Truman: The Most Hated Statue in Greece

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Greek Civil War in October 1949. The conflict between monarchists and communists erupted soon after the end of the country’s occupation during World War II left a power vacuum at the heart of the birthplace of democracy. Although Stalin chose not to support the insurgents, the conflict is considered to be the first proxy war of the Cold War, with the monarchists backed by Britain and the United States, while the communists were mainly supported by Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The Truman Doctrine, named after US President Harry Truman, was instrumental in releasing billions in US government funds to support the monarchists and to provide equal economic and military support to Turkey, which was also at risk of entering the Soviet sphere. The strategy proved effective and a subsequent victory for the Kingdom of Greece suppressed the spread of communism in Southern Europe.

Yet the disagreement that gave rise to the conflict has continued to fester, exacerbated by the Greek military coup d’état in 1967 which heralded seven years of rule by a far-right junta who imprisoned or exiled thousands of suspects communists and political opponents. US support for the junta, deeply unpopular among the Greeks but an expedient anti-communist ally for the West, led to growing anti-Americanism during the dictatorship. This only increased when the US failed to support Greece in halting the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. In the Greek capital, anger against US ‘imperialism’ has repeatedly found a target in one unfortunate work of art.

Earlier this year, Greek communists were arrested for an attack on a 12-foot bronze statue of Truman, erected near the US Embassy in 1963 by the conservative US-based American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). Set up without the consent of the Athens city authorities, the statue has been controversial from the start. In 2018, activists protesting US-led airstrikes in Syria used a metal grinder to cut off its feet and ropes in an attempt to topple it to the ground, before they were repelled by riot police with tear gas.

 But this is just the latest attack the statue has withstood. Over the last 55 years, it has being bombed four times – on one occasion causing the death of a nearby policeman, attacked with a chainsaw and successfully toppled on at least five occasions. In more imaginative protests, the statue has been doused in pink and red paint (perhaps a nod to David Černý’s Pink Tank in Prague) and wrapped up in packaging paper marking it for return delivery to the United States. When a bomb in 1986 tore the statue apart, an exasperated Mayor of Athens suggested replacing Truman with a statue of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps hoping that the American Civil War hero would prove less aggravating. But the AHEPA insisted on bringing Truman back from the dead.

Recounting the misfortunes that have befallen the statue, in a country famous for its sculpture, some commentators have asked if it has become ‘the most hated’ in Athens. Even those Greeks who are ambivalent to the statue have wondered why it is there, when some of the country’s greatest politicians, leaders and intellectuals have not received similar recognition, and there is not even a Truman statue on display in the president’s own hometown. But with the sculpture once again patched up and receiving a vocal defense from the US Ambassador to Greece, it doesn’t look like Truman will be leaving his podium any time soon.

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The Not-so-Secret Art of the CIA

Taryn Simon, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency, Art, CIA Original Headquarters Building, Langley, Virginia’, 2003/2007.

The above photograph, by American artist Taryn Simon, appears innocuous, even banal, at first. It shows two modern paintings hanging on bare white walls, cordoned off by limp rope barriers, while harsh fluorescent ceiling lights cause their reflection to bounce off the glossy laminate floor. But the photograph instantly appears more enticing and enigmatic when one reads the caption, indicating that it was taken at the headquarters of the US Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. Simon’s photograph is part of her 2007 series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, presenting viewpoints that are largely inaccessible to the general public. It is therefore ironic that the photograph would itself provoke a decade of investigation and debate into the limits of government transparency.

Intrigued by the photograph when she first saw it in 2008, Portland-based artist Johanna Barron was inspired to discover more about the CIA’s collection of abstract paintings. However, she could find little available information, save for a single page on the CIA website, without any images, and some passing details in a book about the agency. Although the absence of information was perhaps unsurprising for a cash-strapped federally-funded institution, Barron decided to delve further by submitting a series of FOIA requests. This would be the first step in a complex artistic project that would occupy Barron for years to come.

