Critical Assembly and Terrestrial Physics

News: In 2015 Critical Assembly was permanently placed into the collection of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque NM.

News: In 2015 Terrestrial Physics was permanently placed into the collection of Intellectual Ventures Inc. in Bellevue Washington.

In 1998 Jim Sanborn visited the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. This visit led him to a six-year project titled Critical Assembly during which he created a tableau based on the laboratory environment for the assembly of the first atomic bomb. This large installation began with concentrated research and then with many trips over a four-year period to Los Alamos NM where he acquired original spare parts and prototypes of the first atomic bomb and the laboratory equipment used to build them. The objects he was not able to acquire from former employees of the lab, he constructed.

Terrestrial Physics Sanborn's project predates that 1944 Los Alamos program by several years and focuses on the following event.

In a quiet residential neighborhood in Washington DC at 9:00 pm Saturday, January 28, 1939, the large particle accelerator at The Carnegie Institutions Department of Terrestrial Magnetism split the nucleus of the uranium atom for a small audience that included the physicists Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr and Edward Teller. This discovery paved the way for technologies as ironically disparate as nuclear medicine and, within just five years, the atomic bomb.

Working from the Carnegie physicist's original notes, drawings, and photographs in the Carnegie Library, Sanborn has reconstructed machines based on this information and repeated the original experiment; splitting the atom of Uranium. The installation, large digital prints, a video of the fission events and the accelerator in operation, form the basis of this body of work.

Terrestrial Physics and Critical Assembly soften the distinctions between art and science. These installations exploring the relationship between pure science and technology do not use science as just a starting point though; here, tools more often associated with science have become an integral part of artwork. These reinterpretations of the events and more importantly the influence of the visual context of these moments remind us of the risks, rewards and complexities of the decision-making processes involved.

Click here to see MCA-Denver YouTube video.

go back home


Without Provenance, The Making Of Contemporary Antiquity

Jim Sanborn has been building science-based installations for many years. From 2000 through 2010 his works Critical Assembly at the Gwangiu Biennale and the Corcoran Museum and Terrestrial Physics at the Museum Of Contemporary Art Denver used self made and purchased genuine artifacts as set pieces in complex installations, so this new work it is not as large a departure as one might think. The physics related works studied the relationship between pure science and technology. This new body of work draws from his early training as an archeologist and later as an artist following the auction trade.

This “auction” folio contains a selection of images from his Without Provenance installation. The complete installation consists of over twenty works each with its attendant framed “auction” page. The dimensions and configuration of the “antiquities museum/auction preview” installation is variable. The auction folio may be used as a template for an installation catalog.

For several years a crisis has been brewing in public and private antiquities collections, and many collections have ceased to add to their holdings because incidents of murky provenance, repatriations, and questions of authenticity have increased dramatically. The introduction of fakes into the auction market began decades ago, and in the last few years this has become a serious problem for unwitting collectors, dealers and museums.

The works in this installation are not museum shop “replicas” because they are not cheaply mass produced. They are not “forgeries” either because this implies that the pieces are offered for sale as genuine antiquities which they are not. These pieces can however be called “high-end reproductions” or "Contemporary Antiquities".

Jim Sanborn has gone to great lengths to discover the complex and time consuming art of forging stone antiquities in order to present convincing objects for this installation and to provide an alternative to buyers of looted antiquities.

Working with conservation professionals in the US and master forgers in Cambodia Sanborn has uncovered the process for aging newly carved sandstone works that makes the pieces scientifically and aesthetically indistinguishable from genuine antiquities.

The idea for protecting genuine works from looters is simple; discourage the collecting of looted antiquities by injecting a high level of uncertainty into the buying experience, or offer buyers high-end reproductions: Are the desired objects genuine or high-end reproductions?

In order to dilute the criminal trade in looted objects French antiquities conservation groups have already begun the process by bringing out many of these forgeries from Cambodia so they can be sold legally as expensive high-end reproductions, and buyers are there, buyers willing to purchase Khmer artworks for their beauty, not their age.

By disseminating long hidden forgery techniques to a wider audience of artists in Cambodia and Thailand and by having Thai and Cambodian officials promote the export of legal Contemporary Antiquities, the process can move ahead. The only remaining obstacle is that the high-end reproduction market in Cambodia and Thailand is mixed up with the forgery market so that today most high-end pieces are being sold as genuine, thus making the transactions illegal. This is a big problem that is going to take a considerable international effort to overcome.

go back home


The Topographic Projections and Implied Geometries Series

These images were produced by direct, large format, light projection. The projector, powered by a mobile generator, was moved from site to site. All of the pieces were photographed at night using long exposures. On moonless nights, the landscape was lit with searchlights. The landforms themselves are quite large, requiring the projector and camera to be, on average, 1/2 mile away from the subject landscape.

The images in the Topographic Projections and Implied Geometries Series are presented as 20" x 24", 30" x 36" and 48" x 60" digital prints.

