WHEN THE SMITHSONIAN ATTEMPTED TO INSTALL an exhibit about the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, it sparked such a firestorm that the exhibit was withdrawn. The plane made it into the Air and Space museum, but it hangs from the ceiling without much more than a plaque to memorialize it. For school kids visiting the Smithsonian, it's just another plane, and not the plane that dropped the bomb that killed 60,000 people at Hiroshima.

Another B-29 poses near the carpeted reception area of the Boeing Museum of Flight. Thousands of visitors a year view this polished and well-preserved icon of progress and industry. Just a couple of hundred miles east along Interstate 90, other icons--the nuclear reactors that provided the bombs--rest without peace at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a wasteland worthy of Eliot: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." Surrounded by verdant irrigated vineyards, golf courses, and cozy retirement communities, the forbidding Hanford site is a place one wants to skirt, not visit. And yet while the B-29s displayed by Boeing and the Smithsonian lack context, Hanford is all context.

Matt Coolidge, the founder of the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), might agree with this interpretation. A non-profit research organization, CLUI has been examining and exhibiting landscapes since 1994. By framing industrial, commercial, and military sites as "ready-made" or "found" exhibits, CLUI creates a geographic spin on the New Brutalism and Pop Art movements of the '50s, opening eyes to often invisible landscapes. The mission statement posted on their website (www.clui.org) announces CLUI's dedication to "the increase and diffusion of information about how the world's lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived."

Last summer, Seattle resident and Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) board member Alan Pruzan went down to check out CLUI's Wendover Army Airfield facility, which consists of little more than barracks in the Utah-Nevada desert. While there, Pruzan paged through the guest book. "The comments came from people from all walks of life, from arts aficionados to military personnel," Pruzan said. "Everyone appreciates these sites from his or her own perspective.... [CLUI's neutral] stance allows them to deal directly with corporations and the community to explore these sites."

Coolidge notes that CLUI doesn't curate with a specific criteria, but rather the organization seeks out sites that have a story that needs to be told, sites that have been under-appreciated, overlooked, or misunderstood. Paul Shustak, a web producer who caught the Hanford tour, had also seen a couple of CLUI exhibits in L.A. "There was a ghost-town quality about a lot of them, such as the abandoned movie set in the desert where the Ten Commandments was filmed. I guess these places appeal to me because there's a sense of adventure and the unknown to them.... A lot of the sites are fully operational, but because of their military or industrial nature, they're not places any guidebook would ever tell you about."

Pruzan decided to find a way to bring CLUI to Seattle. When CoCA began planning for the summer exhibition, the board began to see possible connections. Eventually CoCA came up with Land/Use/Action, a four-part summer program designed to explore how individuals interact with the Washington landscape. Land/Use/Action is comprised of a visual arts gallery show, Here and There (through July 31); site-specific work by performance artists Men of the World (July 21-23) and Marilyn Arsem (July 24-25); and three tours--to South Seattle, south Puget Sound, and Hanford--conducted by CLUI's Matt Coolidge.On the morning of the Hanford tour, our group gathered at CoCA and boarded a bus. As we crossed the I-90 bridge, Coolidge spoke evenly into the microphone, pointing out familiar landmarks, filling us in on the construction history of Seattle's floating bridges. Even though CLUI receives much of its funding from arts and cultural grants (this tour was, for instance, partially funded by the NEA), Coolidge--much like CLUI--cultivates a neutral, strictly informative tone. Along the three-hour journey, Coolidge shows various videos on the tiny monitors suspended above our heads. A PBS special tells us that Hanford dumped 200 billion gallons of contaminated materials into the ground--enough to form a lake the size of Manhattan, 40 feet deep. A scientist remarks that Hanford gave us "peace for 45 years, providing half the nuclear deterrence for the nation. Now we have to pay the piper."

At the border of the Hanford Site, we pull into an office park called Stevens Center. The day is getting hot; an American flag droops around a flagpole planted in a patch of irrigated lawn. A smiling, white-haired gentleman in short sleeves boards the bus. Coolidge introduces him as Len Clossey, a retired Hanford engineer. Clossey will conduct the tour within the Hanford area. He passes out plastic security badges, which show a sun rising over green hills, ringed by the words, "Hanford: Environmental Excellence."

We drive past a gate sporting barbed wire and caution signs. Clossey mentions that the last reactor, the N Reactor, was shut down after Chernobyl. At that point, Hanford already had 25 tons of plutonium built up--enough to blow up the world several times over. Out the window, a huge blue and yellow Department of Energy billboard beams, "Welcome to Hanford: Where Safety Comes First."

The Hanford Site comprises an area of 580 square miles of desert (about half the size of Rhode Island), bounded by the mighty Columbia River and the tri-cities of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick. Back in 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers created the Manhattan Engineer District (the Manhattan Pro-ject) to construct huge plants for the manufacture of plutonium and uranium. One year after Pearl Harbor, Colonel Franklin Matthias and two DuPont engineers reported to the Manhattan Project chief, General Leslie Groves, that the Hanford region was ideal for such an industrial complex. The government moved in and condemned Hanford, a small town unlucky enough to be in the way, and gave its residents 30 days to vacate.