Johanna Barron with selections from her recreation of the Melzac Collection held by the CIA, 2015. Photo (c) James Rexroad. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

As any researcher who has gone through the arduous process of locating and accessing archival documents can tell you, asking overworked librarians to find material on your behalf rarely delivers results. Barron would have a similar response to her FOIA requests. Her appeals for photographs of the collection and acquisition records, including information about tax breaks for donors and funding for purchases, were repeatedly denied on the grounds that documents relating to the paintings were not “government records” and therefore not covered by FOIA regulations. Once again, a lack of readily-available information that elsewhere would have likely been explained by a processing mix-up or scarce resources, here took on an air of mystery, with the CIA appearing evasive. Barron’s quest for information only accelerated, as she commented: “I felt this increasing need to try to uncover details that seemed to be kept secret for no logical reason”. Eventually, in 2014, Barron received almost 100 pages of heavily-redacted documentation, that allowed her to piece together more details about the collection.

The abstract paintings that had caught Barron’s eye were part a small group loaned to the CIA by Vincent Melzac, a larger-than-life art collector and former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. From 1968, Melzac shared with the agency a series of paintings by artists affiliated with the Washington Color School. Twenty years later, the CIA purchased eleven of the works, although after Melzac’s death in 1989, his estate also agreed to continue loaning additional canvases. Barron used this new-found information to create 3/4 scale reproductions of some of the 29 paintings, which she first exhibited in 2015 under the title Acres of Walls. Appearing alongside the redacted documents and details of her interactions with the CIA, Barron presented the installation as a commentary on the limits of government transparency and the absurdity of secrecy for the sake of secrecy.

Barron’s tale of intrigue was readily picked up by the cultural press, with art writers easily believing that the intelligence community was intentionally hiding paintings from the prying public. Artnet asked “Why Won’t the CIA Reveal the Paintings in Its Secret Art Collection?“; CNN demanded “Why won’t the CIA reveal what’s in its art collection?“; Hyperallergic mused “Why Does the CIA Keep Its Art Collection Secret?“; while the Smithsonian Magazine announced “The CIA Won’t Reveal What’s in its Secret Art Collection“! However, the following year, one of the writers whose interest had been piqued by Barron’s project decided to take the investigation further – turning the story on its head.

Gene Davis, ‘Black Rhythm’, 1964. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Alerted by DC-based artist Barbara Januszkiewicz that the CIA art collection might not be as secret as it at first appeared, Carey Dunne, a reporter for Hyperallergic, contacted the agency’s Public Affairs office. She was surprised to find that before long, arrangements were made for her to visit Langley and that she was permitted to make public details of her tour of the art collection, including photographs. Alongside a wide array of art dotted throughout the CIA headquarters, including representational paintings celebrating the agency’s achievements and official portraits of past CIA directors, the abstract paintings from Melzac’s collection took pride of place.

Mundane reasons given for this collection included brightening up the building with art that matched the date of the architecture (construction on the Old Headquarters Building was completed in 1961) and related to Langley’s location in the Washington metropolitan area. However, Dunne uncovered a fascinating aspect to the CIA’s collection of abstract art – that it was also used for training purposes. As Carolyn Reams, former director of the CIA Museum, explained, agents are asked to analyse the paintings to develop their problem-solving skills: “Say you’ve got to analyze this big, heavy duty ISIL problem over here — maybe if you come look at the painting, it’ll help you think about how to solve the ISIL problem creatively.” It is perhaps for that reason that the abstract paintings included in the collection are rarely random or lacking in content, but are largely constructed from patterns and recognisable shapes.

Robert Newmann, ‘Arrows’, 1968. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Hyperallergic also suggested that the art collection might have been chosen by the CIA in a nod to the agency’s covert support for Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War. The story Dunne refers to, which has been fuelled by sensationalist articles in the New Yorker and the Independent, is yet another oversimplification and mythologisation of a more complex but less glamorous tale linking art and espionage – and further evidence of the will to sustain a narrative of CIA secrecy that provoked both Johanna Barron’s project and the subsequent press coverage.

Yet if the CIA did maintain some secrecy around its art collection, it may have been for good reason. While researching her article, Dunne contacted Robert Newmann, the last living artist featured in the agency’s collection of abstract painting. Newmann revealed that the artists themselves were not informed by Melzac of the loan of their works to the CIA, and Newmann only discovered this fact in 2012, when Warner Brothers requested his permission to feature the painting Arrows in the Hollywood blockbuster Argo, which was filmed on site at Langley. “Personally, I would never have sold a painting to the CIA,” Newmann said. “We [Washington Color School artists] were all left-of-center and the CIA’s contribution to the [Vietnam] War turned all of us off.”

