A new exhibition at the UH Mānoa Art Gallery proposes a mysterious island floating in the Pacific. A nuclear submarine has been lost and the crew shipwrecks on the island, where they begin to discover secrets about its radioactive history. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports the exhibition offers artifacts and interactive technology for a full transmedia experience of Isotopia Pacifica.
“Isotopia Pacifica” runs through February 9, 2018 at the Art Gallery at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Art Building. Mon. – Fri. 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.; Sun. 12:00 – 4:00 p.m. Closed on the eve and the day of Christmas and January 1st.
Find a 12/4/17 Telesur report on the deteriorating “dome” that protects the Pacific Ocean from nuclear waste on Enewetak
New York Times report from January 2017 about the difficulty of getting medical coverage for those who worked on cleaning up Enewetak. Despite subsequent tumors, brittle bones, cancer, and birth defects, the government maintains there was no radiation exposure.
For more about Starfish Prime, the nuclear weapons test conducted in outer space on July 9, 1962. It was visible from Hawai‘i.
Find out more about Project Azorian, the CIA's 1970's effort to raise a sunken Soviet submarine. A metal sarcophagus containing remains of irradiated crew members remains in the ocean near Hawai‘i.
Isotopia Pacifica opens with a huge map of isotopes, which are the basic chemical elements but with different numbers of neutrons. Not all isotopes are radioactive, but those that are can be dangerous for humans because particles from an unstable nucleus can damage human tissues.
You’re not going to get irradiated here, but there’s a lot going on. French trans-media artist Stefane Perraud and his collaborator, writer Aram Kebabjian, have imagined a floating island, a dystopia made of isotopes.
Perraud: The island is a weird island. Isotopia is made of two words, utopia from the island of Thomas Moore, it’s a dystopic island because it’s an island made of isotopes. Nobody lives there. We don’t exactly know if it’s a wasteland, it’s just for scientists and we don’t know who created it, we don’t know where it is exactly. It’s moving. We named this exhibit Isotopia Pacifica because the island is moving next to Hawai‘i, to make the histories of the two islands together, because there is a big past of radioactivity in Hawai‘i too.
UH Mānoa Art Gallery Director Rod Bengston points out, though there are no nuclear power stations here, Hawai‘i has historic connections to nuclear activity in the Pacific..
Bengston: Currently we’re under threat from North Korea, we station military nuclear weapons and armed
forces of our own here to defend our country. We also have small amounts of radiation used in scientific pursuits, and there’s a long history in the Pacific, especially after WWII, of testing in the Marshall Islands and Bikini and Enewetok. I think it raises questions as to the awareness of the general population to this long history and to its current extension of that history and the use of uranium and plutonium specifically.
Perraud: In this exhibition I’m referring to two stories, one is the big explosion in the ’60’s with the bomb Starfish and the Hawaiian people could see the actual bomb explosion in the sea.
Perraud is citing America’s Starfish Prime high altitude nuclear test July 9, 1962, the largest nuclear test conducted in outer space. Its explosion was seen from Hawaii, at 11 PM Hawaii time.
Perraud: There is another story I’m talking about, it’s Project Azorian. A USSR submarine drowned and the whole crew was inside. For a certain period, America wanted to take back the submarine to know the technology inside. So they built an enormous ship to take back this submarine from a kilometer under the sea. Top secret. Inside they found a few bodies, totally radioactive bodies, they had to bury in a huge metal sarcophagus and put it back into the ocean… They did a video of that and sent it to the USSR for the respect of the bodies.
Perraud is referring to Project Azorian, a CIA attempt to recover a Soviet nuclear sub in 1974. Bodies of six crew members were encased and entombed at sea due to radioactivity concerns.
Perraud: The sarcophagus is next to Hawai‘i. This is the cold war. Nuclear energy, nuclear power is totally related to the cold war. The discovery of radioactivity was much before, but the main thing was during the 40’s until now. We’re still there with North Korea.
True to form for a transmedia artist, Perraud comes at you a lot of different ways, from a huge 3-D isotope map to intricate lazer etchings on paper, to immersive, interactive video to mason jars of fragile, coralline forms.
Perraud: You’re not on the island. I’m traveling and I’m bringing back results. I’m inviting the spectator to imagine the island. It is totally mineral. No plants at all, just a bunch of stones. You arrive, and maybe there’s a science station there. I’m working with Aram Kebabjian, a French novelist who wrote all the text about Isotopia. You can really see the exhibition through the text and visually. We are trying to open possibilities.
Perraud’s room scale installation, Isotope 49, is an elegant apparition—copper wires the width of a hair each power a single LED. A circle of fairy lights is suspended in space, and secured by tiny fishing leads. In the next room, glass jars of gelatin harbor Blue Flesh, delicate, coralline structures that glow blue in the dark. Blue Gorgone #02 takes us into a nuclear reactor where we experience an unknowable color.
Bengston: Gorgone color blue that’s seen inside of reactors is not visible to human eyes because the blue that’s inside the reactor, you would die from the radiation. Stefane has invented a fictional reactor in which he invites you to go in and experience what it might be like to be in the presence of this color you can only sort of see via video cameras. It's a color that has this iridescence to it, it has this memory, this presence of what has passed through it. It’s very eerie.
Perraud: Hawai‘i could be Isotopia, but I don’t like to tell you that. You just have to realize. Isotopia, it’s moving, it’s all over. It’s a fantasy, it’s a fiction, it could be anywhere. It’s a mixture between science and fiction. It’s pure science fiction!