On Fleeing Shadows

On Fleeing Shadows

Deeply affected by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the media philosopher and writer Günther Anders explained in retrospect in an interview conducted in 1979 that he had not been able to react to the events for years because his mouth and his skin were on strike before the monstrosity of these events. During this time he understood that it was now possible to extinguish all life on earth. The first part of his main work The Obsolescence of Man, an ethical-philosophical examination of technical and scientific achievements – motivated by the construction and catastrophic use of nuclear weapons – was published after a delay of eleven years.

In a letter dated August 2, 1939¹, Albert Einstein addressed President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In it, he and co-author Leó Szilárd — only Einstein had signed — expressed their concern about the recently successful nuclear fissions on uranium. It was now possible that “powerful bombs of a new type” could be built. Albeit indirectly, Einstein warned in this letter of the foreseeable danger of the construction of a German atomic bomb. He recommended to the President the establishment of commissions and cooperation with laboratories equipped for this purpose. Roosevelt responded as early as October by setting up the Advisory Committee on Uranium, the core cell of the Manhattan Project, on which 125,000 people would eventually work.

In the USA, the Manhattan Project, initially kept secret, was led by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and it resulted in the first above-ground atomic bomb detonation on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert. For the test site Oppenheimer found the code name Trinity Site, the bomb itself he named accordingly Trinity. Asked in 1962 about this naming, Oppenheimer replied that he had thought of a sonnet by the English poet John Donne, which says, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”2

About Robert Oppenheimer’s subsequent ambivalence towards the Manhattan Project, the tests and the dropping of the bombs, in later interviews gives impressions in which he expresses himself as a fine-minded scientist, as if he were embarrassed by his own actions.3 After the Trinity explosion, he said, “some people laughed, others cried, most remained silent.” He was reminded at that moment, of a passage in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, when the god Vishnu tells the prince to do his duty. To impress him, he assumes the many-armed form and says, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.“I suppose,” Oppenheimer says in this conversation, “we all thought that, one way or another.”

For the media philosopher Günther Anders, the “Oppenheimer case”4 functions allegorically for technology-based procedures and systems trained by humans, which initially map human thought and action, but in the long run direct and determine them. The homo faber becoming aware of himself finally finds himself in a self-created, complex “matrix”5, an irreversible system or machine, by himself only marginally controllable — affected in the conscience conflict of a “Promethean shame”.6

Anders becomes more concrete in an example of automated thinking, — a kind of calculation that is outsourced from the human one:

In order to prevent the last danger of a call of conscience, one has constructed beings on whom one can shift the responsibility, oracle machines thus, electronic conscience automats — for nothing else are the cybernetic computing machines, which now, epitome of science (thus of progress, thus of the moral under all circumstances), purringly take over the responsibility, while the human being stands beside and, half gratefully and half triumphantly, washes his hands in innocence. 7

Against this backdrop, it becomes possible to subject the sculptures of the media scientist and visual artist Henry Jesionka as an attempt at interpretation. Several years of research and reflection on the impact of scientific research and development on our societies led to the form and content details of the sculptural associations, initially around the relevant characters of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Stephen Hawking.

A photograph of Oppenheimer, universally referred to as the “father of the atomic bomb” or the “American Prometheus,” forms the center of a framing, hemispherical geodesic construction. The nearly three-meter-high sculpture is laid out like a structural diagram describing the inside of a bomb and shows Oppenheimer as now forever connected to the detonations and effects of the atomic bombs.

References to Christian (but also pre-Christian and Asian) faith traditions are first found in the construction around the photograph as a lenticular intersection of overlapping circles of equal radius. In European sacred art, the so-called vesica piscis becomes the aureole (mandorla) of sacred figures, often of the Pantocrator, the ruler of the world. The symbolic positioning of Oppenheimer’s likeness is also integrated into a network of vignettes that recall forms of Illuminated manuscripts.

What may at first seem like floral ornamentation here, these vignettes are paintings of high-speed ‘Rapatronic’ photographs of the atomic detonation in exposure times of billionths of a second.

When Jesionka describes this constellation of references of “Oppenheimer as Christ” in the mandorla, adorned with flowers like the Buddha, Buddhist iconography must also be considered. The “flowers” centered on the “Buddha” refer to his mother and representations around the birth of Prince Siddhartha. In order to rest, Queen Maya had stepped down from her palanquin in a flower garden. Holding on to the branch of a tree there, she gave birth to the prince from her right side. According to this tradition, Maya also symbolizes fertility.

At the bottom of the mandorla are pocket watches, all showing the time 08:16, stopped during the explosion of the first bomb on August 6, 1945 over Hiroshima.

