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Art Review

'Fat Man/Little Boy' Looks at Science's Power to Destroy

June 26, 1998|CLAUDINE ISE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, "Fat Man/Little Boy," Clement Hanami's timely, multimedia exploration of atomic weaponry, is spine-chilling precisely because it inspires so little emotional empathy. Appropriating the voice of the omniscient scientist, Hanami brings into sharp relief the ways in which we conceptualize (and, in the process, distance ourselves from) events so horrific they should be, by all rights, inconceivable.

Hanami's sprawling series of faux lab experiments asks you to consider, from multiple vantage points, the ways in which the "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima nearly 57 years ago have irrevocably altered our perceptions of space, time and the human body. At several points in the exhibition and catalog, you are reminded that it takes only 1/1,000,000 of a second for an atomic explosion to occur. At once boundless and unfathomable, this exquisitely infinitesimal grain of temporality is virtually impossible to process through anything other than the dullest sort of abstract intellectual calculations.

Lined up against one wall, a row of inelegant black-and-white paintings resembling Rorschach blots are each lit from below by a small light bulb. The paintings are actually aerial views of Japanese territory; the landscape, seen from a bomber pilot's perspective, is magnified and distended until it resembles an abstract painting. Across the room, color photographs of the Drosophila Melanogaster, or fruit fly (used to test the genetic effects of radiation), bookend a pair of glass pipettes, each containing one of these pinprick-sized insects floating in solution.

Affixed to a ceiling light is a small model replica of a B-29 bomber, whose shadow stretches its dark embrace across the entire length of the floor. In another room, a tiny model of an atomic warhead is speared, specimen-like, beneath a huge spotlight--an ironic comment on the ways that science has harnessed the power of an atom to destroy vast human populations.

Hanami's mother is an atomic bomb survivor, but he makes little reference to this save for a few brief (and all the more poignant) words and family photographs. Although Hanami inundates you with maps, definitions, blueprints and instruction sheets, what he really seems to be getting at is the inevitable failure of human comprehension when faced with the unthinkable.

Wandering from test tube to photograph to diagram, you realize that all the scientific explanations in the world are meaningless in the face of mass human annihilation. Whether or not we will--or even should--find a vocabulary appropriate to such horror remains a vital, unanswered, question.

*

* Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, 6518 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 466-6232, through July 11. Closed Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.

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