Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tony Price: Laughing at Nuclear Horror (1983)

Tony Price, on the road, 1983
 "Nuclear war toll projected at 1.15 billion," said one headline in the New Mexican. "70 Scientists Sing N-Arms Reduction Petition," read another on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal. Fear of the nuclear threat has risen dramatically in the past year, evidenced by huge demonstrations in the streets of New York and European capitals, and simple pleas by mothers, fathers, scientists, religious and government leaders. But as the fear has increased, so has the frustration over finding sensible and realistic solutions to the dangers of proliferation. So pervasive is the frustration that many have resigned themselves to the feeling that no significant steps will be taken until the bombs start falling.
            New Mexico is a particularly appropriate place for both concern and pessimism, for it is here that the first atom bomb was built and exploded, and many of the far more powerful thermonuclear weapons developed and assembled. Since 1943, when the U.S. Army and the Manhattan Project took it over, Los Alamos, "the cottonwoods," has been one of the nation's centers for weapons research and development, to the extent that the words `Los Alamos' have come to symbolize a sinister, uncontrollable madness, the antithesis of its sylvan origins.
            The paradoxes are maddening and fascinating. Los Alamos sits in the shadow of the Jemez Mountains and an extinct volcano that once blew with such force that it threw house-sized rocks into central Kansas. Los Alamos sits upon the ruins of the Anasazi culture which, 1,000 years ago, worshipped the union of heaven and earth. Los Alamos sits in the midst of one of the most vibrant art centers in the world. Los Alamos is technology run amuck. It is also a major site for research into nuclear medicine, and solar and geothermal energy sources.
            No artist in the country is as committed to calling attention of the dangers of things nuclear as Santa Fe sculptor Tony Price. For more than 15 years, Price has scrounged materials from the Los Alamos National Laboratory salvage yard and constructed bizarre and poignant works from them--wind chimes of bomb casings that ring a ghostly tune, whimsical effigy figures of death-driven robots, tense fountains with water flowing gently over giant electrical generating machinery.
            For most of the last year, Price's Last Salt Talks has stood on the grounds of the Shidoni Gallery in Tesuque. Beside the group of figures is a plaque: "A trophy for the winners of the next nuclear age. The laboratories of Los Alamos have spawned these parts that were used in the construction of this sculptural wind chime. The sculpture represents a confrontation of two machine powers after mankind has been blown away. An angelic umpire with forked tongue oversees this confrontation. A monitor records the moment on an eternal disc. All figures confront a central nuclear monolith. --From dust it came to dust. It will pass--its song. Listen and sense the humorous madness that has allowed this to be. God bless all...T.A. Price, 1976-1981."