The Radium Clock Series

The first test of an atomic bomb occured in the southern New Mexico desert just before dawn at 5:30 AM on July16, 1945. The intense flash that turned night into day was thought by residents as far away as 100 miles to be sunrise. Ironically, radioactive luminous clocks on night-stands in bedrooms across New Mexico informed the residents that it was not yet sunrise. The clock face images are time-lapse photographs of luminous radium alarm clock dials.

The images in the Radium Clock series are presented as 20" x 24" and 30” x 36” digital prints.

The Uranium Autoradiograph Series

Nuclear materials are primarily derived from “natural” uranium. This radioactive ore is currently mined at hundreds of sites worldwide. In the 1940s, when the first atomic bomb was assembled, just a handful of mines supplied the material.

These images were created by placing samples of uranium collected from these early mines onto 4” x 5” sheet film. In time, the ore samples photographed themselves using their own radioactivity to expose the film. These digital prints made from the exposed film are called autoradiographs. They were first used by Marie Curie in the 19th century, at that time, only in black and white.

In 1934, physicist Pavel Cherenkov discovered the “color” of radioactivity. The intense blue of Cherenkov Radiation is seen in the air surrounding powerfully radioactive materials. The cobalt blue in the autoradiographs is this color, formed naturally by the radiation.

The images in the Uranium Autoradiograph Series are presented as 20" x 24" and 30” x 36” digital prints.

The Penetrating Radiation Series

Since the 1950s, depleted uranium has been used in certain types of artillery shells. Uranium has two properties that make it an attractive weapon: the material is heavier and harder than lead and it is pyrophoric (when it hits an object, it ignites spontaneously and burns violently.) Tens of thousands of uranium projectiles have been fired in international “theaters” of war. The health effects of these weapons are currently creating significant conflict within the international community.

The images in the Penetrating Radiation series are presented as 40" x 36" and 30" x 24" digital prints in sets of two.

During the course of developing Terrestrial Physics and the Cloud Chamber video in particular, I began working with the Cloud Chambers dry ice alone. The resulting Hydra video and stills, produced in 2009, have become a parallel body of work.

In this short one minute looped clip of the eight minute Hydra video a block of dry ice slowly evaporates. Also known as solid carbon dioxide or CO2, the block is sitting on a sheet of polished black rubber and the ordinarily invisible snakelike CO2 vapors are revealed by two opposing, intense, narrow beams of light.The sound track was recorded in the Arctic and begins with Arctic wind and then builds with the sound of large scale moving ice and glacial melting.

The obvious irony in the video is that the dry ice block looks suprisingly similar to a water Iceberg.

go back home


For questions about, or for solutions to Kryptos, please click here

The narrative of the Kryptos artwork at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters has been unfolding for almost 20 years. From the top down struggle at the Agency about the highly publicized work to its robust life on the Internet, its involvement with the Da Vinci Code and its powerful effect on individuals and popular culture, the artwork has taken on a fast-paced almost mythic life. Ace code-breakers at the CIA and a rival team at the super-secret NSA have worked for many months on the code without cracking all of the sections. The NSA has released their methods and you can click here to view them.

In the late 1980's when the piece was designed codes and coding were esoteric subjects. Code had not really penetrated the popular mindset. The well-publicized arrival of Kryptos (it was front page news on a global scale and was featured on national and international radio and television broadcasts) set the stage for a code revival. The blossoming of personal secrecy and code cracking as recreation have been gaining in popularity ever since. And the fact that an artist, with a little help, developed a challenging code enhanced its unconventional populism. Kryptos had deftly steered itself onto a parallel track with the advent of bank machine pass codes, personal pass codes, Internet secrecy and even national security.

The K4 section of Kryptos is one of the world's most famous unsolved mysteries. Recently it was the most Googled thing globally for two days running. Kryptos websites, chat rooms, and blogs abound. The artist continues to review dozens of attempts to crack the code on a weekly basis.

Kryptos has been the subject of five National Public Radio stories and a feature piece for NOVA Science Now. It's been on Good Morning America twice. Part of its coded message is used on the hardcover edition of the Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown and Jim Sanborn and Kryptos have a chapter devoted to them in the Dan Brown book “The Lost Symbol”. There have been countless national and international front-page newspaper stories and numerous magazine features telling the engaging story of Kryptos. In 2010 Kryptos made the front page of the Sunday New York Times and countless other international news outlets when the artist released the “Berlin” Clue on the 20th anniversary of Kryptos. And in November 2014 a similar global press frenzy occurred when the second clue “clock” was released on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Kryptos related gallery works

go back home


go back home



Artist Jim Sanborn was born in Washington, DC on November 14, 1945. He graduated from Randolph-Macon College in 1969 with a double major in art history and sociology. He received his Masters degree in sculpture from Pratt Institute in 1971.

Sanborn has received numerous awards and grants and has exhibited in major museums in the United States, Asia, and Europe. Jim Sanborn's public artworks are located in Japan, Taiwan and many locations in the United States.

