- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2003

Washington sculptor Jim Sanborn, 57, has appropriated natural objects for his admired, well-known installations — such as a petrified tree in “The Code Room” (1992), sandstone and lodestone in “Lightning Horizon” (1983) and fossil shells in “Coriolis (1985) — over his 30-year-career.

His current work, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Numark Gallery, however, holds appropriations of man- and machine-made environments for the first time.

The exhibits, “Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction” at the Corcoran, and “Penetrating Radiation” at Numark, come from large-scale topographic projections he photographed in New Mexico in the late 1990s.

By chance, Mr. Sanborn happened on a booklet at the White Sands National Monument bookstore in 1998 documenting preparations for the first atomic blast at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Subsequently, the artist became fascinated with what had happened, and he researched the possibility of an art project. The result: Mr. Sanborn created a unique, extraordinary exhibition about the first, 1940s atomic-weapons experimentation site.

While Mr. Sanborn recently gave a tour of the exhibition, he joked, “People may think they dropped into the Corcoran’s electrical room rather than my exhibits.”

He said he began researching the scientific elements of the “Critical Assembly” main room of the Corcoran show in 1998, scavenging furniture and equipment in Los Alamos flea markets and painstakingly re-creating missing parts.

As part of the “Atomic Time” exhibit, Mr. Sanborn shows both the beauty and destructiveness of uranium, the crucial ingredient for nuclear materials.

At Numark, the artist displays “autoradiographs” called “Penetrating Radiation,” his newest work inspired by depleted-uranium projectiles. Autoradiographs are images created by exposing radioactive material to film. Mr. Sanborn says he hopes his Numark exhibit will stimulate a discussion about the use of nuclear weapons.

He began the tour in the “Atomic Time” part of the exhibit by explaining the utility and beauty — and certain deathly results — from the first uses of uranium, both at Los Alamos and at certain other sites around the world.

Mr. Sanborn first pointed to a photographic series of what looked like broken, glow-in-the dark clocks mounted on the wall near the gallery entrance. The cobalt-blue hands pointed to just about 5:30, the time of morning on July 16, 1945, when the Los Alamos populace woke up to what the sculptor calls “the unreal sunrise of the first atomic blast and the beginning of the nuclear era.”

He says he searched through flea markets in Los Alamos for these clocks and re-created the faint dials by using three-week photographic exposures.

Years ago, young girls at a factory in New Jersey painted clock dials with radium-rich paint and stiffened the paintbrushes in their mouths to delineate the dials, the sculptor says. They later died from radioactive poisoning, he says. A wall label near the timepieces would have been helpful to explain what happened.

With his “autoradiographs,” Mr. Sanborn next recorded the beauties of uranium in its natural state from pieces he collected at 1940s nuclear sites around Los Alamos and ordered from around the world through the Internet.

He exposed this uranium to film to capture the same glow-in-the-dark fascination of the clocks and transmit the various shapes of the ore. The artist says he wasn’t in danger, as the radioactivity was so weak by then.

But nothing in the “Atomic Time” series prepared me for the eeriness of the darkened “Critical Assembly” room. Mr. Sanborn filled the spotlighted, cavernous space with tables holding either real or simulated devices — such as electronic instruments, hardware, tools, even original tape measures. Most of the tables are black, white or grayish ensembles piled with lead, graphite or paraffin blocks.

He says each table was formerly called “a critical assembly” at Los Alamos. Information about how the tables and objects looked and workings of the electronic mechanisms such as Geiger counters and oscilloscopes was gathered from old photographs and objects kept by retired Manhattan Project scientists still living in the area.

“The Assembly for Determining Critical Mass,” of graphite blocks, tungsten carbide and stainless steel, among other materials, is one of the most handsome. Visitors wanted to touch the shimmering steel, the velvety graphite and the smooth silver-plated brass.

Just as the lustrous feel of the pencillike graphite appeals, so does the smoothness of the paraffin in “Device for Measuring the Neutron Flux of a Uranium Core” “seduce,” as the sculptor puts it. Illuminated from above, its stepped rectangular blocks quiver with the light.

“I had to arrange things aesthetically,” Mr. Sanborn says. “I wanted to make the A-bomb beautiful to look at while it was being built.”

Although the artist emphasizes the scientific aspects of the show, visitors will come away with the beauty of these object-sculptures. The balancing of different geometric shapes, shiny metals and configurations, reminiscent of both Grecian and Egyptian temples, is hypnotic.

Is “Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction” science or art? Does it really matter?

WHAT: “Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday, until 9 p.m. Thursday, closed Tuesday through Jan. 26

TICKETS: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students with valid ID and members’ guests, $8 for families, free to members and children younger than 12.

PHONE: 202/639-1800.

WHAT: “Penetrating Radiation”

WHERE: Numark Gallery, 625 E St. NW

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, through Dec. 20


PHONE: 202/628-3810.

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