Friday, September 14, 2012

Teaching Gail Grinnel's Chalice

Gail Grinnell. "Chalice" (acrylic and collage, 1993)
We are excited to be opening next week the exhibition, "Particles on the Wall," developed by a curatorial team associated with Washington Nuclear Museum and Education Center and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility; the show features visual poetry, art and scientific commentary engaged with the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state, the largest site of environmental contamination in the Western hemisphere.

There  are many deeply compelling works of art and poetry in the show. I'm wondering how we might effectively engage audiences with a rather enigmatic work, Gail Grinnell's "Chalice" (acrylic and collage, 1993. (The work is featured on p. 21 of the Particles on the Wall catalogue, 2nd edition, downloadable in PDF form at

The work consists of six panels: three alternating panels consist of a more or less identical silhouetted outline of a chalice, which in the Christian tradition is the ceremonial cup in which wine is blessed in the Eucharist. The other three panels contain similar, disturbing shapes vaguely reminiscent of the chalices: they may be laboratory beakers boiling over, or organic forms with uncanny tendrils extending outwards, or bombs beginning to explode.

How might one encourage students to engage with this work productively?  One might ask, after students describe the work aloud, to ask why it would seem relevant to an exhibition on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.  Might it be in part that beyond the image  of the  chalice, normally a sacred gift or blessing, hovers its obverse, the motif of the poisoned chalice? Might the artist be implying that the seeming gift of nuclear power can all to easy transmogrify into the horrors of nuclear contamination?

To my knowledge the first usage of the term "poisoned chalice" is found in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 1, scene 7, as Macbeth, in soliloquy, agonizes over murdering Duncan to advance his political ambition:

" .....But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach 
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return 
To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice 
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips"

In this prophetic passage, Macbeth nearly convinces himself to forswear the assassination (although Lady Macbeth will, moments later, strengthen his resolve).   The passage, in any event, does seem uncannily appropriate to the temptations of nuclear power, which promises its seeming masters omnipotence, only to enslave and destroy them by the very instrument that tempts them, thus returning, in Shakespeare's terms, "to plague the inventor."

It is possible that the artist has arranged the three chalices in triangular configuration to recall the familiar tri-foil shape of the radiation hazard sign, or the related Fallout Shelter symbol. And perhaps she also seeks to evoke the Eucharistic symbolism of the mystery of transubstantiation: the enigmatic process through which Uranium-238 is irradiated with neutrons to produce plutonium, the key component of nuclear weapons.

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