Ever since their invention, submarines have been a source of unextinguished curiosity. Silently present in the depths of the sea, they are in equal parts insidious and menacing as they are intriguing and mysterious. As the most recent exhibition at KARST outlines, submarines have become ever more problematic through nuclear power, which poses challenges in both its use and methods of disposal. ‘Material Nuclear Culture’ brings together the work of international artists, forming a dialogue around these challenges whilst also feeding into the wider discussion of cultural legacy and memory.
Upon first impression, the exhibition works in subtleties. The pieces are widely dispersed and mainly work in small-scale, asking the viewer to step closer and inspect each one. The largest and most striking work, however, is David Mabb’s ‘A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament’. A multitude of projection screens, facing away from the gallery entrance, initially appear as blank objects. On the other side, however, each one unveils itself to the viewer. Painted upon each screen is a variety of anti-nuclear imagery and slogans, ranging from ‘Scrap Trident’ to ‘Ban the Bomb.’ The charged imperatives are balanced by Mabb’s floral designs, which take inspiration from the work of William Morris. Through the use of Morris’s Tudor Rose print, Mabb cleverly re-appropriates the artist within the context of nuclear power. Over the latter half of the twentieth-century, the Ministry of Defence commissioned the same print to furnish quarters within nuclear submarines. An ardent socialist, it is difficult to imagine Morris himself granting such use of his design. Through Mabb’s series, the work of William Morris becomes - not an environment of homeliness for the MOD - but a visual backdrop to charged political protest.
The engagement between past and present artists is echoed in the work of Kota Takeuchi. The artist came across ‘Economic History in the Modern Age of Iwaki ‘(1976), a book by Ichiro Saito which documents stone monuments in the region of Japan. Retracing Saito’s steps thirty-seven years later, Takeuchi photographs himself at the identical sites. The exhibited work offers both the original photographs and those taken by Takeuchi, positioned side-by-side. The arrangement shows these relics are not merely resigned to past memory but can be revisited, revived, and therefore endure. Move towards Erika Kobayashi’s ‘Half-Life Calendar’ and find memory instead constructed through fictitious narrative. Applying her research on the history of radium, Kobayashi has created a series of posters reflecting the half-life of radium. The exhibited calendar presents the decay through the story of family generations, related through the visual, literary, and numerical. With this narrative of human life, Kobayashi takes a personal and poignant angle to effectively communicate the exhaustingly long process of nuclear decay.
Perhaps the most inviting work of all, James Acord’s ‘Roundtable’ was originally created to create an open discussion around nuclear material. Reconstructed within the gallery space and laden with books, the roundtable encourages the viewer to do the same. A symbol of communication and progression, the work perfectly encapsulates the aim of ‘Material Nuclear Culture’: bring together a diverse range of perspectives in one place, and witness the power of discussion. Especially during a time when Trident is being renewed in Britain, such discussion proves ever-so relevant and all the more crucial.