Statement by Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World

A luminescent disc is at the back of Peter Gruner Shellenbergerʼs prints, a large coin that recalls the sun. But the glow is oddly-colored and disconcerting. It levels and obliterates the features of the foreground object, defining it only in the starkest outer lines, making it familiar and strange at the same time.

Shellenbergerʼs primary “paint” is radiation. Browsing some garage sales, he came across some solid-color dishware first sold in the 1930s under the name Fiesta Ware, stained by a dye agent containing uranium, which emits a low radioactive signature. This element at place 92 in the Periodic Table also happens to bond with oxygen in friendly and diverse ways, creating a natural rainbow effect which has nothing to do with its radiation. But it still throws off a low level of alpha rays – which are broken-off chunks of protons and neutrons – and Shellenbergerʼs method was to take plastic figurines from Cracker Jack boxes and expose them against a photographic plate held to the Fiesta Ware for 45 days. This confirms the (basically harmless) radioactive content of the early versions of this kitchen staple and raises questions about the effect of the natural world on man, as repurposed in technological simulacrum.

This ingenious work is, in some sense, a replication of the scientific accident that led to the discovery of radiation. In 1898, a chemist in Paris named Henri Becquerel was investigating phosphorescence, the effect of an object absorbing light and then slowly releasing it (best known today as the trick behind glow-in-the-dark trinkets). Becquerel had wrapped a bundle of a particular salt – potassium uranyl sulfate – in some photographic plates and set them on the window ledge of his apartment. The day had been cloudy, and Becquerel opened the package expecting to see nothing, as no sunlight could possibly have been absorbed. Instead he found the plates fogged up in strange patterns. Whatever it was coming from the salts, it was a constant and independent source of energy. This was radioactivity, a violent instability at the heart of the uranium atom which causes it to throw off pieces of itself as an insane man might tear off his clothes in a rage. Becquerel would later share the Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre and Marie Curie, and further discoveries about the physical magic of uranium would lead to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the arms race and the existence of 440 nuclear power plants across the world, with the same source of energy burning at their cores which Shellenberger has commanded here. The work takes on newer shadings in light of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, in which a seawall was breached and the generators were disabled in a way that the designers did not foresee.

The light in these prints is like a flash from an unseen photographer, capturing a physical and intellectual moment in which the viewer is asked to examine notions of how our own “lines” are drawn by the background of a transmuted natural substance, forged by man into the most thunderous tool of warfare ever created, yet also held out as a shining hope for a future of limitless energy poured out by the unstable heart of this element, uranium. He has said the Cracker Jack images of children at play are a recollection of the photographic shadows of people against the walls of Hiroshima, caught at the moment of their annihilation. The current argument about Vermont Yankee – and the disquieting near-meltdown at Fukushima – are only the latest expressions of how our conversation with this element is not finished. Shellenberger tells us that what is most worthy of introspection is not what uranium does on its own account, but what it illuminates about our own human shapes. -- Tom Zoellner, author of "Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World" (Viking/Penguin, 2009)

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