The Denver Museum of Contemporary Art’s new exhibition, Energy Effects: Art and Artifacts From the Landscape of Glorious Excess, affords museum-goers the rare opportunity to view works attributed to Lockheed Martin (an unused Titan IV Stage II rocket), and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (nothing less than a B61 thermonuclear bomb). The show, which opened in conjunction with the city’s first Biennial of the Americas, connects works by a group of international contemporary artists to artifacts of the atomic age.
The bomb, on loan from the Rockies Air and Space Museum, looks exactly as a bomb should look – gleaming and predatory, stainless steel touched with blood red colorings, sharp-nosed and sharp-finned. In the background, Gonzalo Libreja’s video installation, Aranjuez, showing raucous soccer fans in the streets of Guadalajara, provides an incongruous Latin soundtrack. All this is not mere sensationalism. The exhibition brings such elements together to form a compelling meditation on the extreme reaches of art, technology, and militarism, and on the role of the vast, sun-struck spaces of the American West as an arena for all these forces.
This sense of place is felt most powerfully in the first room of the exhibition. Along one wall hang a series of collages by Pablo Helguera; entitled Suite Americana, they commemorate the artist’s 25,000-mile van journey from Alaska to Chile. Incorporating vintage maps, geography texts, travel photos and other ephemera, the collages have cryptic but evocative English-language captions – also culled from vintage texts – such as “The only conclusion that one can draw from this topological examination is startling.” While less startling, perhaps, than the installation upstairs incorporating a recreated particle accelerator first used to fission uranium in 1939, or the bomb in the basement, the collages evoke the complex and often troubled relationship of Americans to the environment – natural and political – they have sought to dominate.
The two installations at right angles to Helguera’s add their own resonance. Moments 1-5, a series of works in aluminum, acrylic, and light by Torolab/Raúl Cárdenas, map the daily movements of five people living in the border cities of San Diego and Tijuana on sheets of luminous colored plastic. On the opposite wall hang Don Stinson’s delicate pencil drawings of aging gas pumps along western highways, adrift in blank white space. Flanking them are documents from a Denver-area engineering firm, bearing Kansas place names recognizable from the seemingly endless drive across that state via I-70.
The interstate highways, of course, were first and foremost a Cold War military project, as was the conquest of outer space, an artifact of which sits nearby on the gallery floor. Lockheed Martin’s Titan IV Stage II rocket engine is surprisingly elegant and organic in ways reminiscent of mid-century design; its conical interior is lined with beautifully polished dark wood, its exterior covered with a stiff brown plush. (Lockheed Martin is a local company, its headquarters tucked away in the foothills south of Littleton.) Taken together, these works are powerfully suggestive of the United States of America’s uneasy dominion over the spaces of this hemisphere and beyond, and the cost at which it has been achieved. Wilfred Wigan Mbe’s miniature solid-gold Statue of Liberty, mounted in the eye of a needle and best seen through a microscope, sits a little oddly in this company. What impresses most is the contrast between its handmade, almost crude look, and the smooth machine-age perfection of the objects surrounding it.
Upstairs, the star attraction is Jim Sanborn’s room-size installation, Terrestrial Physics. This installation incorporates the above-mentioned particle accelerator, rebuilt from original plans at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and in working order, as video footage of uranium fissioned in the artist’s studio proves. As with the rocket engine, the surprise here is the sinister beauty of these objects. Fashioned of shiny copper, brass, and chrome, the oversized spheroid forms of the accelerators evoke the laboratory in Frankenstein, or the futuristic cityscape of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. An object recalling an antique camera attached to one proves to be a “Model PNR-4 Portable Neutron REM Counter” produced by the Eberlene Instrumental Corporation of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which presumably enjoyed a steady custom from Los Alamos. Sanborn’s installation embeds these items in the equally sinister everyday clutter of the modern energy economy – rubber hoses, stacked barrels, and awkwardly placed cords.
The further edges of the expenditure of energy are explored by works in the floor’s other galleries, which include a mural-sized photograph of the Large Hadron Collider by Maximilien Brice, and Jeff Shore and Jon Fisher’s installation Cliff Hanger, which features a display of circuitry as complex as any of the show’s industrial artifacts. Gonzalo Lebrija’s photograph Entre La Vida y La Muerte (Between Life and Death), showing the moment before impact as a meticulously restored American muscle car is dropped into a shallow desert lake, partners easily with Richard Meredith-Hardy’s Thrust SSC supersonic shockwave, Black Rock Desert, which records an experimental engine test in Nevada. The Lebrija photo has a companion piece outside the museum as well, a pale gold Chevy Malibu mounted vertically above a pool of water in the parking lot across the street, which Lebrija has entitled “History of Suspended Time: Monument for the Impossible.” As the exhibition’s interpretive materials suggest, the line between art and science blurs here, and it is hard to say which expenditure of energy is more extravagant, more of a flirtation with destruction done purely in the name of spectacle.
But perhaps the most haunting work on the second floor has been created by Viviane Le Courtois. Her series, Chaussures, in progress since 1991, consists of shoes she makes by hand out of rope and then wears until they are falling apart. Dozens of pairs of these humble rope shoes, visibly worn, evocative of indigenous handicrafts, embodying the only way in which most people, in most times and places, have moved through space, they hang along the outside walls of the second floor, visible from each of the other galleries. Encountering them, after admiring the glossy machinery of destruction on display elsewhere, it is hard not to see in them a silent reproach.