Nuclear Bombs as Art: A Stunning Exhibition About the (Physical) Powers That Be

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To view more images from the Energy Effects exhibition, check out our slideshow .

Across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver in a normally dusty parking lot, there's a car suspended vertically on its nose in a glorified puddle, tail shooting high into the air. For a moment, it seems to defy science. Where's the respect for the law of gravity?

But the longer you stare, the more you're struck by the engineering feat it represents. The piece becomes a paean to technology rather than a refutation of its power.

The installation, a recreation of a photograph by Gonzalo Lebrija Entre la vida y la muerte, is the stunning appetizer for the museum's technically ambitious and entirely successful new exhibition, Energy Effects: Art and Artifacts From the Landscape of Glorious Excess .

The show draws its impact both from the kinds of objects in it -- a Saturn IV rocket engine, a particle accelerator, an intricate miniature video installation -- and from the observation, embedded in the idea of the show itself, that museums need excess energy. Without more than enough energy to go around, it would be very difficult to maintain cultural institutions devoted to exploring the aesthetic life. While we might implore our countrymen to be more sustainable, every single American is swimming in a vast ocean of consumption, far beyond the levels even imaginable before the middle of the 20 th century. And antimodernists aside, we're better off for it.

Shaped by the MCA's imaginative head Adam Lerner, the exhibition is playfully oblique, pairing a monster image of the Large Hadron Collider atom smasher with furiously kinetic photos from mosh pits. The third object in that room is a crazy filmmaking machine, which is suspended on the wall next to a large LCD screen. It makes a movie called "Cliff Hanger" over and over, using smart software and a tiny miniature house. The house has no windows, so you can't see in. It resonates with the idea of the LHC, which at its heart is a massive three-dimensional camera. We can only know both the subatomic world and the narrative world of Cliff Hanger through our technology and our screens.

The whole show is fun and transgressive, unlike nearly every other project I've seen about energy or science. It doesn't directly confront the dire issues like fossil fuel addiction, atmospheric carbon loading, or collateral environmental damage embedded in our energy systems. Instead, it works at a level deeper, trying to expose and change the underlying ideas that shape the way we think about energy. The artists in the show toy with themes of scale and scientific progress, the value of mobility, epistemology, and different definitions of power: mathematical, physical, aesthetic. Most importantly, the objects in the show are gorgeous, both those found and those made.

Energy Effects will remain up at MCA through September. Here, we present a slideshow of pieces from the show .

[Full disclosure: I am giving a talk at the Denver MCA in August about compressed air, which is how I found my way to the museum for this show.]

Image: Alexis Madrigal/The Atlantic.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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