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Atomic Billboards

In the early 1950s in Yucca Flats, Nevada, the Federal Civil Defense Administration built a small neighborhood of standard colonial houses, peopled them with mannequins and then blew them up with atomic bombs. Pictures of the houses midblast show them bending, folding inward and collapsing in a blur of wind and a flurry of fragments. Fifty-two years later, the L.A.-based public art organization Clockshop invited artists to respond to these images with an artwork suitable for display on a billboard. The result is a four-part series called “Test Site,” in progress above the Miracle Mile’s 6150 Wilshire Boulevard complex.

“I chose the Yucca Flats images because I think they are beautiful and horrifying,” says Julia Meltzer, founder and director of Clockshop. “I am also compelled by the idea of building a model city only to destroy it. The contradiction that is manifest in the production and very existence of these photos resonates, for me, with the current state of affairs in the world.”

Artist Mary Lum, currently living in Paris, responded to the Yucca Flats image with This is only a test, which shows two collaged cartoon characters on either side of a mushroom cloud. One says, “This is only a test,” while the other announces, “A remarkable success story!”

“The characters come from comic books that I bought in France,” explains Lum. “If you look very closely, there’s the foot of the Pink Panther on one character and half of the head of Tweety Bird on another. In part, I was referencing Los Angeles through [the studios], but I was also referring back to the ’50s, when atomic energy was becoming prevalent. Companies like GE published comics and books like Our Friend the Atom as a way to educate the public about the so-called safety of atomic energy.”

Lum’s two hybrid characters are eerie amalgams of cartoon body parts, suggesting the nefarious impact of the tests. Explaining the text, Lum notes that, in October 2004, ?Dick Cheney called the war in Iraq “a remarkable success story.” She says, “I hope the viewer makes some kind of connection between the disaster of the test site and ?what’s happening now.”

French artist Michael Blum created Suburbia without borders, a billboard showing an imaginary subway map with stops like “Hiroshima Greens” and “Saigon Meadows.”

“It looks like an upcoming development,” says Blum. “There is no public transportation in Los Angeles — or it’s totally dysfunctional — so the piece is clearly in line with a view that includes irony in response to political issues.” He adds, “Usually I do projects that are more complex, but with billboards, you can’t be subtle, or you can be subtle, but it has to be on the level of implication.”

Los Angeles artist Allan de Souza’s response, titled All for freedom and for pleasure/Nothing ever lasts forever, takes off from the lyrics from a Tears for Fears song and shows a glowing golden city with text in the background that says either “Take Over” or “Take Cover,” depending on how you decipher the shadowy letters. The piece by Providence-based artist Lisa Young depicts the desert landscape after the atomic tests juxtaposed with an image showing papers floating down from the sky. Together, the photos suggest the desolate aftermath of destruction, and again unite past deception and national hubris with their contemporary counterparts.

“I’m just looking for a way to punch through,” says Meltzer of her desire to create moments of reflection in the midst of public space inundated with corporate imagery. While the project in its entirety may remain invisible to people passing the billboard on the street, the images nevertheless resonate, if only in the fact that they’re not selling you anything. And further contemplation yields a fruitful, conceptual connection between past and present, one that definitely merits further thought.

Mary Lum’s This is only a test will be on display until Wednesday, February 8, whereupon Allan de Souza’s All for freedom . . . will be installed; reception Sat., Feb. 11, 6-8 p.m. For more information, or to see Michael Blum’s and Lisa Young’s billboards, go to www.clockshop.org.

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