Art in the Bunker
Fri, May 13, 2016
Imagine being four stories underground, freely roaming around in a building that was so top secret in the 1960s that even high-ranking officials were confined to restricted areas. As the Diefenbunker’s 2016 artist-in-residence, I have access to the museum’s collection, archives, blueprints, photos, library, and best of all, to knowledgeable staff like collections manager Doug Beaton. I discover new Cold War documents during each visit, such as What Everybody Should Know About Propaganda published in 1952, or Would Insects Inherit the Earth, a record of scientific opinion on the possibility of a nuclear winter. I’ve even been allowed to tour the machine room to see a solid cast iron, mint green Mirrlee’s diesel generator circa 1960.
I now know which materials offer the best protection against fallout dust and gamma radiation. In fact, in returning to my studio, I noted the concrete floor, cinder block walls and steel welding table. Would the welded joints of the table be able to withstand the force of a nuclear blast? The Diefenbunker was designed by Fenco engineers to withstand seven tonnes per square foot, and only move an inch or so within its pea gravel encasement. The video of its construction reveals massive amounts of steel in its foundation, approximately ¾ of the amount of steel in the Eiffel Tower, enough steel to keep this sculptor busy for multiple lifetimes, if you happen to like 4” thick steel rebar.
My approach to the residency is to research a wide range of information about the Cold War, expanding on my previous research about 20th century mechanized warfare. My goal is to understand why the Cold War lasted so long, and how the corresponding psychological climate affected people during that era. The Canadian government planned a civil defence strategy and the Diefenbunker was central to that plan as a communications station that would ensure the continuance of governance during a nuclear attack. Emergency Preparedness Canada urged people to build bomb shelters stocked with water and rations. But not to worry if you did not have a shelter, you could bury yourself under at least 3 feet of earth to be protected from the blast. Sounds like digging a grave to me.
I have started to create sculptures in response to the Diefenbunker, for exhibition in September 2016. With the assistance of curator Megan Lafrenière, we selected 6 spaces in which to install the sculptures. To get the project underway, I purchased 300 feet of ½” square bar, cut this stock into 264 pieces, and welded the pieces together. Next I plan to purchase 500 feet of airline cable. I feel a sense of urgency as the deadline is approaching, and every minute in my studio is crucial to realizing my vision. This is my first experience as an artist-in-residence and my hope is to successfully create sculptures that merge research with artistic vision. And if I’m lucky, the public may, through my sculptures, sense what I have discovered at the Diefenbunker so far—the futility of trying to survive a nuclear war, yet being unable to ignore this constantly looming threat.
A book in the Diefenbunker’s library, Witness: The World Since Hiroshima, written by Roger Rosenblatt, helped to shed light on my questions about the long-term psychological impact of the Cold War on humanity. Rosenblatt sees evidence of the impact in American arts and culture, for example, in films like Dr. Strangelove, Frankenstein, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Either nature is depicted as going out of control, like splitting the nucleus of uranium atoms by smashing them with projected neutrons to make the atomic bomb, or people are portrayed as emotionless, walking as if dead while still alive. Rosenblatt’s theory perhaps explains the popularity of zombie films today. Maybe we are still grappling with the thought of annihilation even though the Cold War has ended.
This project is funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation of Ottawa, and by an award from the Corel Endowment for the Arts administered by the Ottawa Arts Council.
Stay tuned for updates to this article, as I continue to report on my artist residency at the Diefenbunker.