…that creeps from the earth

Sandra Lahire, Serpent River, 1989. 16mm, 30 minutes. Courtesy of Sandra Lahire and LUX, London.

Exhibition opening:

February 1st, 19:00-22:00


February 2nd-April 20th

Opening hours:

Wednesday-Friday 16:00-20:00, Saturday 12:00-17:00


Inas Halabi, Susanne Kriemann, Sandra Lahire, Sharon Stewart, Valinia Svoronou. The exhibition is accompanied by archival material from the International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam).


Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou

Production & project manager:

Eirini Fountedaki

Production assistant:

Konstantinos Giotis

Tech production:

Wave LTD

Graphic design for timeline wall:

Persiis Hajiyanni

Visual identity:

Angelina Stavela

A historical beginning is a cut—a cut in the flow of history that sections out a before and an after. In histories of the nuclear age, the cut lies in the summer of 1945, on July 16, in a desert in New Mexico, when the first atomic bomb exploded. That cut is resolutely precise. Yet it fails to account for beginnings and ends that are more fleeting, volatile. Turning our attention to the material foundation of nuclear technologies—uranium—opens the possibility for more historical open-endedness. Fathoming the very materiality of nuclear technologies takes us toward terrains of uranium extraction and their lingering aftermaths. That is, not toward the scene of exception—aka the bomb—but rather closer to what Lauren Berlant (although unconcerned in this case with nuclearity) deems “crisis ordinariness”: when an environmental phenomenon does not engender “the kinds of historic action we associate with the heroic agency a crisis implicitly calls for.”[1] To places and times where “closing is not closure.”[2] Simply put, the closing of nuclear facilities, especially mines, does not equal the closure of the workings of nuclear matter. Histories of the nuclear age should also be studied via less linear conceptualizations of time, taking into account flows, longevity, sequences, loops, open-endedness. This not only allows one to veer from canonical narratives of nuclear history; it also lays bare the longer history of nuclear violence as explored in the exhibition …that creeps from the earth.

Uranium is used in reactors, medical applications, and weapons, and where it is mined, lives and environments are sacrificed. Once inhaled by the miners, particles of uranium irrevocably become part of them but also of their lineage, as genetic mutations are passed on to subsequent generations. Rather than being a singular event contained in time, exposure to uranium lives on through its effects, wreaking havoc over and over. …that creeps from the earth engages the “crisis ordinariness” of nuclear violence through uranium’s materiality, starting from affinity—specifically an aesthetic and political affinity between Sandra Lahire (1950–2001), a central figure in the UK’s experimental feminist filmmaking community of the 1980s, and a number of contemporary artists. Central in the work of Lahire is the overly (and vulnerably so) exposed female body at the mercy of machines, from mining drills to nuclear reactors and X-rays. From 1986 to 1989, the artist’s own body served as a metonym for chemical exposure, becoming a surface of filmic inscription: in some films in the series, her chest is X-rayed, her back glowing like the chemical element of radium, in the fluorescent hue of yellow cake. In Uranium Hex (1986) she enters a mine dressed like a miner herself. In Serpent River (1986), skeletal outlines—recurring figures in her broader oeuvre—turn red. Lahire materially manipulated her 16mm film through photographic chemicals, creating visuals with splashing colors.

Both Uranium Hex and Serpent River were shot in uranium mining communities in Ontario, and are accompanied by the unnerving acoustics of extraction: drills, stones falling into trucks, heavy machinery banging, echoey voices from underground. Lahire’s own voice comes in as well, and the voices of women of these communities, who, contra a long-standing association of extractive jobs with masculinity, become her protagonists. The plotless and fragmented stories invoke what was recently deemed an aesthetic of the “feminist incomplete” in film; whether intentionally or forcibly left unfinished, certain incomplete filmic projects become ideal sites for examining lived experiences and practical realities of work, landscapes, and political action.[3] Lahire’s uranium tales are not unfinished in the sense of being unaccomplished, but they do lack distinct beginnings and ends. They establish a radical narrative openness that intentionally troubles the very possibility of historical closure when it comes to the story of uranium mining.

Inas Halabi (b. 1988, Palestine), Susanne Kriemann (b. 1971, Germany), Sharon Stewart (b. 1950, US), and Valinia Svoronou (b. 1989, Greece), the artists featured in …that creeps from the earth, via already existing and newly commissioned works spanning sculptural and audio installation and photography, pick up this narrative open end, accompanied by a subjective, partial historical timeline recounting pivotal, yet rarely uttered, moments related to uranium history designed by Persiis Hajiyanni (b. 1993, Greece). Honing in on varying nuclear extractive geographies, the works introduce us to places where the historical cut mentioned at the beginning of this essay is rather on its “after” side, yet still operates in the present.

