by Paul D'Agostino
(UN)THINKABLE: Photographs by Phillip Buehler
Decommissioned bombers stretching deep into the horizon like a sea of their own entombment. A column of deactivated missiles among so many more of the same. A NATO bunker abandoned, vacant, save for the bales of hay that now inhabit it. Dormant jets by the dozens, patterned out like herringbone or houndstooth. Weapons mothballed due to desuetude, or to be reused for parts.
An underground bunker in New York City, now void of its nuclear-tipped Nikes. Missile nosecones whose hefty payloads each once tallied nine megatons. Uncle Sam wielding a bomb as cartoonish nose art on a plane. Switches and gauges logically arrayed in an inactive cockpit. A quasi-collage of plane ruins in Tucson.
B-52s. Titan IIs. Delta Darts. F-4 Phantoms. Fighting Falcons. Nike missiles. Interceptors and Intruders. Boeings with Snoopy noses.
A silo dome like a bizarre lump in the Sonoran Desert. Relics of a space race in Cape Canaveral. A rocketless oculus gazing up at the sky. Rusted nuts and bolts. Bafflingly basic.
Full of unsettled awe and unsettling grandeur, of sincere curiosity and documentaristic candor, of objective interest in the visual mystique of historical objects and the places where they rest, Phillip Buehler’s photographs of the technological and metaphorical trappings of warfare, of primarily Cold War-era relevance, are as strangely familiar and readily legible as the fallout shelter signs that continue to warn, intrigue, remind or perhaps scare us — as signs of a time that are also signs of a sign. Buehler was fascinated by those yellow signs as a youth, and that fascination has never waned. Here, he and they seem to convey much the same sentiment:
Regard, recall. Behold, beware. And be wary of what you recall.
For that which was once thinkable never really becomes unthinkable.
As such, (UN)THINKABLE is the title Buehler chose for his solo exhibition at Front Room Gallery, as well as for the volume of photographs he published to accompany it. In the show and to greater depths in his book, Buehler guides his audience from New York to Arizona, from Germany to Florida, from bunkers to boneyards, from hangars to silos — all the while making visible and sometimes eerily, dark-comically approachable many remnants of warfare that are generally far beyond view. Matters of public safety, as it were, not public consumption.
Buehler began shaping the core of this project several decades ago. How timely it would all become in 2017 is as shocking and frightening to him as it is to all of us. To be sure, not thinking about what might’ve once seemed unthinkable is truly not, again today, an option.
This essay was composed as the preface for (UN)THINKABLE, a book of photographs Phillip Buehler published on occasion of his solo show at Front Room Gallery. The exhibit is on view from 8 September to 1 October, 2017. More information about the show can be found here. Images courtesy the artist.
Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator, curator and professor living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.