Magazine article Artforum International

Half-Life: A Project for Artforum by Nick Waplington

Magazine article Artforum International

Half-Life: A Project for Artforum by Nick Waplington

Article excerpt

Nick Waplington's photographs of nuclear sites are far more interesting than statistics, and far less forgettable. The images play with association, memory, horror, and (very) black humor. The artist himself willingly stands in for the human form, but the pictures are not portraiture in any sense. Waplington's body functions instead as superimposed ghost or conscience, witness or fantasy. When we first see half a giant's domed forehead and one gigantic, contemplative eye, the skeletal tower alongside seems quite delicate it could be a gawky metal bird traversing some imaginary landscape, or a listening device, or a small-eyed robot gazing directly at a warm globe of human skull. In context, that construction of steel ribs becomes a slender foreshadowing. Later, as Waplington's cropped form shimmers beside a bank of rusted loudspeakers, he appears caught in the act of manifesting or disintegrating, a bald and naked Trekkie visiting the long-deserted catastrophe of some backward planet. But the catastrophe is all too local and timely: the talking head floating on her disembodied screen in another image is all too contemporary. We don't wonder at her dubious expression, menaced as she is by a descending battalion of silver phalluses we recognize as fuel rods. Then again, she is only a video image. It is that shell-shocked, unfocused androgyne we must actually worry about. By now we recognize the face in the scream photograph; here, there is no lack of focus, and the sound of the scream comes across as chain link echo, endless and inescapable.

In fact, the artist knows what he's screaming about. Nick Waplington was a nuclear baby. His father supported the family by working in the nuclear industry, first devising a mechanical grip with which to move fuel rods in and out of the core of a working reactor, then as a designer in the startup of various nuclear power plants in Europe. We pick up the son's ambivalence and suspicion, and his familiarity. The inverted head, the flimsy lock, the rusty iron gate. He is locked out, as are we all, but those gates prohibiting trespass are disconcertingly ill kept. Nobody really wants in, and the gates seem far too decrepit to prevent an escape or restrain a danger. The face keeping vigil here is more communicative, more vulnerable, than any other visage in the collection, but the human form dematerializes utterly in the next image. The witnessing artist is present only as an amoebic white cloud in the presence of the glowing container labeled "L2," which nearly levitates in Waplington's construction. These "transit flasks" are used to ship the most toxic level of nuclear waste from country to country. Britain, for example, buys nuclear waste from Japan and Canada, processes it for reuse, then sells it abroad. These "gross laden weights" containing (no more than) 51 tonnes of radioactive detritus are constantly crossing the world's shipping lanes in the holds of seafaring vessels.

Maybe it is those oceans, inverted as well, turned inside out, hovering limpid and bruised above the reactor and cooling towers in Waplington's version of a nuclear moonscape. But no, that layered, aquatic blue is the sky, seemingly held aloft by power lines, and it is the sea we glimpse far off, between the towers. Waplington photographed a number of nuclear plants, among them Hartlepool, located on the northeast coast near Newcastle-on-Tyne, and the renamed Sellafield, in Cumbria, edging the beautiful Lake District. …

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