Selected Group Exhibitions

2014 Robischon Gallery, Denver
2013 Center for Contemporary Art, Santa Fe
2012 Marsha Mateyka Gallery, “Drawings”
2011 The Nevada Museum, “Photographs Of A Changing Environment”
2010 Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, CO
2009 The Crawford Gallery, "Terror And The Sublime", Cork City, Ireland
2007 Heckscher Museum of Art, "Mathematics and Contemporary Art", Huntington, NY
2006 Irvine Contemporary, "Gallery Artists", Washington, DC.
2006 Palm Springs Art Museum, "Contemporary Desert Photography", Palm Springs, CA
2005 Colgate University Art Gallery, "Bang", Hamilton, NY
2004 The Qwangju Biennale, Republic of Korea.
2002 The Contemporary Museum, "Snapshots" Baltimore, MD
2001 The Scottsdale Museum of Fine Arts, "The Altered Landscape", Scottsdale, AZ
2000 The Contemporary Arts Center, "Landshapes", Newport News, VA
1999 The Southeast Museum of Photography, "Landshapes," Daytona Beach, FL
1999 The Nevada Museum of Art, "The Altered Landscape," Reno NV
1997 The Neuberger Museum, "Public Art Biennial," Purchase, NY
1994 The High Museum, "Metaphysical Metaphors", Atlanta,GA
1992 The Phillips Collection, "Dialogue With Nature," Washington, DC
1988 L.A. County Museum of Art, "AVA7," Los Angeles, CA
1988 Virginia Museum Of Fine Arts, AVA7, Richmond,VA
1987 Southeastern Center of Contemporary Art, "Southeast 7," Winston Salem, NC
1985 Hirshhorn Museum, "Content", Washington, DC
1985 The Corcoran Gallery of Art, "Natural Settings", Washington, DC

Selected Solo Exhibitions

2006 Kreeger Museum, Washington, DC
2003 Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, DC
2003 Numark Gallery, Washington, DC
1999 Numark Gallery, Washington, DC
1996 Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore, MD
1994 Nancy Drysdale Gallery, Washington, DC
1993 The Orlando Museum of Fine Arts, Orlando, F
1992 The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
1992 Nancy Drysdale Gallery, Washington, DC
1986 Diane Brown Gallery, NYC
1982 Diane Brown Gallery, NYC
1981 Artists Space, NYC

Awards and Grants

2012 Bader Fund Grant 2012
2006 Kreeger Museum Fellowship
2005 Maryland Arts Council Grant
1997 Sirius Project Residency, Cork Ireland
1994 Virginia Commission on The Arts Grant
1992 Virginia Commission On the Arts Grant
1992 Pollack Krasner Foundation Grant
1991,94 Virginia Museum Fellowship
1990 Art Matters Inc. Grant
1988 Awards In The Visual Arts Grant
1988 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant
1986,82 National Endowment For The Arts Fellowship

Selected Public Collections

  • · The Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC
  • · The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • · National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • · Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
  • · Kaohsiung Museum Of Fine Arts, Republic of China.
  • · National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Silver Spring, MD
  • · The Central Intelligence Agency, Langly, VA (GSA)
  • · The National Endowment For The Arts, Washington, DC
  • · Kawasaki International Peace Park, Kawasaki, Japan
  • · Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, FL
  • · Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona Beach, FL
  • · Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV
  • · Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, CA
  • · US Embassy, Dublin, Ireland
  • · Progressive Insurance, Cleveland, OH
  • · University Of Houston, Houston, TX
  • · University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
  • · University of California SF, San Francisco, CA
  • · Central Connecticut State University, New Britain CT.
  • · University of Connecticut, Stamford Campus.
  • · University of North Carolina, College of Business, Charlotte, N.C.
  • · U.S. Federal Courthouse, Little Rock, Ar. (GSA).
  • · U.S. Federal Reserve Bank , Washington DC.
  • · The Internal Revenue Service, Martinsburg, W.Va. (GSA).
  • · Cleveland State University, College of Business, Cleveland, Oh.
  • · Cleveland State University, Law School, Cleveland, Oh.
  • · Southern Maryland Federal Courthouse, Greenbelt, Md. (GSA).
  • · The City of Baltimore, Baltimore, Md.
  • · The City of Charleston, Charleston, W.Va.
  • · Arlington County Virginia.
  • · Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, Fla.
  • · Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes, Winston Salem, N.C.
  • · Broward County Public Art Program, Coral Springs Library.
  • · Lee County Alliance For The Arts, Old Post Office Building, Ft. Myers Fla.
  • · Washington DC Convention Center, Washington DC.
  • · University Of Houston, Library, Houston Texas.
  • · Rocky Hill Veterans Home, Rocky Hill Conn.
  • · Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge LA.
  • · Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia PA.
  • · The Federal Reserve Bank, Washington DC.

go back home



Contact the Artist:

For questions about, or for solutions to Kryptos, please click here.

Custom website and graphic solutions Designer and producer of

The reproduction of these copyrighted images is expressly forbidden without the written permission of the artist