Maarten Vanden Eynde

The Gadget (in collaboration with Rita Van Cotthem), Belgian Art Prize 2017, Bozar, Brussels, Belgium (photo: Philippe De Gobert)

The Gadget (in collaboration with Rita Van Cotthem), Belgian Art Prize 2017, Bozar, Brussels, Belgium (photo: Philippe De Gobert)

The ‘Gadget’ was the nickname given to the first atomic bomb, tested in New Mexico (US) in July 1945. Most of the uranium used in the first atom bombs came from the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga, in what was then the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It was shipped to the United States via Antwerp in Belgium, by the Belgian businessman Edgar Sengier, the director of the Union Minière du Haute-Katanga, an Anglo-Belgian mining company operating in the Congo’s copper belt between 1906 and 1966. A similar route was followed in the past by cotton.  Enslaved people transported from the Kingdom of Kongo in central Africa and elsewhere planted and picked cotton in America’s southern states, whence it was shipped to the cotton mills of England and also to Belgium and the rest of northern Europe to be used in the bobbin lace industry. An odd encounter between the particularly female work of bobbin-lace-making and the predominantly male occupation of bomb-making, woven into the tangle of threads in 'The Gadget 3D'.

That is not the only ironic link between the histories of cotton and uranium. When the Second World War broke out, Japan was one of the world’s major cotton producers and traders, surpassing even Britain. Dropping Little Boy and Fat Man – the code names of the second and third atomic bombs made by the US as part of the same Manhattan Project that produced the ‘Gadget’ – on Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralded a definite end to the cotton empire of Japan.

'The Gadget 3D' was made in collaboration with Rita Van Cotthem, a highly skilled bobbin lace expert, who spent more than 1000 hours on its creation. The 300-plus wooden bobbins are all unique pairs, referencing the many hands that facilitated the creation of the first atomic bomb. Shaped like bullets or bombs and radiating outwards they seem suspended in mid-trajectory, adding to the installation’s explosive force.