The Odd Couple
Missiles and Petroglyphs

The forcible pairing a fragmented photograph of a missile on top of a part of a petroglyph may seem like an odd pairing, but the jarring juxtaposition of a machine on a mission of death and an ancient drawing actually has an odd a/symmetry. We have always had missiles, beginning with spears that were thrown and arrows that were shot towards a target. We have always had glyphs, hieroglyphs, petroglyphs, otherwise known as picture writing, a form of communication that can sometimes be read like a book or should be taken as signs and symbols. John Pfahl (1939-) put two photographs together with the seam clearly visible. There is no digital obliteration of the barrier or manipulative blurring of the boundary. Each image, the missile and the petroglyph is kept resolutely separate, stacked on a vertical line. The missiles are always on top, as if threatening to rise, while the petroglyphs are on the bottom, grounding the modern with the ancient. The Missile /Glyphs (1984-85) series was made during the last years of the Cold War, a war without shooting which meant that this was a war that could continue indefinitely. For those who grew up under the shadow of missiles and woke up every day grateful to be alive, a state of constant fear and dread was normal. Unexpectedly, the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, leaving America with an arsenal of weapons never fired. In retrospect, the standoff between two world powers seems a Baudrillidarian theater of the absurd. The culture enacted nuclear catastrophes and their consequences in films such as On the Beach (1959, Fail Safe (1964) and the blackest of black parodies, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Pfahl photographed the fact of mass destruction without the tragedy of the first two films or the irony of Stanley Kubrick. His work and his process were unemotional and matter of fact.

Bomare Nuclear Missile/Butler Wash Petroglyphs

And yet, Pfahl viewed these the petroglyphs as the beginning of time and the missiles as the end of time. While we today, see these missiles as dangerous relics, in the early 1980s, the time that Pfahl was touring missile sites and finding tribal markings on rocks, intercontinental ballistic missiles were alive and well, locked and loaded. Fascinated with the drawings on the red rocks of Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, the photographer entered the Great Gallery, a site he called, “America’s equivalent of the cave paintings at Alta Mira or Lascaux.” Years later, describing though process behind putting missiles and glyphs together, the photographer said, “As I set up my tripod and camera among the boulders at the foot of an overhanging cliff and studied the long row of towering masked figures, I had the uncanny feeling that they were alive and present. I seemed to be making direct contact with the human minds and beings that had made these drawings long ago. Protected only by falcons and owls and by a remoteness not yet breached by vandals, these stoic figures appeared to symbolize the very birth of civilization. If the Great Gallery represented the beginning, I discovered the perfect emblems for the end of culture when I visited the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque. Decommissioned bombs and missiles from the late, great Cold War were displayed there, all tidied up, on the blinding asphalt of a large parking lot and inside a cavernous hangar. It was a place where the literary abstractions of the Nuclear Age were given a concrete and seductive reality.”

Fat Man Atomic Bomb/Great Gallery Pictographs

The reality of planted War was that unlike World War One and Two, this war was fought at home. Because of the technological progress made, largely thanks to German scientists, it was increasingly easy to bomb another nation at leisure without having to put boots on the ground so to speak. Immediately after the Second World War, the Americans and the Russians raced each other to locate and liberate two assets, looted works of art and rocket scientists. The full accounting of the recovery of stolen art has yet to be made, but the parceling out of the scientists was a matter of which expert in missiles was nearest to which invading army. In 2008, Frederick Ordway and Mitchell Sharpe wrote an interesting book, The Rocket Team, about the race to scoop up German scientists, a race the Soviets lost. By the spring of 1945, it was clear to the scientists that, unlike other devoted Nazis, they had a bargaining chip they could deploy. The victors would be eager to include them in the spoils. The only question was who to chose? As one scientist said, “We despise the French, we are mortally afraid of the Soviets, we do not believe the British can afford us. So that leaves the Americans.” In his review of the book for Air & Space, Anatoly Zak, wrote, “On June 20, 1945, von Braun and about 1,000 other German engineers and family members made the exodus from East Germany into the U.S.-held western zone, just ahead of the advancing Red Army. When the Soviets arrived, they found the V-2 underground production center at Mittelwerk mostly abandoned, its top personnel gone, and key documents missing.” Few Germans wanted to join the Soviets but, promised they could work in Germany rather than be transported to Germany, some scientists were persuaded to lend their talents to the communist regime. By the fall, fueled by the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, the Cold War was on.

Mace Cruise Missile/Sand Island Petroglyphs

By the time John Pfahl was photographing decommissioned missiles, the latest models were planted like stalks of rhubarb on the Great Plains of the American Midwest. In The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland by Gretchen Heefner wrote that “Between 1961 and 1967 the U.S. Air Force buried 1,000 Minuteman missiles across tens of thousands of square miles of the Great Plains. For three decades those missiles remained underground, cloistered on constant alert, capable of delivering their payload–a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead–to target in less than 30 minutes. This is how some Americans lived the Cold War. Never before had the military permanently implanted its weapons amidst the population and expected life to go on as usual. People living in the missile files were to pretend that they did not notice the chainlink fences, the high-frequency antennas, or the lumbering Air Force trucks. Wih a few exceptions, they were not asked to move or relocate. On the contrary, they were told that living a half mile from a missile silo was no big deal, that their cattle could graze on pastures nearby, that they could get close to the fence. One of the missile silos was a few hundred yards from a school..Despite the vastness of the missile program, very few people outside the missile fields knew much about it; certainly, few people knew where the silos were, and even people who did know generally hose not to think about them. The Minutemen were hidden in plain sight–implanted in out-of-the-way places whose vast desolation seemed to swallow up the meaning of the weaponry.”  

