The Body Nuclear

Nuclear Culture on Film, Sandra Lahire, Uranium Hex.
Nuclear Culture on Film, Sandra Lahire, Uranium Hex.

Lucia Garavaglia reviews Sandra Lahire's 1987 film 'Uranium Hex' (11mins).  This is the first in a series of reviews of artist's film & video works and exhibitions exploring nuclear culture, written by emerging curators on the Goldsmiths MFA Curating programme.

The Body Nuclear: Mineshafts, raise borer machines, sirens, bright yellow uranium oxide, red strobe lights… Loose in narrative structure, but with a strong visual language, Sandra Lahire’s Uranium Hex was filmed in 1987 with a 16mm camera. The film explores uranium mining in Canada and its destructive effects on the environment and on the women working in the mines generating a strong emotional tension that strikes the viewer.

The continuous changes of speed and filmic techniques do not leave space for detachment, but create a sphere of psychological projection. Superimposed images and re-filmed frames create a visual structure that gradually awakens an active call against alienation. The image of the artist is recurrent during the whole film not as a commentary voice, but as an uncertain witness, curious and speechless. It considers the human subjectivity, the body and its relation to a political and social power, but also to the world in its global picture. Lahire displays images of tangy yellow flowers, acknowledging the beauty of a dreamlike scenario that fades into crushing filtering machines through a mindless destruction of the terrain; the radiation released into the environment contaminates streams and drinking water.

The body becomes a disturbing presence when affected by radiation, associated with images of x-ray machines showing chests with lung cancer: “It was like lying under an x-ray machine, day and night” asserts a voice from the background. The striking description of physiological and biological risks and physical conditions are a straightforward comment against the affliction of a multinational system of nuclear power generation. The acknowledgement of the body as a conscious subject is an invitation to awareness and collective responsibility. Lahire’s call for the embodiment of life against the smell of sulfured uranium leaves the viewer quite disturbed and confined by their own incapability.

Although the film drives the viewer’s emotions, it is also effective in addressing the aesthetics of the nuclear and the impact of uranium. Through the use of colour and a composition of forms, the film represents radiation as something not extraneous, but deeply linked to the human being, both materially and as subject, creating a contrast with the iconic image of the nuclear explosion embedded in our culture. The immersive dimension of the dreamscape scenario is often broken by the steady sound of mining and the dramatic collage of voices of workers at the uranium mill and children. Sporadic personal narrative interventions function as testimony of mine workers and environmental threats. Uranium Hex depicts the hopes, fears and anxieties about uranium mining that touched women activists in the Eighties, inspiring a discussion about the relationship between the nuclear industry and the female body that is still pertinent today.

Uranium Hex was made in collaboration with other film-makers, such as Jean Matthee and Anna Thew and funded by Channel4 at the London Film-makers' Cooperative. Sandra Lahire (1950-2001) was a feminist experimental filmmaker part of the post 1970s movement of independent cinema. She died age 50 from anorexia, an illness that accompanied her throughout her life. Her work mainly starts from a reflection on her identity and the dissolution of the body.

Lucia Garavaglia, April 2013.