Annabel Elgar | Noon in the desert

Noon in the Desert is taken from the opening line of William E  Stafford’s poem, ‘At the Bomb Testing Site’, and is a series of photographs which explores the replica neighbourhoods,  constructed at the nuclear weapons test sites in Nevada during the 1950s, in order to measure the effects of nuclear detonation.  As a project, it emerged in response to a tourist postcard I came across of the Las Vegas casino, The Pioneer Club, in which a  mushroom cloud can be seen looming over the Nevada desert in the distance. The two localities, known as ‘Doom Town’ and  ‘Survival Town’, were designed to reflect a generic image of American post-war suburbia and were populated by a series of  costumed mannequins, strategically placed in mock-up homes.  

Vehicles, buildings and shelters were placed at various distances from ‘ground zero’, and cameras strategically located to  capture the effects of the explosions. Filled with household goods and factory produced furniture, some of which was still in its  packaging, displaying shop floor tags, the rooms embodied the American dream. Clothed mannequins were posed at the dinner  table or gathered around the television.  

Located sixty five miles north-west of Las Vegas, the Nevada test site was part of the United States’ nuclear weapons testing  programme. A series of tests was carried out in 1955. Operation Teapot was the most extensive; the various tests within  Teapot were named Wasp, Moth, Tesla, Turk, Hornet, Bee, ESS, Apple-1, Wasp Prime, HA, Post, MET, Apple-2 and Zucchini.  The tests were hailed as the dawning of a new utopia: an age of optimism, promising Americans a superiority, prosperity and  idealisation; in stark contrast to the Cold War and fear of communism that had previously pervaded society.  

The atomic tests became tourist attractions, as day trippers, flocking to the Nevada desert with their specially purchased viewing  glasses, picnicked under the shadow of the cloud, while Las Vegas hotels and casinos tapped into the burgeoning market,  offering event tickets and memorabilia.  

Following in the tradition of Frances Glessner Lee’s The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, I am interested in how the  forensic use of the miniature subverts the innocence of the doll’s house aesthetic, in order to recreate complex histories. Taking  found archival photographs of the two test site towns as my source, Noon in the Desert became a re-creation of their interior  and exterior spaces, reworked in miniature form.  

Modelled in clay on a diminutive scale, the handmade figures that appear in my photographs reflect the mannequin poses they  are taken from. Presented as a series of isolated specimens, their faux-naif aesthetic mirrors the tableau of buildings and  interiors that have been recreated as separate studies using wood, cork and felt.  

What was central to the atomic bomb tests of the 1950s was how they became emblematic of a nuclear optimism within the  public consciousness. As special viewing stations were erected for the general public to witness their execution in the Nevada  desert, ‘atomic’ toys and accessories flooded the market. It is within this capacity of a domesticated fetish for all things ‘atomic’,  that the doll’s houses and exteriors I have created form part of this perverse and ironic history. The series revolves around this  inherent tension between a utopian agenda and idealised future on the one hand and the reality of its dark political  consequences on the other.