Soon afterward, workers supplied by the War Manpower Agency completed construction of the first full-scale nuclear reactor. When President John F. Kennedy came to Hanford in 1963 to break ground for a new nuclear power plant, he stated that "here in the United States, we're moving ahead for the security of our people and hope for a better life for our fellow citizens."

One of the films Coolidge showed us, a 1960s P.R. film made by the Atomic Energy Commission, calls plutonium "a metal far more precious than gold," and characterizes the Hanford area as an oasis of Western progress. The soundtrack is triumphant, cheerful, industrious. As the camera pans across Hanford's sun-drenched expanse, a voice proclaims, "The miracles of the past and the miracles of the present point the way to yet-undreamed-of miracles in the desert."

Behind the scenes, however, hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic waste began leeching toward the groundwater, and radioactive byproducts wafted up over the oasis. "Waste disposal solutions remained elusive, and effluents continued to be released to the Columbia River," one official document prosaically notes. After the disastrous accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and again at Chernobyl in 1986, environmental concerns and consciousness grew. Reactor shutdowns soon followed. Jobs at the oasis dried up. Ultimately, a "better life" for the Hanford area residents translated into a life marked by fear of radiation contamination, and an unusually high occurrence of thyroid problems and cancer.

Approximately 54 million gallons of radioactive waste are buried in underground storage tanks at the site -- 100 square miles of Hanford that are so toxic they're plotted out in barbed wire. The government suggests that humans stay clear of the stuff for at least another 10,000 years or so. The plutonium that fueled the Nagasaki bomb was made at Hanford's B Reactor. Today, Nagasaki is once again a thriving metropolis. Hanford, on the other hand, is a ghost town. The "miracle in the desert" is now the contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere.

The bus ambles through miles of barren ground. We slow briefly at the former Hanford town site, of which only the faint imprint of roads and the shell of the old Hanford High School remain. Clossey shares an anecdote from the early days at the Hanford Site, when security guards at the site tested their readiness by practicing raids against the school building. We drive up to some low-slung gray industrial buildings, which Clossey identifies as the K Reactor. Here huge basins of radiated fuel wait for proper disposal. There have been leakages at the K Reactor, and the Columbia River meanders only a few hundred yards away.

At last we're permitted off the bus at the B Reactor. Clossey warns us of rattlesnakes in the brush. I've been waiting for this, the place that birthed the Nagasaki bomb. I cannot say what I expected--maybe a giant industrial gorgon still belching radioactive smoke. But the B Reactor is just another isolated concrete husk, trimmed with pink asbestos pipes and ringed with barbed wire. Rusted air ducts snake over the building's façade. Up against the right outer wall, rows of wooden boxes filled with toxic waste await burial. The B Reactor, perhaps the ultimate atomic icon, sits on a flat, nearly featureless desert plain, in what feels like the middle of no place at all. Our group wanders around the building, kicking rocks and taking pictures. We board the bus and turn back.

As the bus leaves the B Reactor, Clossey, the engineer, recalls taking a tour group from Nagasaki here. "They were very nice," he says, "they took a lot of pictures."

After dropping Clossey off back at the Stevens Center, we make a quick stop at a deli-espresso place before we get on the highway. Near the counter, a display sells T-shirts with slogans like "Gone Fission," "I ™ Nukie" and "Get a Half-Life."

Hanford is a nuclear museum; a post-apocalyptic landscape better than any Hollywood could conjure. Robert Scully, a community planner, called it a "black box--this unassuming building in the desert that changed history.... It reminds us that we were on the brink of destroying ourselves." Retired electrician Mike Fried was struck by the mass desolation of the site. "The whole place is dead; the B Reactor is absolute wreckage." My husband tells me it reminded him of his visit to Dachau in 1993: "I was looking at a gigantic factory complex devoted to death." CoCA technical director Annie Walker said, "What impressed me most about Hanford was how little there seemed to be out there; the place was oddly blank."

That blankness may be the point, since much of what we see at a place like Hanford is what we project onto it. Indeed, the object of the Hanford tour is not so much to see the buildings themselves, but to see them in context, and to understand that we carry some of that context with us. The buildings at Hanford are monuments to war, patriotism, the military-industrial revolution or scientific hubris; they are earthworks; they are environmental theater. Rather than challenge perceptions, a tour like this revisits them, makes them a key part of the event. A mere shift of the lens--by CoCA, by CLUI, by us--brings Hanford's landscape and legacy into new view. "Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns," philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, "threatens to disappear irretrievably."

But that's unlikely. Plutonium has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years; Uranium-238, one billion years. The Hanford atomic museum and the waste on which it sits will be with us for a very long time, and generations will be projecting their concerns onto that opaque Cold War monument in the desert.

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