Turning the corner on Broadway to cross 46th street, passersby would be forgiven for thinking they’ve entered a sci-fi fever dream. Who would ever imagine standing in bustling Midtown Manhattan and looking up to see a mushroom cloud looming over them? Visitors to New York City’s Times Square can experience just this. The sculpture, titled ZERO NUKES, arrives courtesy of Times Square Arts. The organization has partnered with curator Pedro Alonzo to bring Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’ towering inflatable mushroom cloud sculpture to life. Visitors can experience the wonder of being (safely) close to an atomic bomb mushroom cloud. The mushroom cloud sculpture dwarfs onlookers, with the titular message “ZERO NUKES” encircling it in a range of languages.
Reyes’ artwork is the heart of an expo titled Amnesia Atómica NYC, currently being presented by Times Square Arts and commissioned by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. On view until May 24th, this inflated mushroom cloud sculpture appears to reach skyward, towering over passersby along Broadway and 46th street.
Guests to the sculpture are treated to interactive and participatory art encounters as well, with a series of public events at the mushroom cloud sculpture including live spoken word and storytelling courtesy of The Tank NYC. A combination of live performances and even a VR experience for guests brings the issue to life, as visitors can experience a creative simulation of a nuclear threat alert in real time. Participants who post about the mushroom cloud sculpture on social media even receive their own limited edition artwork: a miniature rocket-shaped balloon. The artist created over 12,000 of these for the project, with each one representing every estimated nuclear weapon on the planet.
While learning from the experience of atomic bomb survivors is a key part of understanding nuclear armament, having this issue brought to life via performances and readings as part of Amnesia Atómica NYC adds urgency to the issue as well. ZERO NUKES has taken over Father Duffy Square on Broadway, and guests to Frieze Art Fair will also have a hands-on opportunity to learn more about anti-nuclear art and policy in dialogue with Reyes’ mushroom cloud sculpture.
New York City has a long history entwined with the atomic bomb. For those who have never visited Hiroshima, a little known survivor of the Hiroshima nuclear attack can be visited on Manhattans’ Upper West Side. Longtime New York City residents likely recall that lingering fear of ‘the bomb’ persisting from the height of the Cold War, as the city’s dense population and location on the Eastern seaboard made it a likely target. Countless nuclear fallout shelters were interspersed throughout the city’s boroughs, and their signs are only just now being removed. Pedro Reyes’ mushroom cloud sculpture taps into the legacy of these experiences, while also extending into topics such as nuclear proliferation, and climate impact, in tangible ways.
More recently, the city became home to the first iteration of the now-itinerant Climate Clock, a project realized in September 2020 when climate activists mobilized to bring a countdown clock to the UN building for their week of ‘climate action’ during the General Assembly. The clock serves as a reminder that without paying attention to global greenhouse gas emissions, or realizing the devastating impact that nuclear war would have on the environment, we hover uncomfortably close to the end of life as we know it on our planet. Visual reminders, such as the fallout shelter signs, the countdown clock and Reyes’ mushroom cloud sculpture all serve to reinforce why anti-nuclear actions are crucial.
Pedro Reyes expresses this urgency when reflecting on his aims in creating ZERO NUKES. “I’m trying to provide a megaphone for the disparate voices committed to abolishing nuclear weapons,” the artist explains. “I’m trying to provide answers for those asking, ‘what can I do?'” With engaging spoken word performances, miniature atomic rocket balloons, and a heart-dropping photo op with this powerful mushroom cloud sculpture in the heart of Manhattan, visitors to ZERO NUKES are likely to walk away with a lot more than expected.
Next, read about the Manhattan Project and New York City’s role in the Hiroshima bombing!