January 28, 2013

Explosions, Guns, and Diamonds

by Jeremy Ohmes 

A supernova is the astronomical term for an exploding star. The phenomenon occurs when the core of the star collapses, creating a burst of radiation that outshines an entire galaxy and emits more energy than the sun. On a clear, bright day outside of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, there are no supernovae in sight—but Shane Mecklenburger (MFA 2009) is hoping there will be soon. 

The SAIC alumnus would like to present his next project at the planetarium, and he talks in rapid-fire sentences about how he came across the supernova. “Explosions,” he remarks. “I was at SAIC creating work around the image of the gun. Then I saw these simulated supernovae online and there was no question that explosions would be the next subject.”

During his research, he ran across simulations of supernovae on the website for the University of Chicago’s FLASH Center for Computational Science, which works with the university’s Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes to create video simulations of exploding stars. In turn, both departments work with Argonne National Laboratory, whose Intrepid supercomputer (the world’s fastest with 160,000 processors) actually generates the supernova simulation. A supernova happens in less than five seconds, but a simulation takes two million computer-processing hours to re-create. And it’s worth every computational minute. 

In the video simulation an innocuous yellow dot appears in the center of a blue star. Then slowly and beautifully the dot mushrooms into a bulbous mass of nuclear energy, expanding to the surface, blistering out, and eventually enveloping the celestial body in an immense nuclear explosion. 

Mecklenburger was initially attracted to the aesthetic beauty of the simulations. But after talking to Don Lamb, the FLASH Center’s Director and Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, he gained insight into the project’s backstory. 

For the past 15 years, the FLASH Center has been funded by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration. Consequently, two very different groups are interested in the simulations for two very different reasons. 

Scientists, including cosmologists and astrophysicists like Lamb, are hoping the supernova simulations will help solve the riddle of dark energy—the mysterious force that is causing the universe to expand. Concurrently, the DOE is interested in the simulations as they relate to nuclear test data. Simulating a supernova is the same as simulating a nuclear bomb. And, in compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the DOE relies on computer simulations instead of actual detonations. 

Mecklenburger says, “The more I learned, the more I uncovered the inescapable connection between science, technology, war, art, and violence. And I realized we wouldn’t have this effective science if we didn’t have people trying to find more effective ways of killing each other.”

With a penchant for producing works about weapons, systems of value, and the cultural obsession with violence, the artist knew the simulations were his next logical step.

Over the past five years, weapons have been a major motif in Mecklenburger’s work. He repurposes shooter games so that participants do more creating than destroying. His piece, Friendly Fire (2010), looks like a standard gun-firing video game, but as the player fires off more rounds, a cacophony of gunshots volleys back while assault rifles multiply and smear across the screen. There are no winners or losers, only an individualized wash of weaponized art. 

For his graduate thesis work, the artist created a sculpture out of plastic handguns. The result, Semi-Automatic (2009), looks like a Construx toy for Robocop. His video piece, Halcyon Atmosphere (2009), is an animation of snowflakes falling serenely in the night sky. As they appear in the foreground, they reveal themselves as configurations of various pistols—the same models made by gun enthusiasts for the purpose of shooter games.

In his final months at SAIC, Mecklenburger thought about how he could represent a system of value in physical form. He thought about SAIC’s location in Chicago’s Jewelers’ Row, and then he thought about diamonds. The newly minted MFA graduate moved to Texas to teach New Media Art at the University of North Texas (UNT), where he carried out his next project. 

He considered his recent work and his new geography—a state caricatured by Second Amendment–clutching Yosemite Sams. He says, “It seemed natural that the first diamond would be made with gunpowder, which is mostly carbon.” He purchased .223-caliber Remington assault rifle ammunition over the counter (“Nobody carded me or asked me any questions.”), and then he set in motion his first diamond.

He explains, “Anything that contains carbon can be turned into a diamond. But manufacturing a diamond is a process that uses tens of thousands of atmospheres of pressure and temperature over a period of months to fuse the carbon into diamond.” In order to do this, an explosive material like gunpowder needs to be neutralized. So, he called on an organic chemist in UNT’s Chemistry department to collaborate on the process. They extracted the gunpowder from the shell casings, liquefied it, centrifuged it, solidified it, and rendered it non-explosive—“a months-long performance in a chemistry lab,” according to the artist. Then he shipped the gunpowder to a manufacturer who shaped it into a precious stone.

Mecklenburger’s interest in weapon-related work is open-ended in its commentary on the value of guns in US culture, but it is also influenced by his own second-degree encounter with gun violence.

In 1988, a deeply troubled woman walked into Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Illinois and shot six children, killing one eight-year-old boy. Mecklenburger remembers the Hubbard Woods incident well. His mother was there. She had been teaching at the elementary school for 17 years, and on the day of the shooting, she was the acting principal. Since then, there has been a school shooting somewhere in the United States every year, and a cycle— shock, grief, outrage, and the obligatory debate over gun control—that repeats with every new shooting. 

Mecklenburger doesn’t come down on either side of the gun debate. He says, “I think there’s a lot of preaching about gun violence and gun control. And I don’t think ideology is useful for meaningful discussions. It’s a very complicated problem…and I try to keep the presentation of my work as open as possible so people can draw their own conclusions.”

He plans to do the same for the supernova project, calling attention to both the cosmological and nuclear weapon aspects of the work and letting audiences form their own opinions. 

His process is to re-create the re-creations through various media. Working with a visualization expert at the FLASH Center, Mecklenburger has sliced open the simulations to reveal the supernovae’s interior. Currently he is meticulously painting the cross-sections of the simulations by layering acrylic, which he will then cut through to reveal different parts of the explosion. He is also creating a series of videos artworks that will show supernovae in slow motion and the interior of the explosions as they are happening. 

His goal is to present the final piece, titled The End & the Beginning of Everything, at the Adler Planetarium. He says, “I want to help bring a different perspective to the important and complicated work that these scientists are doing. They’re trying to solve problems, and, as an artist, I’m trying to create problems.”

Learn more about Mecklenburger's work