            Figuring it would provide an apt introduction to Price and Los Alamos, I joined the artist on one of his bi-weekly trips up to the Zia Salvage Company. As we drove up the hill in his blue, 1951 Chevrolet van, the wiry, intense Price talked about the salvage yard, Los Alamos, and the landscape.
            "I've been coming up here since 1965. I've gone through a half dozen guys who've run the place. Most of them have died. But I've got a barometer, Ed Grothus, a guy who's been up here for 30 years. He's got a bad back, but nothing worse. There's not as much good stuff in the yard as there used to be. I go mostly for beautiful machined pieces that look like art themselves."
            We pass a couple of Safeway trucks descending the hill. "That's how they get the bombs out," Price quipped. "The first thing you run into up here is the pistol range, with the human targets." Sure enough, moments later, we pass the pistol range. Three men and a woman, gripping their guns in both hands, knees bent, are shooting at black, humanoid targets. We pass a sign for the Chilton B. Anderson Meson Facility. "Nobody knows what they're doing up there. They build such odd magnetic numbers, particle accelerators. It's all based on new, better ways to kill. A thermonuclear device now costs about 13 cents a head.
            "Okay, here we are at the yard. You never know what you're going to find. I've seen everything from a house to a baseball glove. The regulars who come here are a mixture of scientists, tinkerers, resalers. When the doors open at noon, these guys race in here, put what they want in a pile, and you're supposed to respect the other guy's pile. It's like old ladies at a dress sale. Low level gentleman's greed."
            At precisely noon, the door of the huge steel Zia warehouse swung open, and the 20 or so waiters rushed to get in. Price clearly knew the ropes. We had been standing at the end of the line casually talking, or so I thought, and suddenly Price was moving with the ghostly speed and evasiveness of a quark. He slipped in ahead of half the line. He grabbed a black box with the IBM logo on it, put it on the floor, and disappeared down a ramp and into the yard at the back of the building. Aluminum wheels and brass fittings flew from behind a stack of metal. Price appeared momentarily as he raced between stacks.
            Soon it started to rain, but Price and others stayed in the yard, scrambling through the high tech refuse. "Look at these great clappers," he shouted. "Weapons shields." About 12 feet in diameter, they looked like huge tank lids.
            Back inside the shed were large oscilloscopes ($25), and small ones ($10), electric typewriters ($50), adding machines, optics, a movie camera, thermocouple gauge/ionization gauges (marked down from $10 to $2), and huge cabinets filled with computer components. Four men worked frantically in one of the cabinets, stripping it of circuits or whatever was inside. The price of the whole thing was $35. "Why don't you guys just buy the whole thing," an observer asked. "Well," answered a curly haired man in glasses and the classic furrowed brow of a German scientist, "it belongs to two people. We take half, they take half. It's more economical."
            The rain turned to heavy hail that banged on the metal roof. The movement inside slowed and people drifted to the large open door. Some held their ears, most grimaced against the din, but the guys in the computer cabinet kept working. Zia is only open an hour a day.
            Price came in and immediately spotted a machine marked "Pat Pend Rube Goldberg." It had wheels, pulleys, valves, and wires, and was marked $50, and Ed Grothus had already claimed it. "It's some kind of cutter," Price said. "I'll bet it can cut anything. Ed! I'll give you $35 more than you paid for this!" Ed, a tall, distinguished looking man who resembles Frank Waters minus about 20 years, emerged from the computer cabinet and walked over. "What do you want with this thing, Tony?"
            "Cut jade."
            "Yeah," Price said. "This heavy sculpture doesn't sell, so I carve all this little stuff out of jade. Indians.... Everything I've carved, I've sold. It takes forever. This thing is perfect."
            "Okay," Ed said, "you can have it. But I want the micrometer thing off it."
            As Price checked out, the cashier said, "Dig deep, Tony, $107 for everything." Price cursed under his breath. "There went the grocery money," he said. "Ten years ago, it would have been 20 bucks. They would have begged me to take it away, and it would have all been radioactive. Nuclear madness."
            We helped Ed load his purchases (a steel desk, several oscilloscopes, two electric typewriters, two Rolodexes, a broom, and some other things), and spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to get the micrometer off Price's cutter. After intense examination, the two determined the whole machine would have to be dismantled. Ed told Price to take it home, they'd do the job another time.
            Price wanted to check out some bomb casings Ed had at his private warehouse, which Price described as a "defrocked Methodist church." Sure enough, a deep isosceles triangle of the former church sat next to a dilapidated Shop-N-Cart mini mall at the edge of downtown Los Alamos. Electronic gear was piled maybe 15 feet high in the old church, with narrow, treacherous isles between piles. The building had an eerie feel--the steep ascending walls and  large stained glass window holding and lighting a religious load of arcane electronics. Price bought three bomb casings from Ed that had been stashed behind the church. Price referred to them as bells.
            It was time for lunch, and we repaired to Philomena's, a clean place decorated with lots of glossy plastic. A willowy, tan young waitress came to take our orders--chili cheese burgers and coffees. Price lit a Camel, and our discussion returned to the bomb. He was eight years old when the first one was tested at White Sands.

