As the storm advances, a line across the sea, we try to keep the cameras steady. There will not be a second take. Any minute the torrent will arrive and threaten our mechanics. The gusts grow more impressive, setting objects rolling across the crater ridge like tumbleweeds, alerting us to the fact that the surface of this pulverized reef is strewn with debris, issuing from countless other ground zeros of human enterprise. A glass ball skips towards the water. A few meters away another, larger and green, begins to move. Both are fishing lures from the early twentieth century. Next, a pink flip flop quivers through the air – half a drunken foam butterfly – before slapping into one of our tripods, as if admonishing us for standing our ground. Shards of polystyrene begin to emerge from the the sand, resembling shrapnel from crashed airplanes, or exploded munitions. A drop. Another. It’s clearly time to think about waterproofing, and for want of anything more appropriate we yank what looks like a bat wing from the ground—a strip of black fabric attached to a pair of spokes: the last functional part of an umbrella—and fashion it into a visor. Deluge. Above us, the storm and the sunset meet like two opposing phalanxes on a battlefield. The first—blue, electric, and liquid. The second—flame. They connect in a clap of thunder–lightning and sun converging, molecules crackling in waves of energy which surge and break against against one another. The sun turns the raindrops magma, and the clouds a conflagration. Everything is charged with light.1
Like a shockwave moving across the ocean, to break upon foreign shores, modern history is the story of influence spanning great physical distances. Too often, however, spatial extension blinds us to functional proximity. But no distance on earth resists the speed of light. And if we cannot feel the heat that generated this light, this does not entail any lack of fire. In the geopolitical Cold War, what was cold
was only the surface of the pages and screens that bore the sign of the mushroom cloud. Bikini burned hotter than anything before.
Settled by humans for approximately 3600 years, prior to atomic exodus, the twentieth century history of Bikini stands as a signal example of modern techno-colonial hubris. Its English name is transliterated from the Marshallese, Pikinni
(pʲi͡ɯɡɯ͡inʲnʲii̯) – ‘Pik
’ meaning ‘surface’ and ‘Ni
’ meaning ‘coconut’; surface of coconuts
. The biological fate of the island’s namesake flora, as well as the currency that the word ‘Bikini’ possesses today, are symptomatic of a profound historical ungrounding that has cut across biological, socio-linguistic, and civil fields.
Following the test program, Bikini was covered in a shroud of fallen palms—their fronds bleached by the nuclear sun; so many grey and white bones piled on top of each other, high enough that the ground beneath them was obscured; scatterings of coconuts husks everywhere, like skulls. Against this desolation, and asserting that they must
return home, the Bikinian people petitioned for a cleanup. This would eventually involve removing all the highly irradiated material from their atoll. Namely, everything, down to the land itself. Using bulldozers and diggers the US military cleared the dead vegetation, and a few living pockets that had survived the fire of hydrogen bombs. Then they scraped off all the topsoil. Afterwards, they loaded everything onto a container ship, which undertook a week-long passage to Enewetak Atoll. In an echo of the World War II atrocities which spurred the urgent development of this class of weapons, upon arrival the heap was thrown into a mass grave, covered up and left, to be forgotten. For on the island of Runit the US had refashioned a gigantic crater (formed as a result of one of the Yucca tests) as a storage facility. It was here they buried one homeland in the wound of another, underneath a concrete dome.
This done, Bikini was nothing more than a strip of desert, rising only inches above the water. Without tree roots to secure the sand it would only be a matter of time before the the island disappeared, into the sea. Action had to be taken. And in order to again sustain human settlement, coconuts—a food staple—had to return. Following the rationale of industrial agriculture, new trees were laid out in grid formation—a suitably unnatural, modernist, overlay. The coconuts grew, and some people returned—after a disastrous alternative settlement on Rongerik, where the currents were wild and the catch poisonous.2
But it would later become clear that no amount of earth scraped away might enable a safe harvest. Coral sand is poor in potassium, and the roots of the coconut palms, seeking this nutrient, found a plentiful substitute in cesium. In time, the returnees were tested, and in those who regularly consumed Bikini’s staple, dangerous levels of exposure were recorded. The atoll, so far from anywhere, would not be able to feed itself after all. Resettlement was abandoned.
