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Article » Blanks: Visualizing Nuclear Catastrophes

Daniel Bürkner

The disaster of the Fukushima power plant is marked by abstract vagueness. Still now, people in several regions of Japan, including Tokyo, cannot define clearly whether the nuclear threat, which can only be registered by measuring devices and internationally differing limit values, is a latent or acute one. The issue is also fundamentally pictorial. Even a few months after the initial accident, an image of the catastrophe has not yet been established. In accordance with the substantial epistemic role of images in visual culture and information society, this lack of visualization goes along with a lack of perception. It can be argued that denying pictorial representation belongs to the cultural constants of nuclear catastrophes. Due to the invisibility of radioactivity for the human senses, many techniques of visualization have been established ever since the first nuclear threats, especially in photography. However, radiation, the core of nuclear catastrophe, remains a blank in images of visual culture, and therefore, as well in the collective understanding of the event. This issue is also reflected in the development of the international media coverage, which was of enormous presence in the first weeks after the accident. In the case of Western Europe, the news probably bore nightmarish resemblances to the traumatic Chernobyl accident in 1986. Gradually, this presence of the media has faded. Partly, this might be due to the general short span of media-based attention for international catastrophes. However, the events of Fukushima differ fundamentally from sheer natural disasters in terms of time. The accident of Fukushima may have had a beginning, but it lacks any sense of an ending. The catastrophe has turned out to be permanent, as opposed to the representation of the event in the media.

The decrease of the media attention can therefore also be seen as a symptom of a larger pictorial problem. There has been a vast number of images that reflected the dramatic tsunami in the run-up to the nuclear accident. However, neither an image nor a permanent idea of the permanence of invisible radioactive threat and contamination have been established.There have been attempts to confront this lack of visualization of Fukushima. The permanent news coverage of the first days mainly consisted of a live stream depicting a motionless reactor hall, leaving the spectator gazing at its fine example of 1970s Japan exterior wall design.

To counteract the helpless monotony of this visual absence, graphic expressions such as the hydrogen explosion that tore away the roof of reactor 3 on March 14th were thus repeated extensively. The cloud indicating the explosion was embraced by the media for its putative iconic effect. Did it not show iconographic resemblances to the atomic mushroom clouds that rose above Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did it not remind the viewer of the enigmatic role of the Chernobyl cloud that represented the invisible international contamination in the news and literary afterimages? In the end the Fukushima cloud was a visual effect, but remained a small symptom of the catastrophe’s course and failed to address a larger idea of the catastrophe.

Early June 2011, three months after the accident, this lack of visualization came to an absurd eruption. A YouTube-video clip of uncertain provenience gained wide attention, featuring a hare without ears, reputedly born in the Fukushima region in May 2011. If this video was authentic, even serious media speculated, there would finally be a visual symbol of the nuclear catastrophe, probably bearing in mind the horrid images of deformed children and animals that were born in the Chernobyl region in the late 1980s. The pitiable animal could not live up to these expectations. This visual lack is not solely an issue of Fukushima. It is a phenomenon that occurs consequently with every nuclear catastrophe perceived by mass media, be it the accidents of Three Mile Island, Sellafield or—most dominantly—the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Chernobyl accident.1  The radiation effects of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be considered intentional nuclear catastrophes. They brought an invisible threat coming after the visible effects of the atomic blast that pulverized and burned kilometres of city grounds, represented in the icon of the mushroom cloud. There was invisible contamination, causing people’s deaths from radiation sickness a few days after they were exposed to the atomic flash, or even after they entered the city grounds the day following the explosion. It is an invisible threat that continued in the physical suffering and social stigmatization of the Hibakusha, the affected survivors of the atomic bombs.

There have been many artistic attempts to articulate this issue, working iconographically with the often glorious implications of the mushroom cloud, but also the mimetic representation of topography, relicts (relics?), and the human body. Furthermore, there have been strategies that sought to articulate the implications of radiation not only by the means of iconography but by the means of the media. These strategies attempted to represent nuclear catastrophes especially through the analogies between invisible radioactive radiation and the medium of photography. Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil as well as Yves Klein tried to express the force of radiation by adapting its effects into the artistic media. Artists like Jim Sanborn have used radioactive material to cause photographic effects and therefore visualize the initial invisibility of radiation. In the course of these attempts, a use of photography had established that resembled its early functions in the late 19th century. The same medium that had conveyed x-rays to the human eye, that had led spiritualists to new theories about visualizing not only paranormal sensations but invisible life fluids, now supposedly served as means to visualize the atomic age.

In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, similar attempts can be observed. Photography of the catastrophe utilized certain visual elements to indicate the invisible menace, be it the destroyed power plant, dosimeters or the chemical icon representing radioactivity. Also in this case, visual techniques operated not only with iconography but as well with the material medium of photography. Ukrainian photographer Igor Kostin took the only photograph that documents the site on the day of the accident. It shows not only the damaged reactor hall with its roof torn off, but also a grainy quality of the medium itself. Radiation, Kostin proposed, supposedly photographed itself by causing damage to the photographic material. The photographic failure thus was added to the iconography of attempting to visualize nuclear catastrophes, and was widely perceived in art and popular culture. These recursions range from artistic attempts like Alice Micelli’s struggle to depict the radiation of the contamination zone with a pin-hole camera that only reacts to radioactive rays to graphic effects in popular computer games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl. Thus, the media of photography itself, its alteration and even destruction, added to the forms of representing nuclear catastrophes. This iconography of nuclear catastrophes, however, represents for the greater part an iconography of attempting and very often failing to establish profound representation.

The positions of art that most strikingly refer to nuclear threats are particularly those that represent the monstrous blank that radiation is leaving in our attempts of understanding it. Canadian photographer Robert Polidori, for example, visited the restricted areas of Chernobyl, like countless other professional or touristic photographers. Yet his clean, sober images of the topography in its plain static existence convey a deep idea of the monstrous dimensions of radiation most dominantly through its visual absence. A similar understanding can be found in the warm nostalgia of Andrej Krementschouk’s photographic journeys to the restricted zone of Chernobyl and its humble elementariness of daily life. Paradoxically, it is the explicit rural romanticism of Krementschouk’s images that evoke an abysmal consciousness of the invisible aspect of life in the zone, a present blank that transcends the senses and the images.The issue of visual absence, it seems, can be confronted by establishing the explicit blank as an icon of nuclear catastrophes. It represents both the visual transgression of the events as well as the general cultural blank of exploiting atomic energy. It is a causal blank of consumption culture to harness an energy form that transgresses the human scale of energy, time and causality. The artistic afterimages of Fukushima have yet to arise. Focusing on the blank that nuclear energy leaves both in terms of visibility as well as in terms of perception has established as a paradoxical but sincere way of depicting the core of the catastrophe, which is not only of physical but of social and cultural nature. It remains to be hoped that the attempts of visualizing this absence do not foster the cultural continuity of visualizing the invisible: To depict a mythical ghost instead of a socio-cultural issue.


  • 1.
    Significantly, one of the most severe accidents in the history of the atomic age, the Mayak power plant accident near Chelyabinsk in 1957, was at no time part of these visual discourses, since it had not been revealed to the public until 1989.

Daniel Bürkner

Art Historian and Cultural Anthropologist Daniel Bürkner is writing his doctoral thesis in Art History at the Humboldt University, Berlin on the topic of atomic catastrophes in photography. He has worked and publicized on aspects of public art, cultural trauma and cultures of remembrance, and is now holding a scholarship from the German National Academic Foundation. He is active both as a composer and as the Founder and Curator of the Frameworks Festival in Munich.

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