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After Hiroshima: Cultural Responses to the Atomic Bomb
Ruby de Vos

On August 6 1945, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This was followed by an intensification of the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union, and led to 2,000 nuclear tests all over the world. The constant threat of nuclear war resulted in build-your-own-bunker kits, duck and cover exercises in classrooms, and also in massive protests against nuclear weapons, violence, and war.

The deep impact that the atomic bomb has made on our world can be seen in the enormous diversity of cultural responses to it. After Hiroshima: Cultural Responses to the Atomic Bomb offers an impression of this work during a week filled with art, film screenings, lectures, and performances from local and international artists and makers. 

The issue of nuclear weapons is now urgent once again. There have been recent nuclear tests in Russia and North Korea, and several countries have decided to withdraw from nuclear treaties that stemmed from the Cold War. This renewed relevance can also be seen in the new work that will be presented during After Hiroshima, much of which is  made by young artists. In addition, however, art and culture can also direct our attention to the stories about nuclear weapons we do not hear that often, and which go beyond that which is covered in the news. One could think here, for example, of the long-lasting effects of radiation on bodies and the environment, of the traumas of those involved in the testing of atomic bombs, or of the significant impact of the heavy protests against nuclear weapons. 

Nuclear weapons are simultaneously dizzyingly abstract and terrifyingly concrete, both an impending threat and a devastating reality. Broadly, one could say that artists respond to either one of these themes (although they partially overlap). In works from that first category, artists explore the tension as well as the absurdity of the arms race during the Cold War, and the fear that this engendered. What would happen in the case of a nuclear war, and what would that look like? Contemporary works explore these questions often through a new lens, with attention to ecological problems and their entanglement with the increased global tension around nuclear weapons. 

In the second group we find not only the many literary and visual works made in response to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also those responding to nuclear tests. These were conducted in (former) colonies and near the land of indigenous peoples. These events have received little attention, just like the stories about the heavy and dangerous work done in the uranium mines, which supplied the necessary material for the building of nuclear weapons. Still, these histories have left deep traces. Artists, authors, and scholars are now increasingly working to make these histories of marginalised people and colonised land visible.

Cultural responses to the atomic bomb come from all over the world, and include many different stories – including from the Netherlands, and from Groningen specifically. The biggest ever protest in the Netherlands was against the storing of nuclear weapons in the country. The municipality of Groningen even went so far as to commission an anti-nuclear weapons monument, located on Emmaplein. 

After Hiroshima shows a selection of the enormous variety of works available on this topic, and also creates space within the program for visitors to come and share their own histories, stories, and experiences. Nuclear weapons aren’t just something of the past; they are inescapably entangled with today’s world.

Ruby de Vos is a PhD Candidate at the University of Groningen, where she is writing her dissertation on toxicity in contemporary art and literature.