Birmingham Art School Masters graduate Lily Wales is one of 28 selected artists exhibiting across the region as part of the sixth edition of New Art West Midlands. Much of Wales’ work addresses the visual language and childish rhetoric associated with nuclear weaponry. Her piece, Radioactive Rhonda, recreated and on display at AirSpace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, until 31 March, seeks to mock the U.S. government’s atomic bomb history and its civil defence campaigns through a giant sphere pasted with a plethora of brash imagery. In these photomontages, Wales renders visible the grotesque characters of former a-bombs, Atomic Annie and Mr Plumbob, in a bid to question the ways in which language and aesthetics can dislocate public perceptions of nuclear warfare.
Selina Oakes: Your work explores the language associated with nuclear weaponry, particularly the childish nicknames given to atomic bombs by the U.S. government. What first drew you to work with this subject matter?
Lily Wales: I’m a huge fan of the theorist Marshall McLuhan and I read his work frequently to drum up thought. As a starting point, I followed his notions of electricity being an extension of the nervous system and guns as an extension of the eye and teeth. In his books, which are typographically stunning, he goes on to talk about technology causing an amputation of the self. When thinking about the most extreme version of this self-annihilation, nuclear warfare naturally became an obvious choice. Once I started digging around it didn’t take long to find the bizarre usage of language, which felt like a joke and had me completely fascinated as I’ve always been drawn to humour within my practice.
SO: Atomic Annie, Mr Plumbob, Romeo, Smokey and George are all names of a-bombs from the mid-late 20th century. What makes Radioactive Rhonda relevant to today’s society?
LW: Rhonda’s relevance lies in her social reality: this year the Doomsday Clock was moved from two and a half minutes to midnight to two, amidst recent nuclear risk. I recently watched the 1984 documentary style film Threads, which follows nuclear holocaust with a focus on Sheffield as a city hit by the atomic bomb. It’s a startling contrast to the U.S. civil defence videos that managed to anaesthetise the public’s perception of such weapons. Despite an awareness of the mushroom cloud footage being archived material I’d seen on YouTube, I still found the film to be a traumatic watch. 34 years later, that film is still shockingly relevant and quite frankly makes Rhonda look like a pussycat. While it may sound ridiculous for a bomb to be called Radioactive Rhonda, is it any worse than one being called the Mother Of All Bombs?
SO: Radioactive Rhonda is covered with a brightly grotesque photomontage. Where do these images come from and why is their source important?
LW: All the imagery on Rhonda is sourced online, predominantly through Google Images. When making the work there isn’t much importance placed on where the imagery is sourced, just more so around the quality of the content itself. That being said it does demonstrate the power of information and how easily accessible it is due to the Internet. When I was first researching nuclear warfare, I was cautious to rely on online sources too much for authenticity, however bizarrely enough it has proved to be more reliable than official sources. With a subject matter consisting of mostly classified information and officials being able to nether confirm or deny information, who knows what’s false? Maybe Rhonda is real after all.
SO: This is the second time that you have constructed Radioactive Rhonda – the first being for your Masters show at Birmingham School of Art. Has your relationship with the piece changed and how might you progress with new works in the future?
LW: It’s a labour intensive piece, so each time I’ve completed her there’s always a sense of achievement but it’s important not be a one trick pony. Moving on from Rhonda, I’ll still be applying photomontage to the realm of sculpture. There’ll be more of a focus on creating an environment and atmosphere rather than just a static object. I’ll be introducing the use of code and lighting within my practice, creating work in reaction to a recent trip to the Nevada Test Site in Las Vegas, funded by the Engine and Grain bursary. And you never know, there could be the comeback of the century with Rhonda II.
SO: What does it mean for you to exhibit in New Art West Midlands’ 2018 showcase at AirSpace Gallery?
LW: Well it was a great opportunity for Rhonda to be seen on a more public level with a much longer duration. With the piece being site specific it also meant I had a great connection with both the show and the gallery itself. I was able to have critical conversations about the work and to talk about future directions. Getting to know other artists at a similar point in their career was also a bonus.