Bruce Conner: Crossroads

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Installation view Bruce Conner 'Crossroads' at Thomas Dane Gallery, London 2015. © Conner Family Trust. Photo: Richard Ivey

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Bruce Conner, 'Crossroads', 1976. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco

 (Bruce Conner, 'Crossroads', 1976)
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Bruce Conner, 'Crossroads', 1976

Bruce Conner, 'Crossroads', 1976. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco

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Bruce Conner, 'Crossroads', 1976. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco

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Installation view Bruce Conner 'Crossroads' at Thomas Dane Gallery, London 2015. © Conner Family Trust. Photo: Richard Ivey

A striking film about the explosive force of power

Bruce Conner’s ‘Crossroads’ is one of the most beautiful, most mesmerising films you’re ever likely to see – not to mention one of the most terrifying, as well as one of the most banal. Made in 1976, it consists of archival footage of a nuclear explosion conducted by the US military 30 years earlier – part of their famous tests, codenamed Operation Crossroads, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean – in which an atomic weapon, equivalent to 23,000 tons of TNT (identical to the bomb dropped the previous year on Nagasaki), was detonated 90 feet below the ocean’s surface.

Edited together by the late American artist, the black-and-white footage depicts the gargantuan eruption from different angles – at eye level from the lagoon’s surrounding islands, or looking down from planes circling high above – with the repetitions both emphasising the sense of violent spectacle, yet also creating an atmosphere of disturbing, almost listless, monotony.

In this sense, the film reveals how the atomic tests of the 1940s marked a true ‘crossroads’ in human consciousness – not just in terms of the new, destructive age they heralded, but also how quickly this threat of nuclear annihilation became commonplace, how chillingly mundane it had come to seem by the end of the Cold War-shadowed 1970s.

At the same time, the film reignites feelings of awe and power that the original tests must have inspired. With cameras recording the event in super-slow-motion, the etiology of an atomic blast is documented in captivating detail, progressing from submarine shockwave to vast, ballooning dome of water vapour, to the raggedly churning mushroom cloud of popular iconography. Accompanied by a woozy, hypnotic electronic score, the footage becomes increasingly abstract, with long stretches devoted to the explosion’s dispersion among the surrounding clouds, like some receding force of nature. It’s uncomfortably, horribly, magnificent.

Gabriel Coxhead

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