Lessons from the Boy’s Room

The painful world-building of Erika Wanenmacher

Visiting artist Erika Wanenmacher’s website feels like diving into a three-hour Wikipedia conspiracy wormhole, which is my highest praise. It’s that same thrill of entanglement, the endorphin hit that floods when someone shows us how the histories we’ve always suspected to be connected really are connected.
Wannemacher’s upcoming exhibition, The Boy’s Room, first showed at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008, and she researched for 10 years before that. The show tells the history of the Human Radiation Experiments conducted in the United States from the 1940s to the 1970s. She’s constructed a 1965 boy’s bedroom to represent one of the children Los Alamos doctors employed as test subjects for the effects of radioisotopic iodine—a chemical present in atomic bomb fallout—on the thyroid. Children have more sensitive thyroids than adults and therefore make defter subjects. Doctors volunteered their own children—or other parents volunteered their children; sometimes scout troops participated.

Half-unpacked objects from the show's first iteration clutter Wanenmacher's already-chaotic studio. To my "How are you?" she responds, "I'm fucking insane!"

Her T-shirt reads, "Satanic Temple: exercise your religious rights," and she works as we speak, digging through her pockets and coming up with objects she picked up walking the acequias that morning. "Welcome to the home of the Ditch Witch," she says in cheerful greeting, and a moment later she's on to tinkering with a television set in the center of the studio's floor—"Power up, fucker."

Wanenmacher’s fictionalized boy sits in front of this television using a vintage TV tray covered in mushroom clouds. Wile E Coyote cartoons play on a loop, solarized in black and white and cut with atomic bomb footage. (The scientists used television to keep the children still.) The whole scene is black and white, except a small container of green, glow-in-the-dark resin. The boy is a composite of a child, and deeply personal: “Kind of nerdy, like my brother, sort of crafty,” Wannemacher says. “A boy scout, because they were big on boy scouts. Science-y. The stuff that I like.”
There is a reason the show’s been packed away for 10 years. When Wanenmacher moves to take a tiny set of black and white pajamas out of a cardboard box, she becomes visibly upset. “Oh my god, I hate this stuff so much,” she says, closing the box. She calls the year she spent constructing the 2008 show the worst year of her life.
“I had to have this huge protection spell on me. It was emotionally exhausting,” she says. “It was the first time I ever felt the darkness push back.”
During the 10 intervening years she created her Ditch Witch show, making art out of found objects from the acequia, “working for the light.” She opened and closed the Ditch Witch store on Baca Street, taught sculpture and worked on Meow Wolf’s perma-installation. And she turned down intermittent offers to reinstall The Boy’s Room. When Phil Space’s James Hart asked her to consider doing so at his space this summer, she initially told him absolutely not.
“Then I hear myself talking myself into it, in an almost hysterical way,” she says.
This time, Wannemacher plans to sell pieces in an auction and donate the proceeds to Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the Los Alamos Study Group. “I don’t want to deal with it any more. So I’m getting rid of it. Tell me what it’s worth. Have at it,” she says. Wanenmacher refers to the piece as “one of the stories I was meant to tell,” but it’s as much an object lesson in the tolls art can take on the artist. “I hate this stuff so much,” she repeats.
From the sheer quantity and diversity of pieces Wanenmacher has around, I imagine her working in a rushed fugue state, but she tells me she’s actually slow and steady. She compares herself to the tarot card, The Fool, stepping off a cliff, but always keeping one foot grounded. She picks up new media often and easily and then tries to push it to its limits. “The bottom line is, I love making stuff,” she says. “I tell stories. I can’t help it. I love making stuff and I’m pretty fucking good at it.”
During her research, Wanenmacher found reference to the child test subjects as “child volunteers,” a phrase that reignites her now. “Child volunteers. Child volunteers? C’mon man, they were 6 years old. Child volunteers … It meshes with our current situation. The nuclear threat, but also, hey, look what we’ll do to children,” she says. “I really would just like all of this to go away, and I mean that in the general sense. But artists, we got to do what we got to do.”
Her next project, which she interrupted to work on The Boy’s Room, explores time travel, she tells me. “The emotional effects of time travel,” she muses. “Yeah.”

Artifacts from The Boy's Room
5 pm Tuesday July 24. Free. Through July 29.
Axle Contemporary, parked under the Farmers Market Shade Structure,
Market and Alcaldesa Streets,

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