A powerful 10-minute video artwork marking the 75th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been released by the Imperial War Museum in London.
The museum commissioned stage designers Es Devlin, who is British, and Machiko Weston, who is Japanese, to make the piece, which tells the stories and explores the impact of the bombings from different perspectives.
The film, I Saw the World End, has been posted on the museum’s website. It features Devlin and Weston reading short texts from a range of sources including extracts from HG Wells’ prophetic 1914 novel The World Set Free, in which he imagined a bomb of terrifying power that would be dropped from aeroplanes.
Devlin is one of the world’s leading stage designers, whose diverse work has included Sam Mendes’ production of The Lehman Trilogy, the Royal Opera’s Don Giovanni and stadium tours by artists such as Adele and Katy Perry. Weston has been a studio colleague for 12 years.
Working separately during lockdown, the pair initially started imagining a work with lots of visual imagery but soon became uncomfortable.
“We just didn’t feel we had the authority to invoke the power of any of these images,” said Devlin. “We didn’t feel we had the authority to write any words. So we felt collective reading was the appropriate response.”
Weston discovered letters written by a young Harry S Truman, decades before he became the president who ordered the bombings.
In one, he writes in 1911 to his future wife: “Uncle Wills does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I.”
Devlin said there were more overtly racist extracts, which they did not include. The question was whether to use any at all.
“We had a big conversation about the authenticity of including what was written when the guy was in his twenties, 34 years before he pressed the button,” she said.
“But there is a connection. There were many reasons for dropping the bomb; we can’t call it a racist act but I think racism is an interesting lens, right now, through which to view it and explore it.”
The piece also includes challenging and upsetting quotes from survivors, as well as more optimistic ones. For example, Yasujiro Tanaka, a Nagasaki survivor, who said: “As a firsthand witness to this atrocity, my only desire is to live a full life … hopefully in a world where people are kind to each other, and to themselves.”
It also features Albert Einstein and the physicist Leo Szilard, who first grasped the idea of a nuclear chain reaction as he waited at a London traffic light – on Southampton Row – in 1933.
The 10-minute video work was due to be officially unveiled on Thursday morning on a 45-metre screen in London’s Piccadilly Circus but events in Beirut led organisers to cancel.
Instead it was first revealed on a 1-metre screen at the Imperial War Museum at 8.15am, the time on 6 August 1945 that an atomic bomb was dropped from the Enola Gay on the city of Hiroshima. An estimated 80,000 of the city’s 350,000 population were killed instantly. By the end of the year the death toll had reached 140,000.
Both women obviously came to the subject with very different perspectives.
Devlin said she grew up with the books of Raymond Briggs, including the Snowman and Father Christmas. He also wrote When the Wind Blows, which tells the story of nuclear attack on Britain.
“I’m not alone; I speak to many of my generation who first heard about nuclear holocaust via the man who drew Father Christmas,” she said.
“I remember saying to my mum: ‘I don’t want to go to sleep in case the bomb goes off when I’m asleep.’ We grew up with that fear.”
She would ask whether a bomb had ever happened and was told yes by her parents, who said it was the only way to end the war.
“We were very interested in unpicking that. We are now in a generation which is able to question what happened, that’s our role now.”