Daughters of Uranium, and exhibition by Mary Kavanagh

September 27, 2019 - January 26, 2020

On July 16, 1945, when the United States detonated the world’s first atomic bomb, the atmospheric radiation released by this event marked the beginning of the Nuclear Anthropocene.

In the second iteration of her exhibition, Daughters of Uranium, Mary Kavanagh engages different modes of representation, structuring the Nuclear as a totalizing concept rather than as a singular event or period. Kavanagh’s approach is unique in the visual records of the atomic era. Photographic representation tends to over-rely on the photogenic Bomb, and the highly aesthetic, awesome images of detonation and destruction are frequently reproduced and circulated. But where images fail, radiation remains. Derived from the chemical sciences, the term “daughters of uranium” describes the radioactive decay chain of naturally occurring uranium, (U-235 being the crucial element for sustaining a nuclear chain reaction) while evoking generations born into an uncertain future.

Through a precise combination of objects, moving images, photographs and works on paper, Mary Kavanagh produces a complex narrative that encompasses not only the desert site of the first atomic explosion but the post-war suburbs that expanded rapidly in its shadows; not only the laboratories that buzzed with thrilling scientific discovery, but the homes where the cost of war was actualized in the slow decay of uranium isotopes moving through newly cancerous bodies. In contrast with the true invisibility of radioactivity and radiation sickness, Kavanagh’s work frames a critique of militarism and military aesthetics through encounter and touch in order to understand how war impacts the body through generational histories.

With a forensic eye, Mary Kavanagh brings into view current conditions of invisibility, exposing us to the present and to the presence of the Nuclear—uranium oxide suspended in glass in the form of a radiant pair of legs; a replica of a radiation suit meant to protect a pig from fatal exposure to a nuclear test blast; a stack of lead bricks; sand fused into a novel glass mineral in the infernal heat of the twenty-one kiloton Trinity detonation in 1945. With its experiments in duration, with breath, trace and imprint, with documentary video, conjectures and probes, Daughters of Uranium exists as an atomic archive, one that calls into question geometrical, temporal and topographical notions of scale and proximity; the very near and the very far; the big and the small; the very old and the new; the before and the after.

Kavanagh is a Professor in the Department of Art, University of Lethbridge.  Her research interests include feminist political ecology, technologies of war, and histories of science. She has documented military and nuclear sites in Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Alaska, Japan and Canada and contributed artist projects to numerous publications including Through Post-Atomic Eyes (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2020) and Prefix Photo 32: Occupying Forces (Toronto, 2015).

Curated by Christina Cuthbertson and Lindsey Sharman and coordinated at Founders’ Gallery by Katherine Ylitalo. Co-organized by the Southern Alberta Art Gallery and the Founders’ Gallery. An exhibition catalogue with essays by Peter C. van Wyck and Jayne Wilkinson is scheduled for publication in 2020.

 

Mary Kavanagh, ‘Daughters of Uranium [with Rosa the Beautiful],’ cast uranium glass, ultraviolet light, 2019-2020, Photo credit: the artist.

Mary Kavanagh, ‘Daughters of Uranium [with Trinity],’ video stills, 2019-2020, Photo credit: the artist.

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