A beautiful day on the atoll. Water lapping at the beach – ships out on the water. Sea birds screeching – a light breeze mussing the palm in the foreground of a black-and-white view of the lazy Pacific. Then the bomb goes off.
It is 25 July 1946. ‘Things happened so fast in the next five seconds that few eyewitnesses could afterwards recall the full scope and sequence of the phenomena’ wrote the physicist WA Shurcliff in the official report of Operation Crossroads – a series of US nuclear bomb tests held less than a year after bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And then it happens again – and goes on happening – time after time in Bruce Conner’s 1976 film Crossroads – recently restored in high definition and now the sole exhibit at Thomas Dane Gallery in London.
We see the explosion from cameras mounted behind lead and concrete shielding on a specially constructed tower on the Bikini atoll. We see it from ships and from drone planes – and from high-altitude cameras. We see it filmed with high-speed cameras – developed by the US Department of Defense – that could shoot up to 8,000 frames a second.
The reason observers at the 1946 Baker test at Bikini atoll had so much trouble recalling and describing what they had witnessed Shurcliff adduced – was the inadequacy of language itself. ‘The explosion phenomena abounded in absolutely unprecedented inventions in solid geometry … No adequate vocabulary existed’ he wrote. The phrase ‘inventions in solid geometry’ sticks – and sounds less like an event – more like a sculpture. How can one adequately review an atomic explosion?