At the end of 1885, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen took the first radiograph: X-rays, imperceptible to the eye, left traces on the photographic plate and made visible the internal structure of the hand of Röntgen’s wife, Anna Bertha Ludwig. Based on this discovery, Henri Becquerel set about researching uranium salts (which luminesce like tubes emitting X-rays) and in 1886 he discovered radioactivity using a photographic plate. Photography was at the root of the discoveries of both X-rays and radioactivity and has remained closely associated with their scientific investigation.
For avant-garde photographers in the 1920s, scientific photography represented one means of breaking away from the existing artistic tradition. Radiographs and radio-radiation photography captivated avant-garde photographers not only for their extraordinary visual impact, but also for their ability to depict reality in a new way and to reveal its otherwise inaccessible layers.
Soon after the discovery that atomic nuclei were hidden reservoirs of new energy, there were efforts to tap into this resource and exploit it – whether it was research into atomic power stations or nuclear bombs. But even the peaceful use of new forms of energy can fail, and places that were intended to provide safe and cheap energy for all households can become sources of life-threatening radiation. Sometimes human inattention is to blame, sometimes power stations become strategic targets for military operations. In the context of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, historical material calling for nuclear disarmament is becoming chillingly relevant.
The group exhibition Released Atoms follows the theme of making the invisible visible. While the radiographs –photographs created using artificially produced gamma rays – penetrate the inside of X-rayed objects and reveal their internal structure, selected works by contemporary artists depict the hopes placed in the peaceful use of energy and the fears associated with it. Alongside the original documentation of historical radiograms and popular and avant-garde books, the exhibition presents works that explore spectacular modernist projects and give access to the environments of atomic reactors and isolated sites affected by nuclear disaster.
In collaboration with Spot home gallery, Naples.
Read the exhibition brochure here.