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Nanaimo Art Gallery hosting travelling exhibition ‘Bombhead’ inspired by atomic age

Paintings, sculptures, film, everyday items from past 75 years being shown starting Jan. 29

The Nanaimo Art Gallery’s next exhibition takes a look at the artistic fallout of the atomic bomb.

From Jan. 29 to March 27, Bombhead, a nuclear-themed touring exhibition organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, comes to the Nanaimo Art Gallery. Curator and art historian John O’Brian will give a talk at the gallery on Saturday, Jan. 29, focusing on western Canadian artists.

“One of the reasons we brought [Bombhead] here is because Nanaimo has been a site of protest against the nuclear submarines in Nanoose Bay, so it’s relevant to this city and its history, Nanaimo being a nuclear-free zone,” NAG curator Jesse Birch said. “And also the questions around nuclear energy and its uses and the nuclear arms race are still relevant even though it’s no longer the Cold War.”

The show includes paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs, film and everyday items like postcards, brochures and album covers from 1945 to the present day. O’Brian said atomic art is a very large field that he’s been studying for the past 20 years.

“When I first got interested, which was the early 2000s, it was out of a frustration in realizing that while artists were paying attention [and] photographers were paying attention, various forms of leadership as well as the public were not paying attention anymore to the [nuclear] threat,” he said.

O’Brian said artists have been concerned and interested in the atomic bomb since the moment it was used in the Second World War. He said artistic representations of nuclear weapons at the time were both “celebratory and full of dread.”

“At the very beginning there was that ambiguity about it,” O’Brian said. “There is far less ambiguity about it ever since, particularly after thermonuclear weapons were developed and it was understood that the whole world could be obliterated.”

Among the works in the show are photographs from the first Greenpeace voyage to protest nuclear testing in Alaska in 1971 and a “very eerie” film exploring the evacuated exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, site of a 2011 disaster. There are also abstract paintings that suggest the mushroom cloud, which O’Brian calls “the most iconic image of the 20th century.”

“I was interested in what can art and other kinds of visual material tell us about the atomic world that either can be seen or cannot be seen,” O’Brian said. “Because there’s a lot of the atomic world that’s invisible. Radiation is invisible, so how to you represent radiation?”

O’Brian said one of his goals with the exhibition is to remind viewers that the dangers of nuclear weapons didn’t end with the Cold War and to make the threat of the bomb visible once more.

“Fukushima and Chernobyl and Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Port Hope, Ont., which was one of the earliest refineries of uranium in the world and is the most contaminated city in Canada … that’s in the past but it’s also in the present,” O’Brian said. “It’s with us. We still are in an atomic world.”

WHAT’S ON … Bombhead is on display at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, 150 Commercial St., from Jan. 29 to March 27. Curator’s talk Jan. 29 at 3 p.m.

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Nanaimo Art Gallery curator Jesse Birch prepares work by American artist Nancy Spero for the gallery’s next exhibition, the nuclear-themed Bombhead, on tour from the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Josef Jacobson/News Bulletin)