Warning of the Cold War Horse

The life-size effigy of the horse stands alone in a windswept field in Jefferson County, Colorado. But this is no pettable pony. The Cold War Horse is a warning that something sinister has occurred on this remote plateau, about 15 miles north-west of Denver. Cast in fiberglass, steel and resin, the sculpture depicts the horse cloaked in a bright red hazmat suit, with a grey respirator strapped over its nose and mouth.

The Cold War Horse is wise to be dressed so strangely. Between 1952 and 1992, this area, known as Rocky Flats, was the site of a top secret factory where 70,000 highly toxic plutonium “triggers” were produced. These triggers were then dispatched to the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where they were assembled into hydrogen bombs, to be used in the event that the Cold War suddenly became blazing hot.

Throughout its forty-year history, the Rocky Flats Plant witnessed a series of dangerous incidents, including a plutonium fire in 1957 and numerous leaks of radioactive waste into the surrounding soil and rivers. As a result of these incidents, a 4,600-acre buffer zone was imposed around the plant in 1972 and extended a couple of years later by another 4,500 acres. In the early 1980s, revelations about the activities at the plant and its environmental effects led to public outrage. In 1983, 17,000 people travelled to Rocky Flats to join hands around the 17-mile perimeter fence as part of a peace protest. Finally in 1987, the plant was raided by the FBI and its managers were fined what at the time amounted to the largest fine in history for an environmental crime. Although officially cleaned up in the early 2000s, the site is still heavily contaminated and uninhabited by humans, and has since been designated the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The Cold War Horse was made by sculptor Jeff Gipe, who grew up near to Rocky Flats and whose father worked at the plant for over 20 years and now suffers from serious health problems as a result. The statue was dedicated in September 2015, ten years after the cleanup of the site was declared complete. But this is no memorial. The Cold War Horse is intended as a renegade artwork, to symbolise the locals affected by the scandal who have yet to be recompensated, and a protest against plans to construct a large housing development near the contaminated land.

However, the story doesn’t end there. Just a week after the Cold War Horse was installed, it was knocked to the ground and attacked with sledge hammers by unidentified assailants. The horse is now under repair and Gipe has set up the coldwarhorse.com website for people who would like to donate towards its reinstallation.

Image: Jeff Gipe, Cold War Horse, 2015. Image courtesy Jeff Werkheiser

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The Artistic Rehabilitation of Oppenheimer

On 18 February 1967, legendary physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer passed away. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States demonstrated the terrible power of Oppenheimer’s creation, the scientist reflected that “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds“. His obvious torment at the destruction he had unleashed, together with his communist connections, led the scientist to be stripped of his security clearance in an infamous McCarthyist hearing in 1954, and he would suffer years of harassment by the FBI before his political rehabilitation in 1963.

In 1971 the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee was incorporated in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the site of the Manhattan Project’s principal laboratory. Initially a group of Oppenheimer’s friends and colleagues came together to plan a park in nearby mountains to house a memorial sculpture, although this never materialised. However, in 1973 the group did commission Santa Fe sculptor Una Hanbury to execute a bust of Oppenheimer which is now held in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

oppenheimerMore recently, a bronze statue of Oppenheimer was erected outside the Fuller Lodge Historical Museum in Los Alamos. The work was commissioned from local artist Susanne Vertel as part of the Historical Sculptures Master Plan, which aims to place 18 bronze statues across downtown Los Alamos to highlight the city’s prominent role in World War II and Cold War history. Oppenheimer’s figure stands next to a bronze depiction of General Groves, the United States Army officer who directed the scientist’s work on the Manhattan Project.

Image: Susanne Vertel, statue of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, 2012. Courtesy Susanne Vertel.