“That really froze the future. Even at that age, I was heavily into art. But it was a frustrating thing. You couldn't build anything, you couldn't do anything that would last, because they might blow the place away next week. They've played with that threat for years, all through the Cold War, and it affected a lot of people, not seeing a future. It was like Pandora's Box, the atom, letting it out of the box and it multiplying into what it is today. People don't seem very interested in it. It's too horrible to even think about. Nobody knows probably how many of them have been made, who has them. [Long pause] I've lived in a lot of places, and somehow something goes on here that's different. The emotional horror that goes on periodically, like the prison riot, things like that where they're just destroying everything. There are probably other little pockets around the country where these waves are interacting and crossing. The biggest horror is--if they set off a hydrogen bomb on earth, the same thing happens that's going on in the sun. So for that moment when the thing is going off, there's a connection between the earth and the sun. It's like I'm singing, and I hit a note, and I ring the window pane over there. There's a connection between me and that window pane, almost like a tube connects us of the same vibratory level. And the same thing with these thermonuclear devices. For an instant, the sun is on the earth which is...not supposed to be.
            “You sit in a chair and think about a nuclear explosion, and within 15 minutes you're so drained and so lost about what to do, how to do it.... The only thing.... People, everybody, all at once, must stop doing what they're doing and get rid of this menace! Get it off the planet! Disassemble it. But it would take a strike of every living being who has any feeling toward this thing being around, to do it, to make them stop it. You'd have to stop being a reporter and find out how to get rid of this crap...if we're to have any future at all. The consequences of personal things are dissolved, even countries are dissolved behind this thing. But nobody wants to deal with it, nobody wants to think about it, nobody knows anything about it.
            “I saw this great movie the other day, Dark Circle. It was filmed at one of these weapon places in Texas, where they assemble the weapons. The plutonium triggers are this big [indicating a circle about four inches in diameter], and each trigger has the potential of the explosion at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The trigger looks like a donut, the trigger for a thermonuclear device. I mean, we haven't grown up at all! The cap gun stage is still in these guys' hearts. They want to see bigger and better explosions.”

But you deal with the horror all the time, don't you? In your work?
Yeah, it's there. Somehow the pieces, the sculpture.... It's almost impossible to go out into that yard and think up something to make a statement about time running out, so I assemble the stuff and it becomes another statement. When I was in the service [Marine Corps in the mid-'50s] I saw the intelligences that are running this country, the war games, the mindlessness that goes on, and then to step it up to this high technology in which people have no idea what they're really doing, they're just being paid a lot of money to do it, to come up with something worse, something more horrible. And you think that with these great minds and all the people starving, and nothing works, everything is built so that it falls apart tomorrow.... What kind of attitude is that? To put that kind of attitude into assembling these weapons, anything could happen. I'm real surprised we're both alive this minute. 1945 was a long time ago.
Tony Price, The Last Salt Talks

What is the statement you're making in your work?
As an artist, I can do almost anything. I can paint, draw, sculpt. To do this, though, is a turn on. Someone like me can buy parts that would take months to actually manufacture, and millions of dollars, and I trace back the use of some of these things and find out this was a detonator for a thermonuclear device, and yet look at the beauty of the thing, the form and shape of it which almost makes it something else. It's kind of a valid art in a way, since we're surrounded by millions of pounds of this crap that we could assemble into different things. Sculpture is getting a hold of form and shape and coming up with a new and different form or shape. But I'm also always trying to make an anti-nuclear statement. It's like passing the ball around to other people, right? Trying to get somebody to even think about this horror. It's like a gnat flying in your ear. If I could be a gnat flying in the government's ear, I'd drive it up the wall. I mean, we're very limited as people. We couldn't fight anything individually. And this thing's here in Los Alamos, and everybody knows about it, and nobody wants to think about it, and each day it grows worse. The amount of waste grows worse, a pile they can never get rid of. I mean never. A 100,000 year decay, and what does that mean to anybody? And yet, they're willing to put it on or in the earth. It's unleashed, there's no way to get it back. You can't go collect the bombs, unless everybody agreed. "Let's get rid of this." Nobody's going to do that unless they get burned by it.