Minuteman Missile?Galisteo Basin Petroglyphs

If the Midwestern communities learned how to stop worrying and learned to love the missiles, the political discourse on missiles was a bipartisan controversy. Until 1983, Americans had become accustomed, as strange as it sounds, to MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction, meaning that both sides recognized that they were equally armed and therefore equally assured of annihilation. This peaceful state of equilibrium was upset when in 1983, President Ronald Reagan decided that it would be better for the United States to be invulnerable to any possible attacks.  Andrew Futter’s book Ballistic Missile Defence and US National Security Policy: Normalisation and Acceptance after the Cold War noted that for two decades, MAD had been the status quo, but that it would be replaced by the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The idea of ratching up the Cold War tensions with a proposed ballistic missile defense caused consternation between those two groups. The group, mostly Republicans, wanted to take no chances and create a missile shield. The other group, mostly Democrats, preferred to not encourage nuclear proliferation. The result of MAD, the author asserted was that “During the second half of the Cold War–for a mixture of political, technological, and strategic reasons–the idea that US security was best assured through a policy of MAD and by limiting US missile defenses was the dominant and accepted discourse.” Futter’s book follows the evolution from a policy of MAD, which became settled policy by the 1960s to the SDI project of Reagan in the 1980s to the consensus agreement enjoyed today that the ballistic missile shield, called the national missile defense (NMD) should be maintained. As Futter explained by 2012, “..the end of the Cold War and the rise of rogue states seemingly intent on acquiring WMD, a stronger strategic and technological rationale for ballistic missile defenses had emerged.” One might add that Reagan’s SDI ramp-up of a new missile arsenal forced the Soviet Union, which had a very weak economy, into a new arms race, a race that brought the entire regime down during his presidency. 

280mm Nuclear Canon/Galisteo Basin Petroglyphs

It is ironic that, since Phafl photographed what seemed like relics of the last days of the Cold War, the ballistic missiles that replaced the aging originals in their silos are still our nuclear umbrella. In fact, the photographer noted the continuing significance of the missiles in his essay on this series: “The recent ending of the Cold War in Europe and the new specter of nuclear destruction in the Middle East shifted the psychic weight from on half of the diptych to the other and back again.” Gretchen Heefner reminded her readers that there are still at least a thousand missiles decommissioned and deactivated in their vertical holes, waiting for the archaeologists of the future who will find these abandoned empty shells as fascinating and as enigmatic as we find the petroglyphs today. In 2013, National Geographic reported that America’s oldest petroglyphs had been dated. Covered by the waters of Winnemucca Lake in Nevada for hundreds of years, the drawings came to light as the water level lowered and revealed the long-submerged rocks. As Ker Than reported, “…geochemist Larry Benson and his team concluded that the petroglyphs, located about 35 miles (56 kilometers) northeast of Reno at Winnemucca Lake, are at least 10,500 years old, and perhaps as much as 14,800 years old. ‘Whether they turn out to be as old as 14,800 years ago or as recent as 10,500 years ago, they are still the oldest petroglyphs that have been dated in North America,” Benson, who is at the University of Colorado Natural History Museum in Boulder..'” Than continued, explaining that “..the boulders were exposed to air—and thus accessible for carving by humans—between about 14,800 to 13,100 years ago, and again from about 11,300 to 10,500 years ago. In between the two time periods, the boulders were submerged, the scientists say. It’s unknown what method was used to create the petroglyphs, but one possibility is the artists used hard volcanic rock to chip away at the carbonate, which is porous and relatively soft, said Benson, who conducted the dating research while with the U.S. Geological Survey.”  

Abandoned Missile Site

It is possible the locations of petroglyph art, carefully noted by John Phafl in each of his images, was important to the hunter-gatherer cultures that carved the figures. As David S. Whitley wrote in his article “Finding Rain in the Desert Landscape, Gender, and Far Western North American Rock-Art,” “..rock-art sites–their physical location in the landscape, geomorphological attributes (rock outcrop, cliff face, rock-shelter walls, and ceilings) and the rock-panel faces themselves–were, in fact, important symbols in their own right; instead of serving as neutral backdrops for rock-art motif, they were in a real sense as symbolically important as the was the site/panel and motif which gave material association which provided the particular image, and it was this association which provided the particular meaning among the many meanings that, otherwise, might inhere in a given drawing or engraving. The rock-art site served as the instrumental symbol..of the ritual practices involved in rock-art production. The symbolism of the site involved the belief that sites were portals into the sacred realm: the site was thought an entrance into the supernatural while the painted or engraved panel was believed a permeable barrier, with rocks and cracks in the panel face opening to allow the shaman to move between the natural and supernatural realms.”

Petroglyphs of Winnemucca Lake


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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