ON THE INTERNATIONAL SHADOWS PROJECT: 1990

by Karl Young


When the first atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. August 6, 1945, people within 300 meters of ground zero were vaporized by the intense heat. They left faint marks on nearby surfaces. These have been called shadows, and these shadows have been growing in importance as symbols, examples, and icons during the 45 years since.

During the early to mid '80's the maniacal nuclear stratagems of the Reagan administration gave great impetus to the global anti-nuclear movement and artists, poets, and composers responded with an upwelling of oppositional work. A resurgence of the guerrilla theater of the '60's emerged as performance art. Anti-nuclear mail-art flourished. Ruggero Maggi in Italy and John Held, Jr. in the U.S. united mail-art and performance and sponsored many events at home and abroad. Perhaps the most important of the mail-art shows was held in 1988 in Hiroshima itself, under international sponsorship with the active guidance of Shozo Simamoto, Mayumi Handa and others. Work from this show was passed on to form the nucleus of a 1989 show in Calexico, a city on the U.S.-Mexico border, curated by Harry Polkinhorn. This material was passed on to me after the Calexico show closed. Polkinhorn and I discussed turning it into a DNA show, one that divided and replicated itself, with part sent this year to Clemente Padin in Montevideo who wanted to do a show.

Invitations started going out in late winter. One of my concerns was to bring in work from artists outside the mail-art genre. I hope future curators of similar shows will continue along these lines, making the project as open and uncliquish as possible. In the invitations I said the show would be "lightly juried." I would have liked to have left it completely unjuried, but wanted to be able to exclude work that would harm or get in the way of other pieces. One piece was set up so it made a continuous cycle of loud sounds that would have distracted attention from other works and would have been a sort of water-drip torture for people who worked in the bookstore or read in the gallery. This was the only piece excluded from the show. The openness of the show drew some criticism: Some thought that without a jury the show would be made up of nothing but junk from amateurs, fanatics, and lunatics. This may have discouraged a few people from sending work, but predictions of a cascade of trash were not born out by the show. A number of contributors fall into the amateur category but they didn't contribute insincere or irrelevant art. The lone rejectee was gracious enough to send a less harmful piece in place of the rejected one. That's hardly irrational behavior -- I'd like to see more people act as well in juried shows.

The lack of a jury gets at one of the main goals of the show. The atomic age has been one of secrecy, exclusion, and elitism. It seems particularly appropriate to oppose this with complete openness, universal enfranchisement, and inclusion. Jerome Rothenberg's notion of the Critic as Angel of Death, as the officer at Auschwitz who decided who would live and who would go to the crematorium, seems appropriate here. We opened the show to everyone who wanted to participate, not deciding which works should "live" and which should "die."

The nuclear age has been based in distrust, not only of foreign nations but also of people at home. The obsession with secret plots and domestic spies and saboteurs characteristic of the McCarthy witch hunt is alive and well in the current movement for greater censorship. A basic assumption of the Shadows Project is that artists can be trusted. Some contributors sent work that questioned or made fun of the concerns of the show, but none were guilty of bad faith. In this context, it is interesting to note that although the moral majority gestapo regularly patrolled the show, they found nothing that could be used to attack the gallery or close the exhibition.

The show included about 600 pieces from some 300 contributors living in 38 countries. Work included paintings ranging from Memling-like miniatures to large abstractions; elaborate collages and found art; video and audio tapes; poetry and musical scores; photos of everything from Hiroshima wreckage to children's faces to previous Shadows performances. Any inventory would be incomplete -- the show included many anonymous pieces, and even provenience is problematic: I sent invitations to artists in East Germany, and received responses from some of them at new addresses in West Germany, and the two Germanies ceased to be divided shortly after the show closed. About half the work was new. Of work from previous shows, some pieces are dated as early as 1982. It would be interesting to track their progression from show to show around the world over the years. Going by dates, some artists apparently had contributed to shows nearly every year throughout the decade.

That many pieces were anonymous brings out several important things about mail art. It is not an art form from which artists expect to make money or achieve fame. It is a form that is not intended to be a commodity to be bought or owned but to go out in the world with a message that is more important than the identity or fortunes of the artist. Hence it should not be surprising that a large number of contributors were from eastern Europe and the Fascist dictatorships of Latin America; that is, places where artists' commitments have been put to a severe test. That little work came from Asian countries other than Japan or from Africa is a strong reminder that many people in the world cannot participate in shows like this because they cannot afford postage. Perhaps it is a shortcoming of these shows that none of their curators has found a way of getting around this.