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Khrushchev in America and the Graphic Arts Workshop

On 15 September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. Over the course of 12 days, he travelled from Washington, DC to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose (to witness the birth of the computer age at IBM’s headquarters), Des Moines and Coon Rapids in Iowa, and Pittsburgh, ending his whistle-stop tour in a summit with President Eisenhower at Camp David. The visit followed hot on the heels of a summer of friendly competition between the two superpowers, where art became a major talking point at the Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York and the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

Coming soon after his infamous showdown with then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow, Khrushchev appeared keen to use the visit as a chance to reclaim Soviet dominance in all fields. He made an opening volley soon after his arrival, greeting Eisenhower in the Oval Office with a replica of Lunik II. This space probe – the first man-made object on the moon – had successfully landed just one day earlier, symbolising the Soviets’ early lead in the Space Race.

Khrushchev then proceeded to express displeasure at much of what he saw in the United States: complaining that the pigs were too fat and the turkeys too small at a farm in Maryland; remarking upon his first glimpse of the Empire State Building that “if you’ve seen one skyscraper, you’ve seen them all”; and – despite enjoying a close-up of Shirley MacLaine’s legs – bemoaning with characteristic Soviet prudishness the bare flesh and innuendo on a Hollywood film set. His ire reached fever pitch when he discovered that Disneyland had been taken off his itinerary because of security concerns. Shaking his fist in front of a gala audience that included Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, Khrushchev vented, “Do you have rocket launching pads there? … What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera or plague there? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me? And I say I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. For me such a situation is inconceivable.”

However, Khrushchev finally found something that pleased him at an Iowan meat-packing factory. Upon trying his first hot dog, the Soviet leader declared, “We have beaten you to the moon, but you have beaten us in sausage making.”

Upon leaving New York, Khrushchev had noted his regret that he had yet to meet “the producers of its wealth” – ordinary American workers. He would finally have a chance to come into contact with more ideologically appealing citizens in San Francisco, where he met union members and swapped caps with a dock worker. It is likely at one of these events that Khrushchev received three social realist prints by American artists affiliated with the Graphic Arts Workshop (GAW), a radical printmaking cooperative. Formed as an offshoot of the defunct California Labor School, GAW had a history of producing posters for Communist front groups and painting murals around San Francisco, on themes such as African American, Jewish and Mexican history, the role of women in the labour movement, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

In keeping with Khrushchev’s appeal to see the “real” America, artists Richard Correll and Stanley Koppel gifted the Soviet premier artworks on the theme of blue-collar workers; while GAW chairman Irving Fromer presented the Soviet leader with a more controversial view, in a lithograph depicting child labour in the cotton fields. The prints are now held in the collections of Brown University, where Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, worked for many years and gifted his papers, including some of his father’s memorabilia.

 

While the Graphic Arts Workshop may not be well-known in the United States, during the late 1950s, the studio was feted in the USSR. The quixotic San Francisco sculptor, Beniamino Bufano, had taken a collection of prints by GAW members on his “one-man peace mission” to Moscow in 1957, where they were soon exhibited at the Moscow Artists’ Union and the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The GAW prints would also be included in a larger exhibition of American realist art at the Pushkin Museum in late 1959, rapidly assembled by Soviet officials nervous at the attention paid to US modern art by the crowds at the American National Exhibition that summer.

For those keen find out more about Khrushchev’s tour of America, PBS has put together a handy overview of his itinerary, as a complement to their film, Cold War Roadshow. You can also find out more about the surviving Graphic Arts Workshop at their website.

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Images: Khrushchev meets Shirley MacLaine on his visit to Hollywood. Bettmann / CORBIS; Richard Correll, Railroaders, 1959; Irving Fromer, Child Picking Cotton, 1959; Stanley Koppel, Men Drinking at a Bar, 1959. Courtesy Brown University.

A Cold War Air Tragedy in Art

 The horrifying painted image that exploded from the front cover of Time magazine on 12 September 1983 brought to public realisation one of the single greatest tragedies of the Cold War – the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL007) on the first of that month.

The civilian flight from New York City to Seoul, via Anchorage, was approaching its final destination when it was intercepted by Soviet military aircraft over the Sea of Japan. The pilots had mistakenly strayed into Soviet airspace and fighter jets were scrambled to encounter what was suspected to be a US spy plane. The Soviet Air Forces made the grave decision to destroy the plane with air-to-air missiles. All 269 people aboard were killed, including 105 Korean passengers and crew, 62 Americans, 28 Japanese, and others from a total of 16 different countries.