Your gnat, the gnat in your work, has a peculiar, bizarre sense of humor.
[Laughter] Yeah, you got to have a sense of humor. But that's what this is! It's humorous that man would devise something like this that blows up the skyline. And you talk to these guys up here, and they say [his voice goes high pitched and nasal], "You know, there's more than ten times the energy unleashed in the average thunder storm than there is in some bombs." Yeah, but it's not leaving radiation around, and burnt bodies. It's an outrage, and I think everybody ought to do something about it, no matter what position they hold in life. Pure madness. It's almost like this terrorist thinking is an offshoot of this nuclear umbrella that we've grown up with. People are willing to do anything because they realize there's no tomorrow. It's put a shadow over the whole earth, everybody affected by it, and they don't know it! It's something that doesn't belong in our time, doesn't have anything to do with life, unless we're fighting some galactic battle, trying to protect the planet.
            Think about what we're sitting on here. These guys have buried their mistakes up in these mesas, and some of then have probably been horrendous mistakes. Radiation is a thing that affects the biological time clock, which means the biological time clock moves and everything mutates with this movement. Hey, they make these things [indicating our hamburgers, which have just been delivered] out of rats now, fat California rats.           

Do you remember when the bomb was first dropped? Your reaction?
We won the war, got rid of all those Japs. But look what we unleashed! What did Oppenheimer say, "I have become death, the destroyer of worlds." Right out of the Bhagavad-Gita. All of them now, you see them on television, weeping for what they've done, tormented so badly by this grand idea, right, that should no way have entered into our.... I mean, we'd almost have a sane, working world today. But now everybody wants one. If Argentina had the bomb, I'm sure they would have used it rather than drop their macho and surrender to the British. [Pause] It's inconceivable that as human beings we can't see each other's pain. We just sort of walk by each other's pain.

            [I thought about the artist's difficulty in selling his `nuclear' constructions. He had commented earlier that he had dumped some of his sculptures into fissures in the earth, walled others into caves, and dragged some into the desert and left them, hoping that anthropologists of the future would find them and wonder.]

Why do you think your work is so hard to sell?
Well, it's a hard market out there. I never really intended to sell it in New Mexico. I thought I could take it where there's a great big population, where there might be some people who would recognize it for what it was. I've had shows in New York and sold the whole thing out. Here people are interested in the Western cowboy thing. Over the last few years, the contemporary scene has opened up, in Taos in particular, and Santa Fe, but I've never seen a contemporary gallery make it here. People want a little trinket of the West, a picture of a steer they remember. That's the intellect on the art level here. To stay alive, I've done the carving--marble, jade, rocks, turn them into Indians, a bowl, something I could race out and sell the same afternoon I finished it. [Pause] Everybody's in their own dream, anyhow. The idea is to push a piece into somebody's dream, and out here that's real difficult.

Do you think of yourself as especially political? Are you an activist?
Politics is some kind of joke to my head. It's always replaced by something worse, no matter what happens.

But I don't get the impression that you're about to give up.
I've been outraged so long it's funny. [He laughed an unfunny laugh.] I'd have a better chance to wake people up if I was a writer, maybe, but people are all asleep. When the government picks up these over-developed intellects, they're just tools for this political horror show that says, "Build me something bigger and more horrible."

But who are these people who are saying, "Build me something bigger, more horrible?"
The frightened ones. They're probably afraid to go out, yet they can sit in their laboratories and cook up a little bacteria that's gonna take us all down.

It is a little strange up here in Los Alamos. Driving to the restaurant, I saw houses with cyclone fences around them and big German shepherds in the yards. And this in what must be among the most secure towns in the world. I can't imagine there'd be much crime up here.
It's the almighty dollar that's got them all up here, great grants, big bucks. People here make ten times what people down the hill make. What do they do with it? They buy their cars, educate their kids in the same way they were educated. They don't know any better. There's no consciousness up here, yet there's 15 churches in that little strip we just passed! [Pause] People just aren't happy. And it started centuries ago when we arrived here and started turning the thing over. With technology.... We should have stopped with the typewriter.