Kriemann’s installation Pechblende (canopy, canopy), part of the longer project library for radioactive afterlife (rhizome cycle) (2018–ongoing), tackles the materiality of unfinished matters. Through a durational engagement with the same site over multiple years, the uranium mining territories of the former GDR, this work has been made and unmade and has taken different forms. Located on the border of Saxony and Bohemia (now the Czech-German border), this is also the place where the first uranium ore was discovered in 1789. The “matters” are unfinished, since, after almost half a century of uranium mining (and almost eight centuries of metals extraction), the soil is rife with long-lasting pollution that still begs resolution. Kriemann participated in field research with geologists and biologists from Friedrich Schiller University Jena who study the phyto-remediation of toxic grounds. She approaches these landscapes as “recording systems” of human activities, as she puts it, a bit like photographic surfaces or inscriptions. Although photography is her medium of predilection, for Pechblende (canopy, canopy) the recording surface is raw silk dyed with soil and harvested inks: the systematic forms on the fabric do not originate in the artist’s hand, but are the doings (the traces) of fungal mycelia. It is the landscape, through its forms and tempos, that provides information on radioactive contamination. Printed gray carton boxes, typically used in archiving, function as non-lexical captions. 

Svoronou’s Flowers and Stoneware That Grow by the Barbed Wire (2024), a work especially created for the exhibition, gauges irradiated vegetation via a different aesthetic route. It is conceived as a vessel—half-sculpture, half-furniture—to accommodate the viewing experience of Lahire’s films. Its skeletal, disarmingly transparent structure interlaces elements made in ceramic: little flowers, some serpent-like branches, a bow, a note. Fragments of earthy bodies, a girl’s hair accessory. All this is visible through the glimmer of a translucent plastic cover, which introduces the visitor’s vision as a penetrative process, a bit like X-rays, revealing ghostly images of the inside. The daisies, deformed as they are, echo the forms of real daisies that have mutated as a result of long-term, low-level radiation exposure. Usually symbols of purity and fertility, flowers and nature, in Svoronou’s work, become toxic, yet still thrive, blurring boundaries between what is considered “natural” and what is not.

Halabi’s sound installation Hopscotch (or the Centre of the Sun’s Radiance) (2021–ongoing) weaves narratives attached to two milestones of nuclear modernity: the Shinkolobwe uranium mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a uranium refinery in Olen, Belgium, both formerly owned by the Belgian company Union Minière du Haut-Katanga. Through sound recordings captured in the Congo and Belgium, the project brings us to the Shinkolobwe mine, where some of the uranium used in the first atomic bomb originated. Taking its title from the eponymous novel by Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch (or the Centre of the Sun’s Radiance) invites listeners to “hopscotch” across seven chapters in non-sequential order. Halabi’s spatiotemporal hopscotching—from mine to factory to personal testimony and back—matters here, since no archival diligence could correct the systemic concealment of the health impacts of radiation exposure. Historian Gabrielle Hecht has repeatedly stressed the epistemic lapses surrounding uranium exposure: Shinkolobwe workers who mined the high-grade ore that blasted Hiroshima fell out of scientific conversations on radiation exposure, and even today, scant medical data on Congolese miners exists in the company’s archive in Brussels.[4] Nuclear histories, on extraction and beyond, exist in lapses—either as a lack of proper documentation or as documents sealed away in classified archives, undiscussed. 

Stewart’s photographic series The Toxic Tour of Texas (1988–92) strikes at the heart of knowledge on radioactive contamination and pollution. It journeys us through the US state of Texas, where the artist visited disenfranchised communities who shoulder the toxic burden of an affluent society. Stewart documented the lives of people whose livelihoods have been affected by the leftovers of the energy industries, both petro- and nuclear. From uranium tailings to the dumping of radioactive waste, the human-altered landscapes of The Toxic Tour of Texas are accompanied by quotes from interviews the artist conducted with local people, from environmental activists to concerned citizens and even industry representatives. With a wide dissemination outside art institutions, for instance at environmental hearings and a shopping center, sometimes even bringing about legislative victories,[5] The Toxic Tour of Texas unveils ways that artists attuned to the rhythms and problems of everyday life can render knowable otherwise intractable matters. A small selection of posters pertaining to anti-uranium extraction activism from the International Institute of Social History and the LAKA Foundation, both in Amsterdam, accompany the exhibition and attest to the historical precedents of art-activist coalitions.