Protruding from the base of the sculpture are coins fused together, like those found at the sites near ground zero.

“Crowning” Trinity is a replica of the ‘Milk Drop Coronet’ shot by Harold Edgerton in 1957 with strobe lighting. Instead of the precious metals used in a sacred context, Jesionka uses materials that give the appearance of gold or silver with the Rapatronic paintings framed in Lead and Copper. The sculptures discussed here, Trinity, Black Holes, T= 0 - +73.191, T= +76.437, Elégie and Photo Graph, are the preliminary, artistic results of Henry Jesionka’s examination of both hubris and humility on the occasion and consequence of scientific ambition and human creativity. The discrepancy of developing for the good of mankind — while what is made for man is at all times also directed against him. In an explanation of these works, Jesionka concludes that science is our religion, and thus his motivation to adopt associations with religious iconography.

A black hole is described as an object whose mass is concentrated in an extremely small volume. Thus in its immediate environment (event horizon) strong gravitation arises, which is why even light cannot pass through or leave this sphere of influence. Black holes in the universe suck their environment into itself and eliminate each form of information. In the 1960s, however, the British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking found that when a particle falls or black holes merge, their surface area does not decrease; in short, black holes do not suck themselves up. Even more – and seeming like a paradox – Hawking proved in 1975, after quantum mechanical calculation, that black holes radiate outward. Experimentally, this (thermal) Hawking radiation cannot be verified, however, it confirms (theoretically) that, contrary to classical physics, in quantum electrodynamics a vacuum cannot be an empty nothing. 
Jesionka’s homage to Stephen Hawking is preceded by a play on words. Since the probably best-known physicist of his time is commonly referred to as an icon of the scientific community. The association to the form of the orthodox icon is obvious. The term, derived from ancient Greek in the sense of “image” and the associated tradition of cult and holy images, is traced back to the image styles of the Byzantine Empire since the 6th century.

At the center of the mixed media sculpture titled Black Holes is the ‘likeness’ of Stephen Hawking in his posture caused by the disease of ‘amytrophic lateral sclerosis’. (ALS). However, the depiction of the body is also guided along the descending diagonal in pictorial space, as consistently found in sacred art since the late Middle Ages in images of the deposition of Christ from the cross. Icon painting is a liturgical act and is subject to a canon in composition and coloration, according to which materials such as gold, silver, precious stones or ivory are used. Jesionka now counters this set of rules and uses lead, aluminum, steel, iron and copper for his sculpture. Again, Black Holes can be read like a structural diagram, with quite a few references to Hawking’s own or related findings, initially in astro- and particle physics. The copper embossed “nimbus” or ‘crown’, for example, shows the image of subatomic particle collisions. As a result of his illness, Stephen Hawking was dependent on a speech computer equipped with intelligent AI programming. Correspondingly, the engraving of a Hopfield net stands for artificial neural networks and pattern recognizers, as they, basically according to this principle, find application in present systems of artificial intelligence. It is remarkable that Hawking, was communicating by means of such an AI.

Hawking reacted in this respect – and comparable to Günther Anders’ earlier attitude: At a technology congress (2017, Lisbon) he expressed his skepticism with regard to development and applications of AI:

“Success in creating effective AI could be the greatest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So we can’t know if we will be endlessly supported by AI or ignored, fed, or possibly destroyed. If we don’t learn to prepare for and avoid potential dangers, AI could be the worst event in our civilization’s history”8

The upper part of the Hopfield Net opens into a vignette composed in copper relief, within it an anima sola (solitary soul). The image of a woman in purgatory comes from Catholic tradition and illustrates the purifying torments after a sinful life.

Other vignettes, as in Trinity, show embossed copper relief recreations of Rapatronic photographs (after Edgerton’s process) during the testing of the bomb. And finally, a vignette prominently placed and level with Hawking’s nimbus. In keeping with Christian iconography, one might well recognize here the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei), the sacrificial animal symbolizing Christ’s resurrection, and thus corresponding with Hawking’s image above of the sloping diagonal. In Jesionka’s artwork, however, it is a copper embossed reproduction of a photograph of Dolly the sheep born in 1996 after cloning procedures at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. This does, however, put the reference to the Lamb of God into perspective: Dolly is a product of genetic knowledge — and so an Agnus Hominis.

