Optical perception does not coincide with what you see – this apparently obvious fact is a source of dilemma and curiosity that has been engendering humanity’s age-old activities, from philosophy to science. Between optical sensation and image formation, eyes as a biological material and looking as social phenomenon, between zoe and bios, human beings incessantly endeavor to make things intelligible and tangible, around which the scientific method of measuring and the symbolic method of visual and literary narrating have revolved. This space of observation and narration, since the modern era that gave birth to various technologies concerning life, has particularly drawn attention as an issue of art and science, society and technology, or, I would rather rephrase it as the relation between curiosity and violence, between observation and destruction. As we crack open rocks in order to analyse the minerals, dissect bodies to study organs, destruction and alteration are the essential parts of observation of the invisible world. We cannot observe and describe invisible things without altering them. We might describe this alteration as violence, or maybe representation.
Radioactivity is one of the most intangible phenomena on earth, and the issue of nuclear energy takes us straight to the heart of the long-lasting question; what does it mean to make the world intelligible beyond our perceptual and cognitive constraint? How do we manage to imagine and give credibility to the world that transcends our own intelligibility? There is a sheer disconnection between the tangible world oriented by our sensory organs and the phenomenon of radioactivity. We cannot see, hear, smell and touch it, what we detect is merely an outcome or effect of radiation. Radioactivity goes far beyond our perception; the human body is not able to sense any hint of its existence at first hand, yet certainly it does great harm to us. This fact leaves us with a sense of mystery about this phenomenon that causes violence simultaneously symbolic and physical. As The Large Hadron Collider indicates, the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, in order to recognise and observe the nuclear activity, we need to collide particles and capture the moment of explosion. Nuclear energy is one of the most radical examples of the process of observation that incorporates destruction, and one of the most violent and unintelligible phenomenon that requires not only a scientific method of measuring, but also a symbolic and metaphorical representation and narration. Then, what is the significance of eyes and looking in the discussion of intangible radioactivity as an artistic and philosophical issue if any?
In this paper, I will examine several artistic approaches to nuclear power, exploring the relation between art and science, both of which work out a medium of giving intelligibility to the unknown. I will discuss several artists from postwar Japanese context, whose works refer to the atomic bomb catastrophe, Fukushima or post-3.11 Japanese society, and wrap it up with an American artist James Acord who works with radioactive materials for his sculptural piece.