Memory content is a function of the rate of forgetting.
--Norman E. Spear
It might have been the black-and-white, paint-by-numbers picture of the atom bomb he painted. Or maybe it was his white cotton pajamas, patterned with atomic symbols and a skeleton/man, reminiscent of the canonical figure that appears in medical books and scientific illustrations, that unsettled me so. Perhaps it was the re-jigged Erector set, melancholic comic books, and ominous "Road Runner" cartoon playing repeatedly on the television set that caused my insides to knot up just a little bit more. Then there are the black bed sheets, the monochromatic quilt, and steely metal furniture-everything shades of black, white, and gray, all colorless and lifeless. Pondering these eerie things, I felt sad, confused, and disturbed. What kind of child's room is this? And yet, somehow all of my anxiety was counterbalanced by the homespun objects that occupy the space. They were so lovingly made, and re-made, by a set of hands capable of injecting vitality and emotion-humor, empathy, anger, and love, among many others-into the most empty and disheartening of arenas: a ten year-old boy's bedroom filled with apocalyptic emblems of gloom and doom.
Erika Wanenmacher is adept at creating art that has something to say, and The Science Club is no exception. A provocative storyteller whose subject matter is neither simple nor easily digestible, Wanenmacher presents thoughtful and unflinching considerations of the implications that science, technology, history, and capitalism-or notions of "progress"-have on people. Wanenmacher has written articulately about the origins of "The Science Club" and the effects that the discovery of human radiation experiments first begun in the 1940s had on the development of the project, so I won't attempt to paraphrase it here. What interests me is how this work, despite its specific historical references, is part of a larger discourse about a crisis of humanity that stems from our own hubris and disrespect for forces and ideas larger than ourselves. What implications do technological and biological self-interests have on humankind?
After entering "The Science Club", you might find yourself experiencing a kind of limbo-a space in the between, so to speak-where you're not exactly sure where you are despite the familiarity of things around you. How can a child's room feel so normal yet so disturbing, even alien, at the same time? Indeed, the uneasy feelings elicited by the ambiguity of "The Boy's Room" derive from a sense of placelessness created by Wanenmacher. Equal parts experimental laboratory, institutional dormitory, and theatrical stage set, the installation is an assemblage of parts in which elements of the past mingle with the present, fact blends with fiction, and the explicable verges on the fantastic. By re-purposing found objects and re-contextualizing them into a hybrid environment, Wanemacher endows these once forgotten artifacts mined from Ed Grothus's "Black Hole" in Los Alamos, New Mexico with a new voice. One that speaks vehemently of buried memories, historical half-truths, and human complacency toward the egregious actions of its own government that were carried out in the name of science against the young, the defenseless, and the innocent.
"The Boy's Room" is more than just a virtual tableau filled with appropriated artifacts; it is a vehicle for the engagement and active participation of viewers. By entering the room, Wanenmacher positions us unwittingly within the discourse of our shared atomic legacy. We are no longer merely passive spectators or even voyeurs; rather, we are cast as smug bystanders, implicated in crimes committed against humanity. What kind of parent would let their child live like this?
It is perhaps unsurprising if you leave the boy's room thinking more about the present than about the past. Wanenmacher's installation draws attention to the more recent deplorable actions of the U.S. government against its own citizens, ranging from its indifference to the plight of New Orleanians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to the slow erosion of civil rights in the name of homeland security. Amidst all the bleakness, it'd be easy to view Wanenmacher as a pessimist, yet "The Boy's Room" is filled with a maternal touch, one that seeks to protect, heal, and care. The Science Club is as much about redeeming humanity through spiritual invocation and the conjuring of positive forces than it is about the prevalence of historical and cultural amnesia. Much is here to be done, and we're just getting started, so call forth the higher powers......we're gonna need 'em.
Liza Statton is a friend of the artist and a curator of contemporary art based in New Haven, Connecticut