When one visits Bikini, today, some trees register a pronounced mutation—their coconuts elongated, almost tubular, the shape of marrows, or missiles; too narrow to produce milk or flesh. Setting misshapen samples of these within a series of vitrines, recalling a museum display, a series of works by Charrière foreground the colonial sculpting of the region’s biosphere by radioactive technologies—proffering a post-apocalyptic botanical survey; an unnatural history
. Standing vertically on a bed of coral sand, inside a glass housing that caps a mirror-sided plinth, each coconut is a castaway that has been washed up on another
identificatory shore. In this arrangement, the sand implies a kind of terminal beach, while the mirror—long symbolic of water, and vanity—draws the viewer into its image-space. The fact that these coconuts stand erect, like totemic phalluses, suggestive of potency, is a bitter irony. Coconuts of this sort are utterly sterile from a reproductive standpoint. That the Marshallese creation myth involves a paradigmatic Mother giving birth to a coconut child, which then supplies her people with sustenance, tools and clothing, sets the issue of genetic disruption into relief.3
On the international cultural plane, Bikini’s ungrounding plays out in its hegemonic linguistic identification. MS Word’s autocorrect allows “Bikini” but not “Bikinian”. Rather than a place, a culture, or a people, the designation has—as we all know—become associated with something different. French designer Louis Réard named his women’s two-piece swimsuit after the atoll in 1946, trading on explosive media associations. The item’s ubiquity firmly established, today, an association with sun, sex and leisure completely overshadows its namesake.
Charrière’s photo series of idyllic lagoon scenes, depicting water, palms, beaches and horizons, enframe the image of Bikini’s sublimated trauma. Grains of sand from the atoll’s hot sites were placed on the negatives during the development process, altering the resulting pictures in an arresting fashion. Colorful figuration giving way, every so often, to bleached abstraction, the prints oscillate between the peaceful cliché of tropical sunset photography and the destructive beauty issuing from atomic second suns. By exposing the film stock to radioactive material Charrière’s process serves to partially destroy one mode of (photographic) visual information, while at the same time adding another. In this manner, one encounters a register of the (manmade) energy of the landscape in the work, literally undermining paradisiac motifs typically found in tourist brochures.
In another group of photographs, cataloguing the architectural legacy of test program, Charrière also employs this atomic development process. As with his Kazakhstan series, these black and white works recall the objective compositions favored by the Düsseldorf School, while surveying bunker facilities whose monumental forms recall temples, or tombs; odious leftovers of a questionable culture
. The nature of this culture is at the heart of Charrière’s engagement with the atoll. In many respects, Bikini’s modern trauma—its people exiled, its land blasted, vaporized in places, burned and irradiated—issued from an imperial desire to create a visual imaginary unparalleled in human history:
In 1968 the Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders would capture the whole earth in a photograph. Some have claimed that this image, which was distributed worldwide on magazine pages and TV screens, helped to spur broader understanding of the planet as a single system—bolstering the nascent environmentalist movement. But if Earthrise
, as the picture has come to be known, was the birth of a new mass-cultural relation to ecology, the US Department of Energy’s documentation of Operation Crossroads was its birth pang: For the image of a jewel-like planet, suspended in space, to contribute to the urgency of conservation initiatives, there had to be a prior vision of the stakes involved. Photographs of Bikini are that vision—one of immense power, in the hands of man, on the scale of earthquakes and hurricanes; an exponential increase in our species’ capacity to destroy; a hazard raised to the all-encompassing dimension of clouds, oceans, and land; climate itself.
At the time of the Able and Baker tests, eighteen tons of cinematography equipment and more than half the world’s supply of motion picture film stock was present at Bikini.4
Every explosion was documented from a multitude of angles. While much of this effort served military-scientific analysis, it was just as integral to a propaganda function. Indeed, it was in the Marshall Islands that the nuclear blast as an image-project reached its apogee—a performance writ large, attended by a huge public relations machine. This aspect of Operation Crossroads rendered one of the most remote places in the world the most photographed. In this light, just as one talks about the science of the bombs, or the “testing” of warheads at Bikini, one must talk about the manipulation of the global visual imaginary—deploying pictures as munitions.
But in order to shoot
the camera had to take on a new dimension. Architectural symptoms are among the standard mutations precipitated by atomic enterprise. There is no such technology without the development of special facilities; super-strength concrete, etc. This is to say, the nuclear entails an envelope appropriate to its colossal power.5
The photo negative has always been an invertebrate, reliant on an exoskeleton. To capture images of the tests it now required a “housing” on the scale of battlements. Bikini’s monstrous concrete bunkers announced a new camera body-format appropriate to the task. In the manner of a hermit crab, there, the negative left its old armor and crawled into the space of buildings. In depicting their totemic forms, Charrière’s own photographs are as much an exercise in the history of photography as they are a pursuit of architectural taxonomy.
