Bruce Conner's restored mushroom clouds: You can't look away
By Carolina A. Miranda
It begins with one explosion. And then another. And another. Mushroom clouds emerge from under the ocean, expand over the horizon, and churn up the environment in violent upheaval. For more than half an hour, at ever slower speeds, the explosions continue for a work of art that is as hypnotic as it is devastating.
The footage Conner found in the National Archives was of the first underwater atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1946. It contained views of the explosion from every imaginable angle. (Bruce Conner Estate / Kohn Gallery)
"Crossroads," as the piece is called, was made by San Francisco artist Bruce Conner back in 1976, when the Cold War was still casting a chill over international politics, and the U.S. was feeling chastened just a year after its ignoble departure from Vietnam. Now Conner's devastating work, which has been freshly restored, is on view at the Kohn Gallery in Hollywood.
The piece is a 37-minute montage of footage from the first underwater atomic bomb test conducted at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. The military had placed more than 700 cameras on land, sea and air, capturing the 1946 blast from countless angles. Conner harvested this footage in the 1970s from the National Archives, and assembled it into an enthralling meditation on the human capacity for destruction.
"I want to say it's beautiful, but it's not beautiful," says Michael Kohn, founder of the Kohn Gallery, who worked with Conner for more than two decades when the artist was alive. (He passed away in 2008.) "It's frightening. Like a train wreck, you can't take your eyes off of it. That's the power that Bruce Conner had over the spectator. He took stuff and made you stare at it. He got you on an emotional, visceral level and he did it without plot or dialogue."
As Conner's 37-minute video progresses, the explosions grow slower, becoming equal parts horrifying and magnificent. The music and sound effects were done by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson. (Bruce Conner Estate / Kohn Gallery)
Conner is often referred to as the "father of the music video" for his quick cuts, nonlinear structures, and for the fact that he also created actual music videos (such as Devo's "Mongoloid"). He was also an accomplished assemblage artist and photographer — renowned for chronicling the punk scene at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens nightclub.
But it is in works like "Crossroads" where he achieves poetry. Over the course of the film, the blasts are played back at ever slower speeds, revealing a horrifying beauty in instruments of death.
With the piece freshly restored, and now transferred from film to digital projection (a process that was assiduously covered in Artforum), means it is now ready for its L.A. unveiling. (The last time it was seen was at the Museum of Modern Art late last year.) Kohn says that this will not be your average art video presentation — i.e. dark box, grainy footage, no place to sit.
"Crossroads" will be projected onto a 35-foot-wide screen at high resolution in the gallery's new Hollywood space.
"You will not get digital residue," says Kohn. "It will be a surprisingly crisp, beautiful, dramatic, big image. An atomic bomb mushroom cloud exploding in all of its malevolence and hypnotic power."
If you haven't yet had an opportunity to see this remarkable work, this is a wonderful opportunity (made more so by the fact that it is free).
"It's a really visceral experience," says Kohn. Full of life, death, power, aggression, beauty — all the contradictions that make up wonderful and terrible humankind.