Two weeks later, the Soviets located the airplane wreckage and flight recorders on the bottom of the sea, although this would not become public knowledge for many years. Initially the government of Yuri Andropov denied his country’s involvement in the incident. Once evidence forced Andropov to admit that the Soviet Air Forces had indeed downed the plane, he maintained that it had been a “sophisticated provocation masterminded by the US special services with the use of a South Korean plane”. The Soviet government continued to conceal evidence from the International Civil Aviation Organization investigating the flight. The full story would only come to light after the dissolution of the USSR, when in 1992 Russia finally released the cockpit voice recorder transcript. On the 30th anniversary of the incident, CNN published a compelling account of this episode.

On 1 September every year, relatives of the deceased gather to remember those killed in the tragedy at the KAL Memorial Tower at National Mang-Hyang Cemetery in Cheonan, South Korea. The cemetery was constructed in 1976 and is devoted to Korean nationals who have died in foreign countries. The towering central monument stands above a shrine, its bisected form resembling the wings of an airplane and connecting the earth and sky. Relief sculptures are carved on either side of the shrine, while two dramatic freestanding group sculptures recall the lives lost.

On the left hand side, the neoclassical statue is formed of fifteen women entwined in their grief. While thirteen of the mourners are shown stooped and with heads bowed, one holding a wreath and an older woman embracing a young girl, two figures at the front of the group enact formal funereal rites: one standing and holding to her chest what appears to be an urn; and one kneeling with a flaming torch. The sculpture on the right hand side instead shows an image of resurgence. The people have arisen, and a group of young men and women are shown on their feet with arms raised, carrying banners forward in a show of determination. Little information about the monument is available in English language, including details of the architect and sculptor, yet it is worthy of wider attention as one of the most poignant and effective monuments to the Cold War.

Two further monuments to the tragedy stand on islands to the north and south of the crash site. In the city of Wakkanai, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, a 90-foot tower marks the spot when some of the victims’ bodies and belongings were washed ashore after the crash. The tower is constructed from 269 white stones, each representing one of the deceased. Meanwhile, on the island of Sakahlin, a distant outpost at the edge of Russia’s territory, a small cemetery marker pays tribute to the victims.

The sorry tale of KAL007 was brought back to international attention in July 2014, when in a tragic repeat of history, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was downed over eastern Ukraine. Despite obstruction from the Russian-backed insurgents in the region, overwhelming evidence has led the international investigators to conclude that the airliner was downed by a Russia-supplied Buk surface-to-air missile, by pro-Russian fighters who likely misidentified the commercial plane as a military aircraft. In a repetition of the 1983 incident, the Kremlin has blocked the investigation, fuelled conspiracy theories that the flight was instead brought down by a Ukraininan military jet, and so far no one has been held accountable for the deaths of the 283 passengers and 15 crew.

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Images: Top three – KAL Memorial Tower, National Mang-Hyang Cemetery, South Korea. Courtesy KAL 007 Famlies and Friends Facebook page. Bottom – Monument to Korean Airlines Flight 007, Hokkaido, Japan. Courtesy shirokazan on flickr.

The Art Enigma of Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford’s astonishing lucky streak reached a dramatic climax on 9 August 1974, when he became, by default, President of the United States of America. This had been a rapid ascent for Ford, who only 8 months previously had been the Republican Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. Just as the Watergate scandal was reaching a crescendo, with widespread calls for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced from office because of his own legal troubles. Convicted of tax evasion during his time as Governor of Maryland, Agnew remains only the second VP in US history to resign. Ford was picked as his replacement, while charges against the President were at a critical point. The following summer, in another historic moment, Nixon became the only US President in history to resign. Thus in quick succession, Ford held the vice presidency and presidency without being elected for either post – an unprecedented feat.

Leading the United States in the middle of the Cold War, Ford presided over instability at home and abroad, including severe economic hardship, a brief détente with Communist Europe, and the Fall of Saigon. While respected in some quarters, Ford is condemned by others for his support for foreign misadventures in Vietnam and Indonesia that caused the deaths of thousands. When he finally faced a presidential election, in 1976, Ford narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter. Ford’s 895-day presidency went into the record books as the shortest in American history for someone who did not die in office. But perhaps this shorter term had some benefit: until 2017, Ford held yet another record, as the longest-lived US president.

