A Chandelier for One of Many Possible Ends
Burchfield Penney Art Center
December 12, 2014–March 29, 2015
A single installation recently filled the Contemporary Project Space at Burchfield Penney Art Center. A Chandelier for One of Many Possible Ends, created by Brooklyn-based artist and designer Phillip Stearns, was inspired by the March 11, 2011, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the largest nuclear incident since the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986.
The work was constructed of dozens of slender fluorescent lights of different lengths, the rods anchored vertically to a series of slim metal bars suspended from a grid overhead. Ninety-two long bulbs—the same number of electrons in a uranium atom—were loosely arranged according to their orbital position at varying heights, with the longest and lowest in the center. The work gave the impression of an elegantly minimalist, futuristic update on a classical light fixture.
But this madman’s chandelier was only visible in fragmented glimpses, lit only by its own light for moments at a time. Each bulb was connected to its own radiation-measuring Geiger counter, responding to ambient radioactivity—from either cosmic or terrestrial sources—with a brief flash of light and an audible click.
These slightly hollow “tink” sounds resembled the rapid patter of raindrops on a wooden surface, and the sporadic, unpredictable flickering created shards of light that were balanced by two opposing effects: sharp shadows cast on the walls of the cavernous room, and the shifting shock of afterimages.
“We are bathed in a gentle, incessant stream of radioactivity at any given moment,” read Stearns’s artist statement. “This stream causes a constant flickering in the lights of the chandelier. The greater the flickering, the stronger the current, the greater the amount of radioactivity in the environment.” For obvious reasons, a posted warning advised that those with epilepsy or sensitivity to flashing lights enter at their own risk.
The unrelenting chaos jolting through the visual and auditory senses rendered the subdued walls and floors irrelevant, as good as disintegrated. In this environment of suggested kineticism, swiftly alternating between blinding brightness and drowning darkness, viewers were confronted with a subatomic drama being playing out, undetected, with unsettling frequency.
Stearns caps his statement with this ominous gem: “A source of radioactivity strong enough to cause the installation to remain solidly lit would be fatal to any living organism in the room, as in the case of a nuclear catastrophe.”
When the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was flooded by a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, a meltdown occurred in three of the plants six nuclear reactors, releasing substantial amounts of radioactive material into the environment. Almost four years later, containment is uncertain, and the effects are still unfolding.
The installation summons physicist Richard Feynman’s words, regarding the keys of science opening both the gates of heaven and of hell. Time and again, we are shown that even his man-made hazards are not entirely under our control, and the threat of what we’ve wrought is ongoing. Not a hundred miles from the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the Robert Emmett Ginna Nuclear Power Plant was the site of a nuclear accident in 1982, and continues to operate under uncertain terms with respect to its future.
Two benches, set against opposing walls in the project room, invited rest and reflection. Stearns’s work is subtly powerful, the meeting place between scientific considerations and ethereal aesthetics, between invisible things that affect us and their visible effect. By employing the phrase “one of many possible ends,” the title itself subtly, ominously indicates not just this present reality, but all other versions of our doom or destiny.
But by calmly submitting to the riotous encounter, with eyes closed against the commotion and its haunting implications, the experience is transportive, and becomes not unlike laying beneath restive foliage in a sun-dappled orchard on a breezy day. Radiation visible, not. Visible, not.
Because the installation was set up in such a dark, intimate space, viewers had the opportunity to observe the ways in which others interacted with the work. Over the course of twenty minutes, many people poked their heads in for a quick glance, and very few lingered.
To be fair, it does not take longer than a moment or two to absorb the meaning of the piece, but it was easy to project a sense of unease onto the brevity of the visits. It’s uncertain whether it was the sickening flicker that repelled viewers, or whether they were disturbed by the concept—as if quickly distancing oneself from the detector could remove the threat of exposure.
Experiencing Stearns’s work certainly has a disorienting effect. But more disorienting was leaving the space after many minutes to reenter the brighter, steady light of the wider gallery space, freshly aware of the sub-dangerous doses of radiation careening around us, unbridled by the will of humanity.
Rebecca Rafferty is an artist and writer living in Rochester, New York. She keeps a blog at theiconoclassed.com.