Life & Times
Tony Price - Atomic Art
essay by James Rutherford

     The location of the Los Alamos Laboratory, among some of the richest ancient Native American sites in the world is, in itself, a connection to older and larger myths. One of the most sacred sites of the Tewa people is located adjacent to the site of some of the early Manhattan Project sites that are now off-limits, restricted areas. The Avanu petroglyphs of the plumed serpent “Quetzal” are said to be the guardian of the waters and the Tewa’s most sacred spring. The story of Avanu is that it is the guardian of land and water. If the people do not take care of the land and water, Avanu will turn the water to fire. This juxtapostion of incredible beauty and ancient myths was not lost on original Lab scientist Robert Oppenheimer whose knowledge of mythology inspired many of the original project names (“Trinity” etc.). He was the connection to the mythological world, and his role as this kind of axis mundi is evidenced by the quote from the Bhagavad-Gita he is said to have uttered after the first Atomic Bomb blast at Trinity Site:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor
Of the Mighty One…
I am become Death,
The shatterer of worlds

Patrick Nagatani, Koshare Ritual Clowns
White Sands Missile Range
The eerie quality of the real places of this country’s nuclear programs, provide the perfect backdrop for artist Patrick Nagatani’s visual vignettes. In his series “Nuclear Enchantment”, (Nagatani22) he plays upon the contradictions and ironies of life in America for a Japanese-American family. Commenting on the hostage situation nuclear weapons place us all in he said “The balance of terror has kept the peace for the past thirty-five years…but thirty-five years is just too short a run on which to base our probability judgments, given the unacceptability of even very small probabilities of such a very great horror”. (Nagatani23)
Like Price, he uses humor very effectively to prevent his work from being dismissed as being too
heavy or political, which allows the viewer to ‘think about the work from multiple perspectives’. (Traugott) In his photos, Nagatani ‘assumes the role of high priest who contrives to suggest, through elaborate pictorial miserere, a gradual numbing of awareness to what nuclear power means’.(Janis24)
     “Power, violence, and the consequences of both” (Harper25) are among the themes artist Judy Chicago has dealt with in her work Powerplay (1982–1986). It expresses a belief, shared by Price and others, that no men should "...have a power that no human being should have - the power to destroy the planet. Who could handle the burden of that much responsibility?. . . it would drive one mad, literally powermad. Some men are victims of that - they can't help themselves, can't stop”. (Chicago26)

Judy Chicago, Driving the World to Destruction
Echoing this theme of ultimate power, scientist - turned anti-nuclear activist Ed Grothus said: “the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that no one should have the power to destroy a million people in a micro-second. There isn’t any reason sufficient to do that kind of thing. Anything that makes people more aware I think is good”. (Grothus27) Price also felt that scientists who create nuclear weapons have become ‘so caught up in what they were doing, they seemed to forget about the consequences. The scientists did not police themselves’. (Price28)
     Artist / collaborators Woody and Steina Vasulka first met Tony in the early 1980’s while working on a project with artist Brad Smith. “We had been here just four or five months and Woody turns to (Smith) and says ‘We find you such a remarkable artist, is there anybody else like you in this region?’ He said ‘yes, there’s one, hop into the car’ and we drove to Tony’s” recalled Steina. This meeting was to be the beginning of a long, interconnected relationship.

Woody Vasulka, The Brotherhood project
They too were regulars at the salvage sales in Los Alamos. “Over the years I collected similar stuff for slightly different purposes but in fact it was very much related. Eventually it became a cyclos of work called ‘The Brotherhood’ that’s basically a dialogue with war, with a kind of brotherhood of man and construction of the war weaponry. All the sinister parts of extended computer machinery. So that was a united kind of motif. Of course most of what we were around was in some way associated with technology and technology of death. In this work he would approach the subject from a male point of view:
You have to admit that we men are involved with the war machine so intimately that with this love we also have to add that dislike and rejection to it – but added “Once it becomes quality art, it looses its gender” (Woody Vasulka) Nuclear history is an important theme of his project “Art of Memory”. This multi-media work is “in a way dedicated to the Atomic era. It is kind of a recapitulation of the first time I looked back at history, because I was always looking forward to the future” (Woody Vasulka) Although the Vasulkas did not use the nuclear materials in exactly the way Price did, the two shared an appreciation for Tony and his decision to work with them. “To me, Tony was first and foremost the artist and the craftsman. And the material, just like in our art and our colleague’s art, we have always been in close dialogue with the material. And we succumb to the material. Of course the way (Tony) saw it was atomic and so therefore he had to converse with that. And most people were taken aback by that but not me personally. I was taken aback by the craftsmanship and the vision. (Steina Vasulka) “There is this mystery of the other mythical world which was just communicating with him through these artifacts had something to do with his inner aesthetics. (Woody Vasulka)

Tony Price - Atomic Art
essay by James Rutherford