September 25, 2020 – February 27, 2021
One-hundred and seventy miles west of Cedar City, the U.S. Government tested more than 1,000 nuclear weapons. Between 1951 and 1962, 100 of these tests were conducted above ground. In the push to develop a nuclear arsenal in the early years of the Cold War, the Nevada Test Site was chosen by the Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.) for its presumed remoteness, which has often read as a willful disregard for the relatively small populations that did exist in the “virtually uninhabited” regions surrounding the site. Scores of people living in southern Utah, including Cedar City, suffered the often unseen and unacknowledged but gruesome consequences from radioactive fallout.
If we peel back a layer we find the material that comprised the bombs, mined in the same region the fallout was raining down.
One-hundred and seventy miles east of Cedar City are more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines in and around Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation left in the wake of the uranium program sponsored by the U.S. Government as part of this same domestic weapons development enterprise. The A.E.C. was encouraging uranium mining throughout the southwest, attracting everyone from locals, in desperate need of employment, to wealthy east coast prospectors. But it was the people living in southern Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and especially the Navajo Nation who were saddled with the legacy of radioactive contamination left behind by this boom. This history—which is really still the present as contaminated water, radiation-induced illness and nuclear waste storage and spills today continue to compound the impact of uranium in the region—is even further hidden from view. Monument Valley and the picturesque deserts of the region as a whole largely exist in the eyes of the world as the backdrop for John Ford’s westerns and the psychic embodiment of the rugged American frontiersman.
One more layer.
The monumental front man of these iconic pictures, John Wayne, was being cultivated as a cultural symbol of patriotism at the same time the A.E.C. was appealing to a similar sense of civic duty and national pride to collectively pitch in to this grand effort to be prepared for war. Just as there was no indication of what realities existed beyond the fourth wall of the cinematic setting, neither was there unequivocal information, warnings, or intentional protection from the harms that could befall downwinders and miners given. The taste for post-war romantic nostalgia for a bygone frontier era that was imaginary to begin with lingered longer than the poisonous truth, although in the end the fact met the fiction. Shortly after the Operation Upshot-Knothole series of tests, among the most devastating to southern Utah communities, Howard Hughes’ film The Conqueror was shot in Snow Canyon, Utah. Nearly a third of the cast and crew ultimately developed, and many died from cancer, including John Wayne.
This exhibition is dedicated to those downstream and downwind in an effort to peel back the foreground so that we might see the background more clearly.
About the Artist
Cara Despain is an artist working in film and video, sculpture, photography and installation addressing issues of land use, the desert, climate change, visualizing the Anthropocene, land ownership and the problematics of frontierism. Writing and research play a major role in all of her creative work, and which often includes extensive field work. She was born in Salt Lake City, Utah (1983) and currently lives in Miami, Florida and works between the two. She holds a BFA from the University of Utah (2006). In 2012, she received the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Award in visual arts, and in 2016 she was selected for the South Florida Consortium Fellowship. Her work is included in Rubell Family Collection, as well as the State of Utah and Salt Lake County art collections. Her film credits include Art Director for the feature film The Strongest Man that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (2015), and A Name Without a Place which premiered at the Miami International Film Festival (2019). She was recently selected for a Ellie’s Award through Oolite Arts to write and produce her own feature film Earthbound Objects, and this year will complete a public art commission for the Underline with Miami-Dade County.