PRINT March 1993


NICK WAPLINGTON’S PHOTOGRAPHS OF far more interesting than statistics, and far less forgettable. The images play with association, memory, horror, and (very) black humor. The artist himself willingly stands in for the human form, but the pictures are not portraiture in any sense. Waplington’s body functions instead as superimposed ghost or conscience, witness or fantasy. When we first see half a giant’s domed forehead and one gigantic, contemplative eye, the skeletal tower alongside seems quite delicate—it could be a gawky metal bird traversing some imaginary landscape, or a listening device, or a small-eyed robot gazing directly at a warm globe of human skull. In context, that construction of steel ribs becomes a slender foreshadowing. Later, as Waplington’s cropped form shimmers beside a bank of rusted loudspeakers, he appears caught in the act of manifesting or disintegrating, a bald and naked Trekkie visiting the long-deserted catastrophe of some backward planet. But the catastrophe is all too local and timely: the talking head floating on her disembodied screen in another image is all too contemporary. We don’t wonder at her dubious expression, menaced as she is by a descending battalion of silver phalluses we recognize as fuel rods. Then again, she is only a video image. It is that shell-shocked, unfocused androgyne we must actually worry about. By now we recognize the face in the scream photograph; here, there is no lack of focus, and the sound of the scream comes across as chain-link echo, endless and inescapable.

In fact, the artist knows what he’s screaming about. Nick Waplington was a nuclear baby. His father supported the family by working in the nuclear industry, first devising a mechanical grip with which to move fuel rods in and out of the core of a working reactor, then as a designer in the startup of various nuclear power plants in Europe. We pick up the son’s ambivalence and suspicion, and his familiarity. The inverted head, the flimsy lock, the rusty iron gate. He is locked out, as are we all, but those gates prohibiting trespass are disconcertingly ill kept. Nobody really wants in, and the gates seem far too decrepit to prevent an escape or restrain a danger. The face keeping vigil here is more communicative, more vulnerable, than any other visage in the collection, but the human form dematerializes utterly in the next image. The witnessing artist is present only as an amoebic white cloud in the presence of the glowing container labeled “L2,” which nearly levitates in Waplington’s construction. These “transit flasks” are used to ship the most toxic level of nuclear waste from country to country. Britain, for example, buys nuclear waste from Japan and Canada, processes it for reuse, then sells it abroad. These“gross laden weights” containing (no more than) 51 tonnes of radioactive detritus are constantly crossing the world’s shipping lanes in the holds of seafaring vessels.

Maybe it is those oceans, inverted as well, turned inside out, hovering limpid and bruised above the reactor and cooling towers in Waplington’s version of a nuclear moonscape. But no, that layered, aquatic blue is the sky, seemingly held aloft by power lines, and it is the sea we glimpse far off, between the towers. Waplington photographed a number of nuclear plants, among them Hartlepool, located on the northeast coast near Newcastle-on Tyne, and the renamed Sellafield, in Cumbria, edging the beautiful Lake District. Sellafield, once known more poetically as Windscale, does leak radioactive waste into the Irish Sea, and has acknowledged (accidental, one supposes) emissions of radioactivity into the atmosphere. Antinuclear activists have long charged that children in the region have several times the average incidence of leukemia, and that inflated rates of cancer and other illnesses in adults are due to proximity to Sellafield. We may view Waplington’s hairless emerging form and luminous throat as an echo of certain harmless Japanese movies, those campy celluloid treasures in which creaky Godzillas surface against coastal backdrops and miniature buildings. But the parents of those sick children near Sellafield would have other associations. Waplington has said he shaves his head for photographs to avoid dating the images, to give them a “timeless” feeling, but in these pictures the baldness of a young, seemingly healthy man connotes vulnerability, otherworldliness, a spotlit void specific to technological societies. Words born of the nuclear age come to mind, words like “radioactive,” “chemotherapy,” and “half-life.”

As veterans of the benefits and dangers of nuclear energy, we might all consider ourselves participants in a cultural near-death experience. Waplington’s light tunnel image, in which a human face gazes upward into a barrage of trailing lights, might be an artist’s representation of what’s commonly referred to as an NDE. According to numerous accounts, human consciousness supposedly hurtles through a similar tunnel at the moment of death, drawn by beckoning light and a sense of unconditional love. But Waplington’s picture is actually a study of public relations. In Sellafield’s visitor’s center, the fortunate consumer of cheap, clean electric power is invited into a mock nuclear reactor. Safely ensconced within, he or she can experience a mock nuclear reactor’s mock reaction. The lights and mirrors are meant to represent the explosion of atoms: a visual image of what goes on within the silver dome of the reactor itself. In another picture, the dome in question rises behind scrub brush like an observer from another galaxy. Here the nearly abstract colors and mass of Waplington’s face lose definition, change form, hint at other meanings. But there is no mistaking the barren ground in his landscape portrait of a nuclear site. That’s an arm, a hand squeezing a bulb, a working power plant. Yet those smoking cylinders might be about to detonate; there is something of the mad scientist in the clutch of the hand, and something of the pathetic lunacy of 1950s “be prepared” precautions in Waplington’s “ear protectors” picture. The “hear no evil” approach has shown itself to be rather disastrously faulty. Still, too few of us seem willing to appreciably scale back our need for power that is cheap in the short term. Long term, the bill mounts. Perhaps it is Waplington’s intention that we begin to understand exactly how naked we are.

Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Black Tickets_, Machine Dreams, and Fast Lanes, is completing a new novel_.