Allusions to Christian and pre-Christian symbolism can also be found in Elégie. This lament, formed into a sculpture, resembling a smashed, beached, wooden boat, is dedicated to the myriad of desperate people who have perished after their attempts to cross the Mediterranean. At the viewer’s eye level, two rings of barbed wire frame the ‘boat’ which looks like and refers to to the crown of thorns of Christ. Its arrangement once again forms a vesica piscis. This directs the eye to the center of the piece, on the battered deck of the ‘boat are situated back to back, two hands. Cast from aluminum and brass, they suggest lead and gold 

The ‘lead’ hand facing the viewer is etched with punched text from firsthand accounts of migrants — “I am splintered wood and tears and sea water,” for example – while the polished ‘gold’ hand facing the mirror, and ‘containing’ the viewer’s inescapable reflection, has excerpts from the Christian beatitudes. Viewers will see — their own faces, in the two mirrors placed behind the hands and joined at right angles.

T= 0 - +73.191 a scale polished aluminium casting of the smoke column after the launch of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. After reaching an altitude of about 15 kilometers – and 73.191 seconds after launch – the rocket motors exploded. The seven astronauts lost their lives. Wreckage from the Challenger was later found in an area of 26,000 square kilometers, east of the Florida coast.

In Henry Jesionka’s three-dimensional interpretation (based on archival photographs), the smoke column becomes a timeline, a soberly analytical instrument of the course of events in the period from launch to disaster.

The corresponding cast sculpture (patinated bronze) T= +76,437 denotes the situation about three seconds later, equal to a sliver of time during the explosion. If these two artworks can perhaps be understood as formations of a collective memory, the shape and surface of T= +76.437 also evoke the image of an archaeological artifact as it might have been found in the sea – or perhaps in an ocean of collective memory?

Finally, a stencil painting shows the black silhouette of a seated man smoking a cigarette and wearing a hat. As if in a circular argument, Photo Graph is linked to a series of references to the works discussed so far. Smoking has meanwhile come to be seen as an act that runs counter to social conventions, and has always been perceived as a vice anyway. In Robert Oppenheimer’s time, on the other hand – and probably reinforced by media image-building in the public eye, by Hollywood and French cinema – the dandyish figure of the smart, smoking scientist emerged. Photographs and film footage show, as in Jesionka’s Trinity, Oppenheimer as a fashionable contemporary, wearing a hat and smoking a cigarette, and stylizing himself consciously. An accomplice thus sits here as silhouette and everyman motif. Apart from his person, the word or meme: “Oppenheimer” in Jesionka’s sculptures stands for a principle of collective responsibility, guilt, complicity or innocence. And Oppenheimer also stands only for a pars pro toto of all conceivable collaborations, which, in short, are preceded by a cause: (couldn’t Norbert Wiener, for instance, with his insights into feedback, Archetype of the “learning machine”, have created a path for various technical procedures according to which thermostats function, but also AI-based pattern recognizers that compose music, translate languages, identify people, or control weapons systems?)

Harold Edgerton, for example, invented the electronic flash for photo cameras and, as a result, the stroboscope. Starting in 1936, this made it possible to take sharp photos of flying hummingbirds in the exposure time of thousands of a second, which were first published in National Geographic. For Oppenheimer’s ‘Manhattan Project’, he developed the Rapatronic shutter — with exposure times now of billionths of a second — with the goal of capturing the expanding fireball of atomic detonations in photographs.

Photo Graph is admittedly not a photograph, but it is the adopted contours from a photograph that has been abstracted by painting as if to a shadow and, according to Jesionka’s intention, it leads back to the moments of the atomic detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Another form of photographic effect in the sense of light-drawing is described by the media theorist Friedrich Kittler in his remarkable citation of very similar passages in Paul Virilio and Thomas Pynchon:

Machines based on recursive functions provide movie slow-motions not only of human thought, but also of human endings. According to the insight of Pynchon and Virilio, the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, at rush hour, was a coincidence of blitzkrieg and flash photography. An exposure time of 0.000 000 067 sec [...] imaged uncounted Japanese “as a delicate grease film on the melted rubble” of their city.

The flash, the flash of the bomb, left a kind of photograph as burnt surfaces in the places of shadows of objects and people who could not escape. Subjects became objects, people became shadows, everyone and no one. Who started all this? Nobody? Nobody is a name of the clever inventor Ulysses 


Wenzel Mraček


(GA) Günther Anders: Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Bd. 1. Über die Seele im Zeitalter der zweiten industriellen Revolution. München 1961 (1956)

(FK) Friedrich Kittler: Grammophon Film Typewriter. Berlin 1986. (Quote Pynchon from: Die Enden der Parabel. 1973/1982, p. 919.)


(FK), Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Friedrich A. Kittler Translated, with an Introduction, by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, 1999 (Stanford University Press).