Do you have any feeling about why it's happened here? Why Los Alamos?
Well, they say it was, like, Oppenheimer went to boys school up here [the old Los Alamos Ranch School], and he said this would be a perfect place to have a secret operation. But I think everything repeats itself so many times in the same place. It's like at the totality of this moment, right now, the totality of all men is giving up everything mankind can give up at this moment, everything that's happening to them. Some are being born, some dying, some being crucified, some being run over, some discovering something. The thoughts, feelings, movements--that's all we do as people. We don't do anything but think, feel, and move. Each one of us is a cell in the body of mankind, and we're giving out this energy. Each thought is in tune with the vibration that goes to join other thought, goes to maintain something else in nature. We have no idea what it is, yet we say, "Well, I'm the president of a bank, I'm an important asshole, and this guy is the tailor, he's a jerk"--we're all doing the same thing. It's almost as if you can see each city as this enormous crystal giving off this energy, that these people are producing inside of it. It's like this machine of life, and over on the other side of the planet it might be grinding people up in droughts and wars, starving babies...the machine of life forcing these people to die, to give up on thinking, feeling, moving. Now here's something comes along that will stop everything--nuclear weapons. It's like, when they blew the first one off, it could have just.... They didn't know. Some theorists thought it would burn off the atmosphere. "What the hell, let's try it anyhow. There are six of us willing to try it," right?

            There's some force that's making us do it. We built this thing from fear, a super fear force. The Germans, Russians.... Actually, the Germans weren't making bombs. They were making a reactor for lighting a city or something. Even that's pure madness, using a reactor to make hot water. You can make hot water other ways. Why contaminate everything, change everything, for hot water? [Gallows laughter] An unlimited, cheap supply of energy--what a bunch of b.s. that's been perpetrated. This thing's [waving about at Los Alamos] cost so much money, we could have fed everybody, given them their own ranch, their own cow. [Long pause] But they don't think about any kind of sequence. One guy is focussed in on the highest temperature a thermonuclear bomb can produce, and somebody comes along and grabs that information, and they take it over to Jones and see what he's created, he's got a little information, but nobody knows what the other guy is doing. That's the horror of this secret society up here. If it doesn't work they cut it up and throw it in the yard...

And you grab it...
And there's some fool waiting for the stuff.

            We left Philomena's. Driving back down the hill, Price talked about his love of New Mexico. "A lot of it's the space. There are no ground rules here, or very few. The natural sculpture, just what the wind and rain have done, far surpasses anything else I've seen."

            Tony Price himself creates art that makes a bizarre and pointed comment on the nuclear condition. He combines the sheer beauty of technology with the ultimate horror of the fears that inspired the function of the beauty. It's as if nuclear weapons represent the best and the blackest. Our rational powers and our irrational fears have grown hand in hand over the last several thousands of years, and here we are at the clearest crossroads humanity has ever encountered.

            Passing Tsankawi, the lovely ruins just outside Los Alamos, I remembered a passage in John Fowles' novel, Daniel Martin, from which I had first learned of the ancient village, not marked on most maps. When I got home, I turned right to the following:

            "In some way, the mesa transcended all place and frontier; it had the haunting and mysterious personal familiarity...[and] a simpler human familiarity as well, belonging not just to some obscure and forgotten Indian tribe, but to all similar moments of supreme harmony in human culture; to certain buildings, paintings, music, passages of great poetry. It validated, that was it; it was enough to explain all the rest, the blindness of evolution, its appalling wastage, indifference, cruelty, futility. There was a sense in which it was a secret place, a literal retreat, an analogue of what had always obsessed my mind; but it also stood in triumphant opposition, and this was what finally, for me, distinguished Tsankawi from the other sites: In them there was a sadness, the vanished past, the cultural loss; but Tsankawi defeated time, all deaths. Its deserted silence was like a sustained high note, unconquerable."

Stephen Parks, July, 1983

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