The Lure of Radium
enamel, reflector beads, photoluminescent pigment, photo transfer, copper, nylon
42 x 24 x 5cm
“The facts and narratives of Antarctica have been mostly manhandled since the beginning”. As a continent it was known as a place for Heroic challenges. Typically women were seen as weak in relation to Antarctica — if not physically weak themselves then a cause of weakness within men. How did Suzy Solidor get to Antarctica and learn about the qualities of Radium? Through jewellery and objects I explore human experience and place. Since travelling to Antarctica in 2004 I have been working from my personal experience of Antarctica. Whilst researching for the exhibitionMirror Mirror curated by Benjamin Lignel and Joe Bloxham at the Espace Solidor in France, I stumbled upon a unknown film that Suzy Solidor worked on in 1938, La Femme Du Bout Du Monde (The Woman From the End of The World) by the Avant Garde director Jean Epstein. Amazingly this is one of the earliest fictional films about Antarctica and in some way would have contributed to early perceptions of the continent. Initially Suzy’s film is no different, it tells of sailors on the island Dumont d’Urville, lost in the middle of the ocean in search of radium ore bewitched by the a woman who lives on the island. I found this connection between Suzy and Antarctica intriguing. However the footage is incomplete and only available for viewing at the Archives françaises du film. Suzy had a small supporting role, she was not the star but took a small part of this film which itself provides insight into gender politics, representations of Antarctica, isolation, and the lure of Radium. The film was made from a novel written by Alan Serdac, interestingly this is actually a pseudonym for Denise Fontaine, a French woman writer of the inter-war period. Even more intriguing is that Denise was actually the wife of a commander who led sealing expeditions to the Kerguelen Islands (1926-1928). Her novel evoked, and draws on, something of life at that time in Antarctica; shipwrecks, whaling, the fear of women, snowstorms and mineral prospecting. The search for minerals leads back to Radium, which was actually discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie. Marie Curie as a woman was ahead of her time, emancipated and independent, she was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize and the only woman since 1791 to be honoured and buried in the Pantheon in France. Radium significantly contributed to the advancement of medicine and the scientific understanding of matter. It is a deadly luminous radioactive substance with a strong green glow. Marie is said to have slept with a small jar of glowing radium by her pillow, unaware of its toxic properties. Radium was believed to provide energy and was used as a health tonic added to water and creams. The mineral became well known in the 1920s and 1930s for its glow on watch faces. Factories had women paint radium compound on the dials of watches. What was not known at the time was just how deadly the substance was. Workers mixed up glue, water and radium powder into a glowing greenish-white paste to paint the dial numbers. After a few strokes, the brushes would lose their shape, and the women would lick the brush back into shape. These women are known as the Radium Girls. The story of Suzy Solidor in the Antarctic uncovered and connected stories of other women of her time, an oppressed author, a pioneer of science and at risk workers. This is an extended statement, a short version would be provided for exhibition.