Without Warning

Deep underground on the Finnish island of Olkiluoto, a corporation has been excavating the world’s largest nuclear waste repository. Once filled with its toxic cargo, the site will need to be hermetically sealed in such a way as to avoid contamination of the earth’s surface. This infernal Pandora’s box of a pit would also need to be left inviolate for the time during which that volume of radioactive material would decay into an innocuous state: something like 100,000 years.[1] That’s 50 times longer than the unbroken seal on Tutankhamun’s tomb. Imagine a distant future in which some fragmentary evidence of Olkiluoto’s massive sarcophagus—as a long-forgotten subterranean structure—is encountered by archaeologists studying the remote Anthropocene era, or by treasure hunters with a taste for antique brutalist architecture. Would it not be as archaic and alluringly enigmatic as the monstrous architectural relics discovered by the Antarctic explorers in H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, explorers who are slaughtered or sent insane by an unnameable evil hidden within the labyrinthine depths of this seemingly deserted Antarctic megalopolis?[2] In a metafictional twist, the novella is a first-person account by a survivor of the doomed expedition, accented with his own hystericised horror and written as a warning ... although one unlikely to be heeded. The temptation to excavate the ruin buried at Olkiluoto—whether for archaeological knowledge, architectural heritage or for tomb raiding—would also be dangerously irresistible.

If its designers seek to deter global calamity, the Olkiluoto site will pose not only the engineering problem of resisting geological or meteorological calamity, but also a semiological puzzle of thwarting catastrophic human curiosity. How can a warning sign be written or depicted so that it will still be decodable for an almost unimaginably remote future? Consider that after 3500 years of use with minor evolutionary adaptations, it only took a few generations for the Egyptian priestly and scribe castes to lose outright the literacy in their own hieroglyphic scripts. Following the Edict of Thessalonica (the Cunctos populous issued by Theodosius I in 380 CE), Nicene Christianity was instituted as the state religion of the Roman Empire, which since the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE incorporated Egypt as a province. Hieroglyphs had been exclusive to palace courts, treasuries, temples and the tombs of high-ranking officials, in use to announce noble lineage, invoke


[1] The corporation is called the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant, and the mine is the Onkalo Waste Repository. See Into Eternity: A Film for the Future, Michael Madsen (dir.), Atmo Media Network co-production, Denmark, 2010.

[2] Originally serialised in Astounding Stories, February–April 1936.


Image: Apartment Building, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, 2017, photograph: Eva Collins


This is a preview of 'Without Warning'. The full article can be found in Art + Australia Issue Five.


Edward Colless is a Senior Lecturer of Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Aside from education, he has in the past also worked in theatre, film, broadcasting and architecture, been a curator, occasionally worked as a travel writer, and dabbled in fiction—but mainly he writes art criticism. In this field he has been an arts reviewer for The Age and The Australian, and associate editor and features writer for Art Collector. He is currently editor of the journal Art+Australia, with its associated publishing program. He also shamelessly uses any opportunity to write on arcane topics, the more obscure the better: heretical theology, art historical marginalia, crypto-zoology, dark tourism…