Art installation reflects on world’s first chain reaction

Programming throughout fall reflects on 75th anniversary of historic experiment

The University of Chicago is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction with a series of events across many diverse fields this fall. The arts in particular provide a unique perspective to examine the meaning of the scientific achievement and its complex legacy—most notably at the site where history was made on Dec. 2, 1942.

Henry Moore’s sculpture Nuclear Energy was installed in 1967 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the nuclear reaction. The 12-foot tall bronze sculpture, which resembles a human skull or mushroom cloud, encapsulates both the hopes and the fears of atomic energy. To honor the sculpture’s 50th anniversary, San Francisco-based Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects installed a temporary commemorative piece called Nuclear Thresholds—hundreds of 75-five-foot-long cords of thick black rubber based on computational modeling of unstable processes.

“Public art at the University is meant to challenge and spark conversation, and we are thrilled to be able to host temporary art installations like Nuclear Thresholds, which add dynamic new dimensions to our permanent works,” said Alison Gass, the Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum of Art.  

In Nuclear Thresholds, what begins on one end as a well-formed bench eventually loses form, resulting in a mix of tangled and twisted loose ends. The cords represent the tightly packed pile of graphite used in the original experiment, but also speaks to the deeper repercussions of the test.   

“There are many different ways to begin thinking about the installation, and hopefully visitors will pick up some reference that interests them and pulls them into deeper contemplation,” said OPA architects Luke Ogrydziak and Zoe Prillinger. “It is something of a puzzle, and is intended to provoke questioning some of the assumptions we have about the physical world and our role within it.”

The first chain reaction was achieved at UChicago in the midst of World War II. A number of the world’s leading physicists, including Enrico Fermi and Arthur Holly Compton, came together for the top-secret experiment as part of the Manhattan Project. Their historic discovery under the bleachers at the University’s Stagg Field ushered in the Atomic Age.

In addition to Nuclear Thresholds, UChicago Arts, in partnership with the Department of Art History, Department of Cinema and Media Studies, Department of Music, Committee on Creative Writing, Department of Visual Arts, Arts, Science & Culture, and the Gray Center, will be hosting a series of additional projects, including exhibitions in Eckhardt Research Center lobby and the Neubauer Collegium Gallery, musical performances, and a lecture series entitled “The Arts in the Nuclear Age,” which will culminate in a series of performances and talks on Dec. 2.

Prof. Christine Mehring, chair of the Department of Art History and the College, is helping lead the lecture series, and said that the arts will help give shape to the monumental impact of the discovery that occurred 75 years ago.

“As the only artistic manifestation on campus of UChicago’s role in launching and shaping the nuclear age, Nuclear Energy will be the focus of one or more of these lectures, but its peculiar singularity has prompted colleagues in the arts to investigate more broadly, beyond the visual arts, how the nuclear age has shaped and is being shaped by artistic practices,” Mehring said.

Click here for a full listing of arts-related Nuclear Reactions events.