Michael Mulvihill’s exhibition ‘The Means and the Instruments’ at NGCA Project Space charts the key political junctures in history of the late 1970’s and early 80’s when the Cold War and threat of World War III were at their most heightened. Mulvihill, who uses his first-hand experience of this period, makes drawings of nuclear tests in Bikini Atoll, a decommissioned Vulcan Bomber based in Sunderland and Royal Observer Corp bunkers located on the North Sea and East coast of the UK, in order to begin an aestheticisation of government policy during this period.
The drawings, all on a scale of roughly 3cm by 3cm, have been exhibited in a formation that evades being seen. Scattered across the gallery walls they could be related to a map of targets or snippets of classified information not intended to be seen by the public. Either way the works are hidden in plain sight, you can view them in the context of the exhibition but can you really see what they portray? This is an interesting experience as a viewer - the proximity to, yet simultaneous distance from the drawings helps to relay the power politics and complexities of the political climate during the Cold War era.
Alongside the works on paper are a series of sculptures that reflect the monochrome aesthetic of the drawings. The materials are a move away from graphite on paper – the employment of which Mulvihill uses to reflect that there would be very little left with which to make art after a nuclear attack. The sculptural objects are placed standing on the floor like small lecterns. The base and pole are metal but the surface of the diamond-shaped top is shiny and black in Traffolyte, giving an aesthetic quality straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, which satirises the cold war fears of a nuclear conflict between the USSR and the US. In the middle of the gallery a vitrine contains sculptures that look like sticks used to move targets across military maps. In the context of the exhibition they could be read as a loaded relic from history or as benign sculptures with no purpose, but with an aesthetic of war.
These narratives of seen and unseen, politics and policy, hidden and overt all play out to reflect the nature of the Cold War, which was termed ‘Cold’ due to the fact that nothing actually happened. Mulvihill navigates these recent histories both with seriousness; reflecting on his own childhood fear of not making it home within the four minute warning given in the event of a nuclear attack on the UK, and giving a nod to the camp nature of the Cold War, a war which was all about bravado and weaponry which was never intended to actually be used.