Though we don't have any numbers to back this up, the show apparently drew a larger number of viewers than any other mounted in the summer at Woodland Pattern during its ten years at the present location. The show formally ended on August 6, Hiroshima Day, with a poetry reading. Despite the official closing, the show was left up for an additional two weeks. This not only gave more people a chance to see it, it also suggested a reprieve of sorts: it's hard not to think that the human race put a gun to its head and pulled the trigger on August 6, 1945 and is only waiting helplessly for the hammer to detonate the cap. Maybe we can keep that from happening.

1990 was a torch bearer year for the International Shadows Project. When the show opened on June 17, concern about nuclear weapons was probably at its lowest point in forty five years. A lot of the careless euphoria of the preceding year was still in the air. By the time the show ended in mid August, the world seemed to have changed. Troops were massing in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, ready for a war that could go nuclear. Of the two giants that had been terrorizing the world with their threats of nuclear armageddon for half a century, one was in effect bankrupt and drowning in debt, while the other was rapidly disintegrating. In their place, their former client states were arming themselves with nuclear weapons made from materials the superpowers had given them. A world in which two bullies bluff each other now seemed safer than one in which many impoverished countries had nuclear devices and little to lose in using them. At the same time, many people in the U.S. began to advocate the use of nuclear weapons to rid themselves of the Iraqi nuisance.

By springtime, many of those who had advocated nuking Baghdad were expressing sincere and heartfelt sympathy with the Kurds and other victims of the Iraq war. Clearly these people didn't have the slightest understanding of the indiscriminate destructive power of even a small nuclear bomb. One of the purposes of these shows should be educational. Serious consideration of the devastation caused by the bomb detonated over Hiroshima (little more than a firecracker by contemporary standards) apparently must be encouraged; and the images of human suffering, with human faces, must be kept before those who advocate the use of nuclear weapons. This is particularly important after a war that seemed to many people in the industrial nations like a video game.

By the following winter, the Soviet Union had become the world's first empire to disassemble itself. Through some sort of mass psychosis that is completely beyond my comprehension many people came to believe that the nuclear nightmare was over. This folly continued despite a hellish civil war in Yugoslavia that could easily be a rehearsal for civil wars in the former Soviet Republics, or more massive wars between the half dozen nuclear states that covered the center of Eurasia. The possibilities of nuclear weapons being used by China, India, the Koreas and other Asian countries became more apparent. None of the polyannas seemed concerned with the possible uses of material and technological ability that would be looking for some practical application if they were not used in such conflicts. The people who spoke of the end of the nuclear era had forgotten how ready people in the U.S. had been to use nuclear weapons on Iraq. Those who sponsor Shadows Shows in the future will have a more difficult job than mine. Of course, no matter how many shows are generated, not even if their number grows to thousands per anum, these shows can not be expected to put an end to the existence of nuclear weapons. But they may augment the many other anti-nuclear activities launched by responsible people all over the world. An unfortunate problem that any anti-nuke group faces is the speed with which images and ideas become passť. My hope is that the changing of future locations and curators will keep the shows themselves changing fast enough to stay ahead of the ennui and trendyness that are the strongest allies nuclear weapons have. I can see large scale changes in the aesthetics and the approaches of these shows. I hope this will be magnified in coming years when I'm no longer involved in setting them up.

Since Clemente Padin stopped answering my letters before the Milwaukee show opened, I assumed that there would not be one in Uruguay, and feared that he might have become one of The Disappeared -- particularly since much of his work has dealt with the subject of Disappeared Persons, and he had been one himself for several years, until an Amnesty International style letter writing campaign initiated by mail-artists forced his release. A letter from Padin arrived in mid October saying that the Montevideo show was mounted along with an Africa show. In this case, the crazy optimism characteristic of these endeavors was completely justified.


This is a revision of an essay that first appeared in World's Edge, edited by Sherry Reniker in 1991.

Copyright © 1989 by Karl Young. Distribute freely, as long as the text is not altered and this statement is retained in any copies distributed by electronic or mechanical media or printed out on paper.

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