From its beach head on the shores of Bikini, the atomic camera consolidated an image of the new world order. This order was the appearance of a second sun on Earth—a thermonuclear process summoned by US military-industrial science. This image spoke of a capacity to reorganize the planet entirely; an energy that could move mountains; something akin to being able to spin the world in an opposite direction; to effect day in the night, and night in the day. Charrière’s video work, Iroojrilik
, pursues a motif of solar disorder by employing a series of elisions and substitutions. Through a series of montages, mixing sunsets and sunrises, it proposes an uncertain distinction between daybreak and nightfall – first light of a new day in world history, and the waning of another. Within this reordered time and space, the film sketches a further purgatory of doubling and dis-identification; its manner of editing suggesting morphological overlaps between rotting concrete bunkers and the monstrous wrecks that lie on the bottom of Bikini’s lagoon, assailed by tide and time. Making no use of archival material—its original underwater footage captured at depths far below standard dive profiles – Iroojrilik
is unquestionably the most unique perspective on the maritime ruins of Bikini ever created. Yet, rather than explicating individual vessels or buildings, the cumulative impression given is that of an Atlantis or lost civilization—architectural features of one ship cut together with those of others, such that it appears as though the film documents a lost superstructure. Within Iroojrilik
, it would seem, what is explored is not just Bikini but the moral “light” of industrial modernity itself. Pictorial energies shift and sway, like palm trees and coral ferns growing on cannon mounts, between construction and destruction; transporting the viewer to a non-place, or the beginning of a brave new world.
A conjunction between the concept of the sun/light and the good has held for millennia, from Neolithic images to the biblical assertion that “the Lord God is a Sun”.6
It is as if, throughout history, this symbolic nexus served as a fundamental component of human culture; a ground. Certainly, thousands of years of fascination with the sun eventually produced the Copernican Revolution, whose heliocentric universe ushered in an age of physical science—culminating, in the mid twentieth century, with the splitting of the atom. With this great achievement, night fell on a period of human history, and new day was born.
In this day, everything took on a new light. For, as Richard Rhodes has it, elsewhere in this volume, thermonuclear explosions “are basically small stars ignited on earth.” In so pulling the stars from the heavens, our species challenged the sun’s dominion over the terrestrial realm. Instead of its singular influence, we established the precedent of subjecting the physical order of the environment to a rule of two. This doubling unleashed an aporia: the ‘uncanny’ presence of radiation, a material ungrounding
. But there are also profound aesthetic implications, namely, the emergence of a poesis rendering optional the longstanding equation of beauty with light, emanating from Apollo (the sun god), in the Western tradition. Cast in a post-atomic glow, contemporary beauty partakes of a pseudo-Apollo who is partly not-himself. The sun’s other, a role once reserved for the moon, creeps in to the equation, smuggling in a kind of lunacy
The second suns of Operation Crossroads, in the Marshall Islands, and the atomic bombs that preceded them, rose in the West. With daybreak, following the punishment of neutron violence, our nuclear Prometheus suffered another trauma: the concept of a bad sun. The contemporary moment is marked by this sign. The man who first seized thermonuclear fire knew that it rendered him “Death, the shatterer of worlds.”7
The intellectual currents that reckoned with the war which demanded he do so condemned enlight
enment as profane illumination. By the turn of the millennium there was talk of its wake.8
The passing of the solar good is now followed by its undead form. From unenlightened neo-fascists waving banners bearing the Schwarze Sonne
, to the prospect of arcadia’s eternal summer desacralized just as it is realized
, in the endless summer of global warming—the bad sun rises.9
Ours is a Dark Ecology
Modernism wanted Victory over the Sun
, and Season in Hell
. It would come to pass.
From within a bunker on Bikini, immune to the destruction beyond its own housing, the spineless negative
pictured a world—a world that was the negation of another which had been witnessed, and inhabited, for hundreds of generations. This new image was given to the twentieth century as a pure experiment; positive
, compelling and guilt free. Every vision of a bikini clad woman on a virgin beach, at the end of a burning jet-fuel, and damn the colonial question, is a print from this negative. As Charrière’s double-exposures (once exposed to the sun, once to its terrestrial other
) suggest, half of the gaze constitutive of a “beautiful landscape” (of Bikini or bikinis) emanates from an evil eye—an eye whose negative regard registers the light of a second sun.
Extract from Nadim Samman and Julian Charrière, As We Used to Float
In Bikinian legend, Lijibokra, the ‘demon of poison’ contaminates Rongerik. When the Bikinians moved there the food available (fish, pandanus, and coconuts) caused sickness. See Jack Niedenthal, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands
, (Majuro, 2001), p. 44-45.
Jack A. Tobin, Stories from the Marshall Islands
, (Honolulu, 2002), pp. 12-13.
Niedenthal (2001), p. 3.
Today, where the question of containing nuclear waste has assumed more prominence than developing shelter architecture, the logic of the ever-larger exoskeleton continues to play out. However, rather than building walls, we burrow into the side of mountains. The earth’s crust has become architecture; a total architecture.
l (accessed 12/07/2018)
John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake
, (London, 1995)
The sun’s season, summer, is no longer welcomed – as it was in the days when it could return from the far side of winter. For it cannot be reborn, as it never leaves, and yet there are blizzards.
Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence
(New York, 2016)