Stick Figure White Silhouettes

NOWADAYS I SEE THE WHITE chalk silhouettes of 1980s Palm Sundays on the back windows of the middle-class people movers whose drivers want to boast about their happy families. I’ve been meaning to photograph someone’s back windscreen to illustrate the point, but I can never quite get there fast enough with my phone camera. Perhaps it’s just as well I see them so relatively rarely, considering the associations. If you’re over the age of about 25, once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.

There’s a blinding light, a city pauses in the shock of the noise, a glow of white-red-orange, and just as everyone realises that there’s a sound effect to follow the the flash, a blast wave of a bomb comes rushing through the streets to knock down and burn and incinerate. It’s a very big explosion, but there’s something quite special about radioactivity to inspire horror. Thump! Sizzle! Bang!

That was my childhood nightmare of the 1980s, fed by cultural saturation of Russian and American ballistic nuclear submarines in the Pacific, SAC under the prairie and the Soviet deterrent on trucks in the steppe, the news of Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl accident, satellites, Star Wars (Ronald Reagan’s one, not George Lucas’s) and the very well-organised and quasi-religious Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). If only the air force had to hold a cake stall to buy a bomber, as the t-shirt slogan went, education funding would be the better off. Except that part of it was never about progressive taxation.

Earnest folk used to spend their early August mornings chalking white silhouettes on the walls to simulate the dead of Hiroshima, flashed onto vertical surfaces as shadows by the energy of their atomic bomb. What a terrible and awe-inspiring pretext for an enduring image! The more I think about it, for better or worse, the more morbid the anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1980s and early 1990s seem. They were always, ever, when they were effective, an image of death and apocalypse and annihiliation, which doesn’t sit well with writing to your Education Minister for more funding.

It was almost two campaigns, really. One was the earnest—and successful—social justice gradual reformism, aimed at a few more bucks for the childcare centre, and the other was, in John Dolan’s words, an acknowledgement of the beauty of the image.

You know you feel the pull of it already. How much of our alleged “fear” of nuclear war is longing — lust for Nirvana, disguising itself as pious horror? In Berkeley, avid hobbyists went around spraypainting the sidewalks in a circle a half-mile around the Campanile, showing the range of “total destruction” from a nuclear blast over the campus. I remember seeing one of them at work — a skinny hippie who would’ve looked good in a pilgrim hat and black coat — laboring over his stencil, biting his lip in what I then took for concentration but now seems more like…pleasure. He was having The Dream: that bomb-bay camera shot of a dull static city suddenly jolted by the first blast, a hemisphere of fire, a half-sun umbrella over downtown…then the upwash, the stalk which will flatten out in the upper air to form the toadstool cap…now cut to houses sucked inward to fuel the blast, no sooner vacuumed toward the epicenter than the full blast whipsaws them outwards, roofs and cars and windows blown out by the great breath…and then, the post-coital smoke: pillars of it, from the few ruins which have enough energy left to burn. A city of chimneys and rubble.

Life and death, but good iconography in popular art endures.

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Fyodor · 16 October 2011, 17:25 · #

Could be worse – you could be paranoid about sperm thieves.

Note to self: file under “WTFF” and “paranoistalgia”.

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Liam · 16 October 2011, 17:32 · #

I saw that, and was immediately reminded of Old Times At Pundit High before I was thoroughly creeped out. Mind you, apart from the lede and, you know, the entire content of the story, doesn’t it strike you that there’s something not quite right there?
I mean, from an economics point of view, surely there’s great flexibility in supply of the product, compared to demand?

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Casey · 17 October 2011, 08:54 · #

They aren’t all bad Liam. Some are rather interesting:

http://adayintheburbs.weebly.com/uploads/6/2/0/6/6206938/1296839709.jpg

I know you think Frangipanis have a death wish for you, and you go with that, but what about lashes? You like lashes? Oh, I’d kill for whatever mascara this car is using

http://blog.brandsexclusive.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/pinkcarlash.jpg

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Liam · 17 October 2011, 09:25 · #

You’re right, that second one is awesome. It’s Baz Luhrman meets early Peter Weir.

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FDB · 17 October 2011, 11:02 · #

I saw a pretty awesome crazy lady with about ten cats decal the other day.

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