 It seems fitting that the multi record-breaking 38th US President became the subject of an art enigma, exactly 38 years after he took office. In April 2012, residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan – the city in which Ford was raised and is now buried – spotted a number of spray-painted stencil images of the former president on the side of the Gerald R. Ford Freeway. Their appearance quickly sparked a lively local debate about whether the paintings were art or vandalism. The Michigan Department of Transportation thought the latter, designating them vandalism and a dangerous distraction for drivers, and vowing to have them removed.

The discussion then led on to debate about Ford’s record in office, his legacy, and the value of political art. The artist had clearly researched the subject in detail, basing the stencils on carefully selecting photographic images of Ford from key moments in his presidency and occasionally including quotes from landmark speeches. The first of the Ford stencils featured the words “I am indebted to no man”, spoken by the new president immediately after he took the oath of office, to humbly acknowledge that he had not been chosen by the American people.

The debate escalated from words to action, as some commentators staged interventions to alter the images: with the words “war criminal” sprayed in red paint; with Ford’s face covered by the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask; and with a speech bubble containing the Grand Rapids motto “Motu Viget” (Latin for “strength in activity”).

 By May 2012, the first four paintings had been removed by a state cleaning crew. But the rogue artist soon returned, depicting Ford speaking at a podium, skiing and standing in a bathing suit and towel – the latter image appropriately appearing beside the Grand River and on the opposite bank from the graves of Ford and his wife, Betty.

Still the identity of the artist remained a mystery. Some hoped that the tag “SKBFF” next to some of the works would be a clue. In August 2012, MLive media group received an anonymous email, in which someone calling themselves Odd Job claimed to be the artist. This claimant dismissed SKBFF as an acronym for the “Society to Keep Betty Ford Forever”. In a subsequent email interview, in which Odd Job mostly wrote in riddles, they nonetheless provided some interesting context, claiming that “the images are about the community’s interaction with the memory of Gerald Ford”. The emailer also made some pertinent comments on the art vs. vandalism debate, welcoming the defacement because “really public art belongs to everyone. … I am pleased that someone interacted with it. … It is just part of the conversation. Art is brief; life is long.”

 However, the legitimacy of these claims were called into question when another emailer, signing themselves SKBFF, called Odd Job a fraud and seemingly proved the ownership of the paintings by sending images of the stencils used to create them.

The last of the Ford street paintings appeared in Grand Rapids that September, on the side of the building that was hosting the city’s annual ArtPrize. The image showed Gerald and Betty Ford celebrating his acceptance of the Republican party presidential nomination in 1976. The depiction of Ford’s short-lived success brought a similar reward for the creator, with the painting accepted as an entrant to the competition. On the ArtPrize website, the self-defined Unknown Graffiti Artist titled the work Vandalism and noted: “Recreating iconic images of Gerald Ford in Grand Rapids with stencils and spray paint raises some questions: Does painting popular images legitimize graffiti as an acceptable form of communication within community standards? Is this style of graffiti art or mere decoration?”

This artist’s statement was the last that was heard of the project. Publicly, the creator of the images and the intention behind them is still a mystery. Whether made by a single person or a collective; and whether an elaborate hoax, a guerrilla marketing stunt to mark Ford’s anniversary, or a multi-part conceptual artwork aimed at exploring the fine line between street art, graffiti and vandalism; nonetheless, it shone a light on the ongoing controversy about America’s Cold War record, the rights to commemoration, and the strange tale of perhaps the luckiest president in US history.

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Commemorating Bomber Command

In an unprepossessing corner of London’s Green Park – an oasis of tranquillity squeezed between the busy thoroughfare of Piccadilly and the grandeur of Buckingham Palace – stands an imposing neo-classical stone structure. This is the Bomber Command Memorial, opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012. The memorial took so long to be realised in large part due to the ongoing controversy about the magnitude of Britain’s bombing raids on German cities in the final years of the war, which inflicted widespread devastation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. However, the aircrews also paid a high price: at the centre of the shrine is a large bronze group sculpture, depicting seven of the 55,573 servicepeople who lost their lives fighting in the RAF’s bomber forces in World War II – a staggering death rate of 44% of the entire force. The 9 foot high figures were created by Royal Sculptor, Philip Jackson. The work captures the exhaustion, relief, concern and fortitude of an air crew as they depart a plane, knowing they have once again survived a perilous mission but that their brothers-in-arms may never return.

The memorial has proved popular with Londoners and tourists alike, while making headlines for its endorsement by celebrities including Dame Judi Dench and the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb.

