Interview w Madeline Sunley


(Interview and Photographs by Erin O’Flynn)


Madeline Sunley is a New York based paint- er who meticulously infuses her work with her with scientific research. Her most recent series works to create messages warning fu- ture generations of the locations of nuclear waste, and tackles the question of societal redemption from toxic industrialization.

I arrived at Madeline Sunley’s studio early one fall morning, paintings in every stage of development were displayed in tandem. These paintings are part of the ongoing series Ten Thousand Year Mystery, which adopts representations of natural monuments to mark and warn future humans of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico. The WIPP took in it’s first shipment of Transuranic waste in 1999. The sight was created as a response to the excessive nuclear weapon’s waste generated by the U.S. during the Cold War. Each painting in this series contains representations of species indigenous to Carlsbad New Mexico, warning messages in English, and specifically oriented star maps representing a future sky when it will finally be safe to dig into the ground again.

Sunley’s thoroughly researched and meticulously considered paintings emphasize our agency over our deeply uncomfortable mistakes. The inspira- tion for this series came from Sunley’s time working for the MIT press during the 1990s. “I was the acquisition editor for environmental books. It was a very emotionally distressing job. I basically had to ... have a very broad knowledge of environmental issues. None of it had to be depth, it wasn’t a Ph.D. level position but I had to be able to read widely and integrate information and a lot of what I learned was from talking to different pro- fessors who were working on books.”

The first aspect we discussed was her process of choosing and representing the indigenous species of New Mexico. Sunley explained that it often stems from her interest in the animal’s texture. She was drawn to the Desert Cardinal for the specific smooth flicker of their feathers. Sunley decided that the dual image used in Birds Eye View, best encapsulated the movement and style of the animal. She expanded that the painting represents a compound of a birds-eye view and a view of the sky from the ground.

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All the paintings in Ten Thousand Year Mystery include a mix of perspectives: aerials views of the earth and grounded views of the sky. I asked what made her interested in this combination? Sunley re- sponded, “ I think Cubism got us launched on that freedom and then modernism took us all the way. So, I feel free to combine different views and make into a coherent whole in ways that relate to each other.” Sunley understands this combi- nation of perspectives can be difficult for viewers. Going back to Birds Eye View, she continues, “I like it because once you know what’s going on with the painting’s perspectives of the stars and ground, there is a kind of constant flip of mental perspectives of where you’re standing in relation to it or what you’re orientation is.” From this mix of perspectives, viewers are invited to simultaneously inhabit various roles of a bird flying above or a human glancing at the stars in the night sky. It invites us to break down our singular per- spective of a landscape.

Script is used throughout the series to offer warning messages to far-future humans. The messages state that it will only be safe to dig at the WIPP site when the stars match the maps she has painted. Sunley remarked that, “There were some decisions I had to make with this series, one of them was how involved did I want to get with calligraphy and painting let- ters? And the answer turned out to be not at all. So I just use stencils, and [for Birds Eye View] I applied some double lines within the script stencil.” Sunley originally wanted to use a much older language called Oracle Bone Chinese, which was an early form of Chinese closer to pictograms than characters, to refer to the chasm created by linguistic drift over millennia. But she encountered obvious obstacles with finding translators and settled on En- glish. However, in order to denote a sense of passing time in Birds Eye View she implemented the use of English script in a Victoria-esque typeface, slightly obscured by layers of gray-green paint to suggest lichen overgrowth.



Sunley pointing at star maps used throughout the series.



Madeline’s paintings serve as a memo- rial to the sheer incomprehensibility of the time between 2019 and 12,000 CE. I wondered why she was so interested in something so far in the future? Sunley replied hopefully, “I think the present is what makes me interested in it. Because we had these weapons, we won the Second World War and then immediately there was an arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union to oversimplify. So at any rate, we have all these weapons and even if they were never used, we would have this waste that has to be disposed of in some way. So in a way, this highlights the underlying insanity of producing something so toxic that it won’t be safe for 10,000 years. But, in another sense it’s also about the very best in human nature; the ability to say, ‘Yes, we did this. We’re accountable for it, we’re disposing of it as best we can.’ And we are expanding our empathy to people who aren’t yet born, and not just the next few generations of the unborn but people far in the future.”


Bird’s Eye View


Nuclear waste burial sites are often con- tentious subjects, but Sunley’s reframing offers a realistic and surprisingly hope-
ful perspective on humanity’s ability to amend their past actions. Since 1983
the U.S. Department of Energy has been working with a team of scientists, linguists, anthropologists and other specialists to create a marker for the site. The goal of this team is to submit their final plans to the U.S. Government by 2028. However, far as Sunley could tell nothing more was being done about the creation of this marker. Sunley added that she had just found out something she’d rather not have. Deep under the WIPP site there is a large underground oil deposit. Would the humans of the future dig through nucle- ar waste to get to this stockpile of oil, or would it be left there in our attempts to uphold our compassion for future gen- erations? Madeline re-emphasized that the “project speaks to the best and worst [that] humans are capable of...I think it’s hopeful.”


Image from WIPP Overview Video, Click here for website.