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Art About Forever: 'Holding What Can't Be Held' Grapples With Nuclear Waste at Ming Studios


With a half-life of 24,110 years, plutonium-239 can be dangerous to humans for five times longer than the oldest continuous civilization in the world, China, has been around. It's toxic stuff, but in 2004, someone digging in a disposal trench at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington discovered a glass jug filled with a whitish slurry of it dating back to the Manhattan Project.

Nuclear waste poses problems of time and interpretation, and these just happen to be the themes of Holding What Can't Be Held, a multi-artist exhibition now on display at Ming Studios in Boise.

"I'm trying to create a culture around this substance that's always going to be there," said curator and artist Tim Andreae.

This is the third year Ming has hosted Holding. Initially, the exhibition drew grist from the fact that no photographs are allowed inside the Idaho National Laboratory, forcing (or inviting) artists to rely on memory and medium to convey what they'd seen there. As time passed, Holding became a place where participating artists simply reacted to being near the facility. This year, their ranks include Kate Walker, Shawn Edrington, Kirsten Furlong, Marc Herbst, Caroline Earley, William Lewis, Rachel Reichert, Karl LeClair, Amy O’Brien and Andreae.

On the opening evening of the exhibition on Aug. 9, Andreae began digging into Ming's concrete floor as part of a performance piece entitled "ARP (Advanced Reception Project)." Its message: Radioactive substances too often outlast materials like concrete used to contain them. The people responsible for disposing of the waste from weapons and reactors "approach with this assumption that their barriers are impenetrable."

"Reverse Room," a set of eggshell-thin casts of actual chunks of concrete once used to contain radioactive material, made by artist Shawn Edrington, sets a similar tone. The exact color and texture of poured concrete, these stony hunks have been mounted to walls and pillars across the Ming Studio space. They're all hollow, weigh almost nothing and reflect a misplaced faith in durable things forced to endure a danger that lasts practically forever.

- A "No Nukes" belt buckle from the wall of artifacts from anti-nuclear activists Beatrice Brailsford and Chuck David. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • A "No Nukes" belt buckle from the wall of artifacts from anti-nuclear activists Beatrice Brailsford and Chuck David.
Other parts of the exhibit gaze at the human side of the problem. Scientists first split the atom in the 1940s, and whole lives have been spent protesting the literal and figurative fallout. Two of them are Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance and Chuck David of the Rocky Flats Truth Force, and Holding pays tribute to their decades of anti-nuclear activism with a wall of artifacts, in addition to recorded interviews with each.

Among the items are a sizable belt buckle printed with the words "No Nukes," dozens of bumper stickers, hard hats, satchels, flags, buttons, banners and even a rebreather mask. Brailsford and David will be at Ming Studios for an evening of interviews and conversation called "On the Tracks: A Conversation with Two Anti-nuclear Activists," on Tuesday, Sept. 25, starting at 6 p.m.

The exhibition will run at Ming through Saturday, Sept. 29.