Stewart’s series is roughly synchronous with Lahire’s antinuclear oeuvre. In the end titles of Uranium Hex appears the name of Winona LaDuke, a key figure of the Indigenous antinuclear movement. Lahire also spent time at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, an antinuclear camp, in the early 1980s.[6] That decade was a pivotal one for both the antinuclear movement and the movement against uranium extraction; it was arguably the last decade of the Cold War, and witness to the deadliest nuclear accident to date, the Chernobyl meltdown of April 1986. It was also the moment when nuclear weapons were increasingly perceived not solely as an apocalyptic threat but also as an ecological calamity, notably through the popularization of the nuclear winter hypothesis.[7] The apocalyptic image of the atomic bomb veered into the novel status of a global, eco-dystopian omen as images proliferated of a burning planet (thanks to thermonuclear war) that would lead to a weeks-long planetary darkness—nuclear winter. All this happened after 1982, the year Paul Crutzen and John Birks published their co authored, soon-to-be viral essay “The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon.”

Three years before, in July 1979, the dam of the United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill in Church Rock, New Mexico, collapsed. Massive amounts of radioactive waste—from the uranium tailings, that lethal cocktail of mill waste and heavy metals—were released into the environment, seeping into the waters of the Rio Puerco. The magnitude of this incident was proportionally larger than the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, which had occurred three months prior. Its mediatic impact was, however, scant: the spill went virtually unmentioned, especially outside of local New Mexico news outlets, sometimes with mistakes in toponyms and the location erroneously referred to as poorly populated and remote.[8] This “sparsely populated” location, Church Rock, is Navajo land, and the spill led to continuous, decades-long exposures of Indigenous people that can still be felt to today.

Why recount these stories today? Or even compare them? It is a tricky historical undertaking surely, yet they do run parallel: both kicked off at the tail end of the Cold War and both, although to different degrees, sustained and/or initiated outrage through protests against nuclear technologies writ large. The nuclear winter hypothesis provided an additional, environmental edge to the anti-nuke consensus across Europe that was flourishing through agitated responses to the Euromissile crisis. Surely, Church Rock’s radioactive spill never generated outrage to match the protests against the deployment of missiles. It did, however, function as a “binder of transnational consciousness”[9] and even solidarity across Indigenous communities affected by nuclear violence, from New Mexico to Canada to Australia, notably thanks to figures like LaDuke, who penned multiple papers connecting colonial land dispossession to nuclear operations on Native lands, coining “radioactive colonialism” precisely after 1979. And in contrast to the histrionic imagery of a burning planet, the phallic symbolism of missiles and mining drills, the slow buildup of a global antinuclear movement against uranium, operated across a subtler aesthetic repertoire, to which the exhibition …that creeps from the earth pays homage.

Text: Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou

[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2015), 101. With the term “crisis ordinariness”, Belrant, writing from the US and the UK,  refers to how decades of neo-liberal governance have worn deep grooves of precarity and inequality.

[2] Jens Ashworth, Notes Made While Falling (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2020), 95.

[3] Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon, “Pathways to the Feminist Incomplete: An Introduction, a Theory, a Manifesto,” in Incomplete: The Feminist Possibilities of the Unfinished Film, ed. Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon (Oakland: University of California Press, 2023), 10.

[4] Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 160.

[5] Kappy Mintie, “Picturing to Protect: Photography and Environmental Law in the United States, 1960–present,” in Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography since 1970 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021), 23.

[6] Different sources attest to that. An artistic one is Tina Keane’s video In our hands, Greenham, 1984, where we can see the hands of Lahire. Greenham was established in protest at the deployment of cruise missiles in 1981, and lasted nineteen years.

[7] Paul Crutzen and John W. Birks, “The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon,” in Nuclear War: The Aftermath, ed. Jeannie Petersen (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1982), 73–96. Tellingly, it is Crutzen who twenty years later would also coin and theorize the term “Anthropocene.”

[8] Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 167.

[9] That specific formulation I owe it to David Teh, email exchange, March 2022. I elaborate further on that point in my forthcoming article “‘Not the End’: Artists on and Against Nuclear Closure,” 21: Inquiries into Art, History, and the Visual, Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte und visuellen Kultur, no. 4 (2024).

Special thanks

We would like to thank Athanassia Papadopoulou and Antonis Svoronos for their help with the design and install of Valinia Svoronou’s work.