Orders of Magnitude

Adrian Göllner

All images by and courtesy the artist.

In the spring of 2015, I set myself the goal of casting an explosion in bronze. This would not be a representational endeavour, but the casting of an actual rapidly expanding moment of energy. As improbable as the pursuit might seem, my art practice had evolved to be about the transcription of sound, time and motion into visible forms. And just previous to embarking on this new goal, I had undertaken a similar project in which I dropped firecrackers into ceramic vases freshly plucked from the potter’s wheel. Each small blast warped, pierced or collapsed a vase into an object that recorded the path of the explosion. But having seen the path, the next step was to capture and make permanent the shape of the explosion itself.

Adrian Göllner, Exploded Vase 2, 2015, earthenware, 10.25 x 6 x 5.5”. Image courtesy of the artist.

Exploded Vase 2, 2015, Earthenware, 10.25" x 6" x 5.5".

Adrian Göllner, Exploded Vase 8, 2015, earthenware, 9.5 x 8.5 x 6.5". Image courtesy of the artist.

Exploded Vase 8, 2015, Earthenware, 9.5" x 8.5" x 6.5".

Now familiar with elastic qualities of clay and its ability to retain texture, I placed bundles of firecrackers in balls of soft, wet clay and ignited them. The explosions created voids within the clay that were then filled with microcrystalline wax to create positives, which, in turn, were cast using the traditional lost wax technique. The process did involve considerable experimentation before I got usable shapes, but in the end, I did succeed in casting an explosion in bronze, even if at a very small scale.

But how to present the cast explosions was its own challenge. I had never created a bronze sculpture before and with it came a whole tradition of bronze statuary, one that related to empires, wars and emperors. Perhaps with this in mind, I set the explosions on rather formal, pyramid-shaped bases, which, like large bronze sculptures of humans and horses, acts to raise the subject above a pedestrian level, focuses our attention on the subject, and balances the dynamism of the central element with a weight below. In doing so, the 1:1 proportionality of the explosion to the sculptural cast – something that I maintain is vitally important if the artwork is to carry an aspect of the real – became set within that loaded historical lineage. In fact, the bronzes came to resemble miniaturized war memorials denuded of all the heraldry and soldiers-- only an an explosion remained. What had been a metaphysical inquiry into capturing a moment of energy had garnered a metaphorical meaning.  An adolescent act of lighting firecrackers had been extrapolated to speak to larger histories of art and war.

Adrian Göllner, Cast Explosion Day 5 MkII, 2015, bronze, 13.5 x 6 x 6”. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cast Explosion Day 5 MkII, 2015, Bronze, 13.5" x 6" x 6".

Adrian Göllner, Cast Explosion Day 5 MkIV, 2015, bronze, 11.5 x 5 x 5.5”. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cast Explosion Day 5 MkIV, 2015, Bronze, 11.5" x 5" x 5.5".

Of course, in the history of man-made explosions, none are larger than those yielded by the nuclear and thermo-nuclear bombs developed during the Cold War.  The Cold War is a theme I continue to revisit. Having grown up on Canadian Military Bases in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, the prospect of nuclear war was always present. What fascinates me about these devices is that they exist at a scale well beyond human comprehension. While we can hold a mental image of them, the power of nuclear weapons is only measurable through scientific means and the numbers are too large for our Neolithic brains to fully conceive. They exist as an external, abstract threat.

The first detonation of a nuclear device was the Trinity Test (US Army, 1945). The power of the universe, as theorized by Albert Einstein, had been harnessed and just a pinch released in an explosion with a yield equivalent to 20KT (20,000,000 g) of TNT (trinitrotoluene). As a way of revisiting that moment of dubious technological advancement, I thought I would cast an explosion 1/1,000,000th the power of that first atomic bomb. From a conceptual standpoint, 1/1,000,000th is somewhat of a magical division and maintains the mystery of the powers at hand; however, from a purely practical standpoint, the ignition of 20g of TNT still results in a substantial explosion and casting it would be a trick, to say the least.

Following a backwoods experiment to determine the forces I was dealing with, I decided I should start small and work my way up. It was also evident that I should enlist some professional help if the goal was to be achieved safely. Using measured black powder charges, I began with an explosion 1/1,000,000,000th the power of the first atomic bomb and used my ball-of-clay technique to create a cast aluminum sculpture. I increased the charges incrementally, but just beyond the 1/10,000,000th mark, the explosions were too large and my technique began to fail. It is at this point that I began work with the Canadian Explosives Research Laboratory in Ottawa.

Adrian Göllner, An explosion 1/1,000,000,000th the power of the first atomic bomb, 2016, aluminum and steel, 5.5 x 2 x 1”. Image courtesy of the artist.

An explosion 1/1,000,000,000th the power of the first atomic bomb, 2016, Aluminum and steel, 5.5" x 2" x 1".

Adrian Göllner, An explosion 1/500,000,000th the power of the first atomic bomb, 2016, aluminum, 7.75 x 2.75 x 2.75”. Image courtesy of the artist.

An explosion 1/500,000,000th the power of the first atomic bomb, 2016, Aluminum, 7.75" x 2.75" x 2.75".

Working with the head technician at the Laboratory and now plastic explosives, we determined that the only feasible means to achieving the goal was to ignite a charge within the ground and then cast the crater. A crater was blown and was filled with an expanding foam resin. The ungainly, billowing, dirt-encrusted form that resulted is wholly different than the cast aluminum and bronze pieces. Unhinged from the classical reserve that comes with casting in metals, An explosion 1/1,000,000th the power of the first atomic bomb (2016) relates directly to the body through its frothy texture and table-sized scale. If we could multiple its size and shape by 1,000,000, we might well approach the image of the nuclear mushroom cloud we have stored in the back of our heads.

Adrian Göllner, An explosion 1/1,000,000th the power of the first atomic bomb, 2016, resin, dirt and steel, 41 x 46 x 46”. Image courtesy of the artist.

An explosion 1/1,000,000th the power of the first atomic bomb, 2016, Resin, dirt and steel, 41" x 46" x 46".

Just as the ignition of firecrackers extrapolate into the larger history of war when cast in bronze, the use of precisely measured charges in the small Trinity (2016) series emulates the science behind the development of nuclear devices and dares us to multiply the cast explosions presented into that unknowable terror of a nuclear detonation. At the same time, these fractional manifestations of the much-larger remain elusive. They are stilled moments of energy whose curious shapes are established mostly by my declaration of what they are. They are hitherto unknown events, entities for which we have no prior relation, except in the very abstract as a nightmarish vision of the future. As such, the viability of small Trinity (2016) is situated in its exactitude and diminutive scale. The unknowable, indeed the inconceivable, is put before the viewer for inspection in an organized, museum-like manner, where it can be considered at one’s leisure. Still, the hubris of the original Trinity Test (US Army, 1945) haunts this series of objects and we can’t but help approach them with a degree of caution.

Adrian Göllner is interested in heightening the viewer's sense of self through transposing elements of sound, time and motion. In an art practice that employs a wide range of techniques and mediums, Göllner divides his time between creating small, conceptual works in the studio and implementing public art commissions at a much larger scale. While continuing to mount exhibitions at home and abroad, Göllner has had the good fortune to have received 20 public art commissions, including works for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the sixteen towers of CityPlace in Toronto, and the Canadian Embassy in Berlin.

Adrian Göllner received a BFA from Queen’s University in 1987 and an MFA at the University of Ottawa in 2016. While maintaining his art practice in Ottawa, he has continued to advocate for artists’ rights and has served on the boards of a number of local galleries.