moments when the spectral aspect, just mentioned, dimmed the lustre of the snows, without impairing their forms, and no language can do justice to the sublimity of the effect. It was impossible to look at them without religious awe; and, irreverent though it may seem, I could hardly persuade myself I was not gazing at some of the sublime mysteries that lie beyond the grave." These are the words of James Fenimore Cooper who traveled to the Jungfrau glacier, seeking the sublime, but could only admit the frailty of his art to describe the experience. So too Jone.

Ronald Jones
Stockholm and Frankfurt, 2004