Objets Nucléares: The Art of Abbey Hepner

Printed by ABQ Free Press: April 20, 2016

Stepping into CFA Downtown Studio (113 Fourth St. NW) right now feels a lot like entering an indoor winter. From the walls to the artwork glowing in patches of cool light, everything is white.

But this is no Narnia of harmless snow — Abbey Hepner’s exhibition “Evocative Objects” challenges the viewer to explore a nuclear winter of toxicity and ethical dilemmas.

Hepner is no stranger to statements about atomic energy. This time around, there’s no elevated radiation to alarm visitors, but the work threatens in its own ways.

Next to the entrance, a pair of chairs resemble a visitors’ lounge. In fact, it’s a bare bones laboratory: the seats face an old shock machine, and white lab coats hang nearby.

A nearby placard describes Stanley Milgram’s infamous 1963 study wherein participants were instructed to deliver increasingly powerful electrical shocks to an innocent man. Rather than refuse, “65 percent continued shocking the subject to a lethal 450 volts,” Hepner writes.

In Milgram’s study, no one was actually hurt. the victim was an actor and the shocks were fake. But this experiment is cited as an example of how otherwise ethical people submit to authority, allowing themselves to become progressively more complicit rather than resist.

A pair of photos opposite suggests the reference’s contemporary significant. In a color shot, nuclear workers at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga., seem as distressed as the black-and-white subjects of Milgram’s study did 50 years prior.

Are employees of today’s toxic nuclear sector complicit simply by showing up to work? Who’s to blame, “authorities” or the many low-level participants who follow their lead? In any case, it’s clear who’s affected: everyone.

In her artist talk, Hepner explained that working near power plants in Japan and Germany and contaminated sites across the United States has strengthened her stance against nuclear energy. In an age where no solid solution for safe, long-term storage of radioactive waste exists, yet power companies continue to build more plants, Hepner believers “we are all subject to nuclear tests.”

If this knowledge, coupled with implications of the Milgram study, finds you despairing over your powerlessness, venture further into the gallery to find a wall of snow globes willed with tiny human figures. The shelves are marked with “Handle With Care” stickers, but no one’s around to enforce that.

Standing before this collection, you are the deity, capable of taking the world in your hands and giving it a good shake. Waste barrels tumble like Tic Tacs around workers in hazmat suits. A toy oil well is caught in a storm of black debris while snowy powder buries a nuclear plant the next globe over.

The imagery is disturbing, but at least you’re in control. Step away, and you’re back to being a tiny human trapped on a solitary globe with limited resources. Don’t accept Hepner’s interpretation just because she’s an authority figure. Contemplate these questions and the exhibit yourself.

“Evocative Objects” remains on display only through Friday, April 22. CFA Downtown is open Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., or call 221–8037 for a Thursday appointment.