Here’s one way to get a conversation started at your next party: Ask everyone in the room to define the purpose or function of public art. Does public art add beauty? Must it commemorate? Should it speak to the present time or instead say something about the past? Is it necessary that everyone like the art and the concept even before the piece is installed out where we’ll have to deal with it every time we walk or drive by? Should it somehow rattle the cage? Should the money be spent fixing the high school swimming pool instead?
Paul Conrad’s “Chain Reaction” sculpture, a representation of a nuclear mushroom cloud made of intertwined chain links, received less than a warm reception before it was even installed on Santa Monica’s Main Street between the courthouse and the Civic Auditorium. The Los Angeles Times has reported that, initially, visitors to City Hall were allowed to vote with ballots in ballot box upon viewing a scale model of the art work. They voted against it, 730 to 392. Regarding that ‘everyone has to like it’ question: The City Council voted 4 to 3 in favor of the piece in1990, after the Santa Monica Arts Commission had unanimously voted four times to accept Conrad’s work.
You might say that “Chain Reaction” is currently having its Medicare benefits reviewed. The City has installed a temporary fence around the sculpture after concerns that exposure to salt sea air has loosened the fiberglass base that to some extent holds the piece together. There are reports that “teenagers” have been seen attempting to climb the piece, although even Mr. Conrad, if he were here today, might concede how that activity still constitutes a reaction to the sculpture. There will now be evaluations to determine the soundness of the art work’s structure.
That has led some to fear that something might happen to “Chain Reaction,” with the possible need for repairs somehow used as a cloak to quietly move the cloud away from its prominent position. Many feel the sculpture has not only a prominent but a perfect location standing as it does directly across the street from the Rand Corporation, the governmental security analysis ‘think tank’ that has stirred emotions for decades. That Conrad’s nuclear mushroom cloud can be viewed out the windows of offices where research continues on weapons policies and nuclear end games creates the kind of serendipity of location artists creating public art often dream of but seldom achieve.
And in just that singular dimension of where it stands, one has to observe that even if “Chain Reaction” strikes you as a tad overstated or dated (it’s calming to think of nuclear weapons as a thing of the past when they are not), the sculpture is performing an important function. Any family visiting our city and walking past “Chain Reaction” is vulnerable to being asked by a child, “What is that?” Answering that question with any level of completeness might be the most important parent-child exchange of the entire vacation. Dad or Mom could then move on to bonus points by pointing across the street and explaining what it is the Rand Corporation does.
Considering what nuclear weapons are and what they do, it may not be surprising that we tend to avoid thinking and talking about them except as they can be deployed to “kick ass”
in fantasy films and video games. Historically, Americans seem to have a huge mental block or cloud regarding the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Take just the narrow example of “environmental disasters.” Can you recall anyone invoking our bombing of those people and their cities when there is talk of “massive destruction” of ecosystems such as the Gulf of Mexico? We incinerated two entire Japanese cities and their inhabitants, and it wasn’t all that long ago. Yet “coverage” of something like the BP spill is filled with gasping invocations of how the current trauma is “the worst environmental disaster ever” and a tragedy we can’t get our minds around. If nuclear weapons don’t cause environmental disaster, maybe we haven’t yet defined the term.
I’m using this particular bit of evidence of psychological avoidance because it exemplifies how we’ve compartmentalized the soul-shaking horror of nuclear weapons. That we want them out of mind doesn’t mean that I advocate the installation of sculptures like “Chain Reaction” on the main streets of every city in America, although that’s one idea that might just contribute to nuclear disarmament and a better world.
Preserving and maintaining Paul Conrad’s sculpture is vital to our city. Because it truly reflects the character of our residents, who live here drawn by the peaceful beauty of the beaches and skies but maintain the consciousness to remember that the larger world is capable of mind-boggling horror such as the deployment of a nuclear weapon. We have continued to embrace the Rand Corporation for, among other things, its contribution to our city’s tax base. But also because we recognize that even if Rand wasn’t headquartered here evaluating some of the worst that humans can do to other humans, those dimensions of humanity would still exist. “Chain Reaction” must continue to stand as an emblem of our awareness, as a work of art that reminds and reflects, and as a kind of ongoing prayer.