A few days before the July 16 anniversary of the world’s first nuclear explosion, in New Mexico in 1945, I visited “Chain Reaction,” the late Paul Conrad’s 26-foot tall sculpture, which occupies a prominent and controversial place near the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
Conrad, the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, was also a sculptor. With “Chain Reaction,” a protest against nuclear war and the arms race, he created a work of art as edgy, forceful and uncompromising as the artist himself. Big chain links rise into the air to a mushroom cloud made of the same chains. Across Main Street is the headquarters of the Rand Corp., which was a leading researcher of nuclear warfare during the Cold War.
As has been often reported, the city of Santa Monica says the sculpture, finished by Conrad and donated to the city in 1991, is unsafe and should be removed unless money can be raised to strengthen it. I had arranged to meet Jerry Rubin, a longtime Santa Monica activist, who is part of an effort to raise the approximately $400,000 the city demands for the repairs.
Why, I asked him, can’t some of the many rich people in and around Santa Monica come up with the money? A lot—if not a majority—are liberals who oppose nuclear proliferation, admired Conrad’s work and contribute toward art that is as controversial and conversation-inspiring as “Chain Reaction.”
“We’re growing, we’re fund raising,” Rubin told me. (Disclosure: Bob Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, for which I write, is part of the campaign to save the statue).
“Big donors will be needed.” Rubin said. But the activist, tanned from sitting at outdoor card tables and doing other outdoor person-to-person progressive work, said it also must be a grassroots campaign. “It’s an iconic work of art and a monument to world peace,” said Rubin.
Surprisingly, the campaign hasn’t attracted much attention, given the power of the sculpture, the fame of the sculptor and the importance of the message. It took many e-mails from Rubin to get me there for a close look.
Up close, with time to examine the examine the work slowly, I thought the concept of the chains, bigger than those on a ship, rising toward the mushroom cloud, was mighty powerful. So was the message Conrad attached to the statue: “This is a statement of peace. May it never become an epitaph.”
Art is subjective and often stirs great arguments, especially big public art. “Levitated Mass,” the 350-ton megalith hauled from Riverside County to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and placed over a 456-foot long slot, has many admiring visitors. Others wonder why $10 million was spent to bring a big rock from the Inland Empire.
It’s good that the rock sits at the county museum after its trip through the Southland. But the same sort of art-loving and wealthy donors who financed the move and installation should also chip in to repair and strengthen Conrad”s “Chain Reaction,” which is truly a meaningful a work of art. It is also reminds us of the ever present danger of nuclear destruction.