Learning to love the bomb

Damien uses corpses. This artist prefers nukes.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
FROM COLONIC videos to cold doner kebabs, late twentieth-century sculpture takes its materials from all sources. But if we thought there were no stones left unturned, James L Acord is here to prove us wrong. For this American artist is dedicated to working with nuclear materials: technetium, uranium, plutonium. "Sculpture has always used technology of the time, be it stone, iron or bronze," says Acord. "Now we're in the age of nuclear technology, it is entirely appropriate that we use nuclear materials." Acord is due to talk on his radioactive art projects for the first time in this country at the Eye of the Storm conference on 19 and 20 February, an art-meets-science conference chaired by Melvyn Bragg and Professor Susan Greenfield. It is unlikely that he will bring any work with him, customs regulations being what they are, but he will argue forcefully for an art that addresses - and uses the products of - the nuclear age.

In 1980, Acord was a sculptor in Vermont, with a sideline as a stone carver of buildings and tombstones. Working with the local granite, he became fixated with its radioactive properties and set about trying to make sculpture that contained an invisible, protected piece of isolated uranium, "like a medieval reliquary contains a hidden object of veneration". This obsessed him. "It ran away with itself," he says. "I was fired up by this notion that art and science were different ways to the same Godhead." Alas, he was unable to isolate the uranium in the granite, and failed in an attempt to score spent fuel from nuclear power plants.

Undettered, he began to collect Fiesta ware, ceramic crockery made in the US between the Thirties and Fifties which contained uranium in its orange glaze (Warhol was a collector), in order to isolate the hard stuff. Fellow artists were appalled. "I got an awful lot of flak for it, " he says. "People in the arts tend to be liberal and anti-nuclear and they not only felt it was dangerous but gave credibility to the nuclear industry."

Now resident in Richland, a small nuclear industry town in Columbia, he still gets little sympathy. And once in the "nuclear system", he has to live by the rules: searches, evacuations, constant surveillance. Bizarrely, Siemens in Germany, feeling that this maverick could make the nuclear industry more cuddly, have supplied him with several plutonium fuel rods. Acord had to get a special licence, an honour so rare and meaningful that he has the number tattooed on his neck. Unfortunately, the rods are a high-maintenance albatross, and Acord is skint. His work is not exactly a money-spinner. "People think what I'm doing is way cool, but they are afraid to touch it."

Acord has special procedures to limit damage: undressing routines, special washing machines, Geiger counters and iodine checkers. Even so, he estimates that he has taken at least five years off his life. "You have to accept that sculpture is a dirty business," he says, breezily. "Even with bronze you are working with heavy material that might affect your health."

Still, he remains largely in favour of nuclear power. "I have to say that the logic and durability of nuclear power is without question. But I don't like the way it has been managed: by the most inept people imaginable." Uh-oh. Even if he never makes art from his plutonium, Acord has at least given us a new and disturbing take on the nuclear future.