Corn Bomb

An Extended History of Nitrogen


In 2006, John Gerrard discovered a photographic image, taken on April 14th 1935, of a vast dust storm travelling across Texas, in what were becoming the agri-industrial heartlands of the US. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the exploitation of petroleum enabled an agricultural intervention on an hitherto unimaginable scale, resulting in a hundred million acres of this area being ploughed within a twenty year period, thus destroying an ancient and stable grass ecosystem. The catastrophic result was a desertification of the landscape, and the creation of what came to be known as the Dust Bowl. The photograph became the basis for Dust Storm (Dalhart, Texas) [2007], a work which consists of a virtual portrait of the landscape as it stands today, reunited with a realtime 3D model of the historic storm placed as a slowly developing sculpture on the land. This work was first shown in Marian Goodman Gallery, NY in a project titled Equal, that is, to the Real Itself, curated by Linda Norden, in mid-2007.

‘Corn Bomb’, written by Gerrard in collaboration with chemist Michael Morris, recounts the backstory of this traumatised ‘dead zone’. At the centre of this plot is the discovery of the function of nitrogen in synthesizing organic compounds, and the development of the Haber-Bosch nitrogen-fixing process, exploited for the production of explosives, but which also enabled large-scale production of the nitrogen-based fertilizer upon which the world’s ever-growing population is now largely dependent…