Sculpture by Philip Jackson, within the Bomber Command Memorial, London. Courtesy Royal Parks.

Although the memorial focuses on World War II, Bomber Command didn’t disappear with the Allied victory in 1945, instead being thrust back to the front line in the atomic age. While the United States enjoyed an era of wealth and rampant consumerism in the aftermath of the war, European nations were slow to recover from the damage and loss. Thus, while America rapidly built up its nuclear arsenal and the USSR raced to compete, US allies in Western Europe struggled to develop weapons that might resist the Soviet threat.

Bomber Command Memorial by Philip Jackson.

In 1957, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appealed to US President Eisenhower to loan ballistic missiles to the UK, just as the perceived technological superiority of the Soviet Union sparked the Sputnik Crisis. The Americans agreed, and in 1959 they launched Project Emily, with the deployment of sixty Thor missiles to the UK. While US air force personnel were sent to oversee the weapons, responsibility for both men and machines fell under the control of Bomber Command. With its nuclear armory outsourced to the US, the UK was compelled to support its ally in a number of military forays at this time, and Bomber Command contributed to Cold War escapades in the Middle East and East Asia, and stood ready to serve during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

However, the downing of the U-2 spy plane over Soviet air space in 1960 was a wake-up call to the West. Acknowledging that military technology had dramatically changed in the Cold War, the British came to the realisation that their bomber air fleet would be no match for the Soviets in the new theatres of war. When the moment came to renew Project Emily in 1963, the British government instead opted to return the missiles to the United States, abandoning the idea of nuclear-armed aircraft in favour of submarines. With the dubious honour of safeguarding the country’s nuclear deterrent passed to the Royal Navy, Bomber Command ceased to have a role to play in the Cold War, and the unit was absorbed into the wider RAF in 1968.

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In the Silent Zone: An American Nuke in Mexico

As the Soviets dramatically stepped up their nuclear weapons programme in the 1960s, the US government showed a willingness to take calculated risks with its atomic arsenal in order to maintain arms race superiority over its Cold War adversary. With some of America’s nuclear test sites situated close to the northern and southern borders, concerns were raised in classified documents that missiles could drift into neighbouring countries or even as far as Western Europe, risking an international incident. However, the authorities decided to proceed with the tests, confident that in that scenario, the American public would support them if persuaded the programme was in the interests of national security.

When a Pershing missile crashed just south of the Mexican border on September 1967, the misfire was downplayed and soon forgotten. Then on 11 July 1970, a far more serious overflight occurred. Early that morning, the US Air Force launched a rocket from Green River Launch Complex in Utah, aiming for the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The weapon was what is known as a ‘salted bomb’, armed with a radioactive isotope that was designed to maximise the fallout of hazardous material. The rocket travelled hundreds of miles further than anticipated, eventually landing in the sparsely-populated Mapimi desert in Mexico. Although there are no known victims, the overflight resulted in a long and costly cleanup of contaminated soil, which is chronicled in detail on the Utah government website.


In a recently declassified memorandum, then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, expressed gratitude for the patience of the Mexican government, noting a willingness “to grant clearances and assist in any search efforts”. Perhaps Mexico realised it was nothing personal, considering that by 1970 the United States had almost nuked itself on at least 11 occasions. The few inhabitants of the Mapimi region proved to be equally stoical, taking advantage of a road that was rapidly built into the desert to allow the US Air Force to deal with the fallout. Locals rechristened the decontaminated site the Mapimi Silent Zone, borrowing urban myths from the Bermuda Triangle to reimagine it as a tourist destination. The area still attracts visitors today with tales of strange magnetic forces and extraterrestrial activity.

One recent visitor was American artist Freya Powell. In March 2016, she travelled to the Mapimi Silent Zone to explore its strange history, responding to the theme of ‘silence’ to investigate the concealment of the clean-up operation and subsequent myth-making. The project was commissioned by the New York nonprofit Art in General, and her single-channel video, The Silence of the Unsaid, premiered there in 2017. The work intersperses panoramic views of the site, filmed using drone technology, with excerpts from interviews with locals. Through this juxtaposition, Powell deconstructs the language used to describe the area, teasing out the complex relationship between silence, history and accountability. You can watch an excerpt from the video on Powell’s website.

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Images: Freya Powell, The Silence of the Unsaid, 2017 (still and installation view). Courtesy the artist & Art in General. Photo: Charles Benton.