Most afternoons are sunny in Los Angeles, meaning that most afternoons strike a jarring contrast to the current exhibition up at the Center For Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). Titled Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America, the show feels markedly detached from its brighter surrounds, both visually and conceptually. Inside the small exhibition space, a glowing ribbon of LCD images wraps the room, along the walls: black and white images of various uranium disposal cells, all found in America's southwest. White on black texts — words liked "SLICK ROCK" and "RIFLE" — intermittently flash across screens, between images. It takes a moment for one's eyes to adjust, but it takes longer for the mind to do the same. Indeed, it isn't immediately clear what the subject at hand is. What are these depicted spaces? Industrial, ominous, isolated: the images look like aerial military photographs, like film stills from Stalker, or perhaps like mass graves.
Careful to leave the "editorializing" up to the viewer, Perpetual Architecture is a terse show. What few words it offers ring as bare as the visuals. A brief introductory text hangs alongside the images, for example, describing the disposal cells as "tombs for the remains of uranium mill buildings and tailings, bulldozed into engineered enclosures constructed to limit contact with their surroundings for a thousand years." Later, the text's hard conclusion reads like the best of contemporary poetry: "Up to 1,300 square metres in size, they resemble pyramids, ziggurats, or relics from a geometrical mound-building culture. Like the ancient tombs of Egypt, they are meant to be disconnected from the contemporary world, kept inert and intact for as much of forever as possible. They are non-places—isolated from the present, designed and destined for the future."
To orient the viewer among these non-places, the show also includes an interactive touchscreen map, which lists the names of uranium disposal sites dotting the US. The quartet of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico needs an additional text box to showcase all of its disposal cells, including ones named "Mexican Hat," "Bluewater," and "Ambrosia Lake." Stripped of context, the map and its sprinkling of innocuous — even pleasant-sounding — destinations, might look like a diagram of great American nature or recreation sites to aliens… wouldn't they be surprised (perhaps baffled) by what they actually encounter there.
Click on "Falls City," for example, and arrive at an image that looks not unlike a tombstone. The caption below it reads: "A demolished uranium mill and associated radioactive tailings were consolidated into this mound, 65 kilometres south of San Antonio, in 1994…The 500 square metre disposal cell contains 7 million dry tons of contaminated material, and is 19 metre tall, and 792 metre long. Though the sides of the mound are covered with erosion-preventing riprap rock, the flat top of the mound has a 75 centimetre deep growing medium with 15 centimetres of topsoil to allow grass to grow, returning moisture to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration."
Perpetual Architecture is by no means a series of placards for protestors. The show takes no sides, and raises issues without ringing bells. There are no health concerns addressed, no environmental statistics. This is a show that goes beyond our corporal and present existences, and into "as much of forever as possible." What comes across is by no means an homage to the architecture and engineering of these vast peripheries, but rather a certain awe, a recognition of the tremendous force these spaces display (or, rather, bury). It might seem especially pertinent to talk of these cells, now, in the wake of Fukushima, for example. But what the show seems to suggest is that it's always "the wake" of something — or, perhaps, the cusp. The future timeline covered by this exhibition stretches so very far beyond our stacks of current newspapers. And in referencing the ancient tombs of Egypt, the show suggests by just how much. Katya Tylevich
Through 30 September 2012
Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America
Center For Land Use Interpretation