Disaster art

The emergence of a trend.

“How do you turn catastrophe into art?” asks Julian Barnes in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. “Nowadays the process is automatic. A nuclear plant explodes? We'll have a play on the London stage within a year ... War? Send in the novelists ... We have to understand it, of course, this catastrophe; to understand it, we have to imagine it, so we need the imaginative arts.”

Acknowledging this need, the Tisch School of Arts runs a course entitled Art and Catastrophe. “The aim of this course is to examine the demands placed on the practices of art – writing and image-making – by catastrophe,” says the blurb. “Art after catastrophe has therefore variously played the role of testimony, memorial, mourning, indictment, advocate and healing; it has been considered both essential and a luxury.”

In a report I wrote last year (for a subscriber design site), I identified a trend in disaster-inspired design and architecture, examples being the hurricane-proof Dalí Museum and the EDV-1 Robotic Emergency Shelter, deployable in disaster zones. This phenomenon coincided with a report by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) stating that 2010 had been “the deadliest year for natural disasters in more than a generation”. Given the urgency of catastrophe, the utility of design precedes the functionlessness of art. But now a trend is emerging in disaster art. And as we’ll see, occasionally, in times of disaster, art can adapt and encroach upon utility.

A monochromatic map is alive with delicate white traces, inscribing themselves teemingly, with intricate hidden order, upon the black, borderless background of the United States. These white traces designate the movement of the wind and they appear sinuous, or like active wood patterns, or fluttering fur, depending on the weather conditions. The Wind Map, an animated chart of wind flow created by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, uses data from the National Digital Forecast Database. This is not science, however, but, as the creators say, “artistic impression”. And while the Wind Map is not specifically disaster art, its subject is full of catastrophic potential, as is intimated by the project page on the creators' website which solely displays stills of Hurricane Isaac – testament, perhaps, to the higher aesthetic potential of intense natural conditions.

Massive Tsunami Crashing; Collisions | Bus vs Car; Break | Wall: these are some of the abrasive, jarring titles of Israeli artist Eyal Gever’s ongoing series of works which capture frozen moments of disaster. Gever was trained by the Israeli military to calculate the effects of explosions using computer simulations. Using this training, a 3D printer and computer software he developed himself, Gever creates resin models of computer-generated, virtual disasters. “My art addresses these notions of destruction and beauty, the collisions of opposites, fear and attraction, seduction and betrayal, from the most tender brutalities to the most devastating sensitivities,” says Gever. “I oscillate between these opposites.”

2011’s Great East Japanese Earthquake and the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe prompted – and continue to prompt – responses from the country’s artists. Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress, an exhibition at the Art Tower Mito gallery, is displaying work created in the wake of the disaster by twenty-three artists. The exhibition’s definition of art is wide and encompasses an innovative method, designed by an artist-volunteer, to remove sludge. In fact, as the exhibition’s website says, it seeks to “redefine art”: Many of the artists’ works “encompass activities that were carried out by temporarily shelving one’s identity as an “artist”, as well as projects carried out without the expectation that they would later be exhibited as an artwork. The attitudes and actions of these artists represent a renewed questioning of the concept of art as established by modernity, and demonstrate the sort of role that art ought to play in society – perhaps more strongly and forcefully than ever before”.

Catastrophes are humbling and I see a certain modesty in the work of the artists mentioned above. It recalls the Romantics beholding nature in fear, apprehension and awe.

Artists have always seen beauty in disaster, in tragedy, in terror, as is captured in the notion of the sublime. “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime,” wrote Edmund Burke. “That is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” With the rise of disaster art, some of today’s artists are tapping into the long tradition of the sublime to inform their subject matter. Others, rather than evoking disaster in their art, are responsive to it, and disaster is present implicitly in the work’s context. Either way, the artist bows before disaster's supremacy.

There are some artists though who, while acknowledging the might of catastrophe, consider it subservient to art.

[W]e also need to justify it and forgive it, this catastrophe, however minimally,” continuesBarnes in his History of the World. “Why did it happen, this mad act of Nature, this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that's what catastrophe is for.” Well, Julian, try telling the victims and their families that. Try telling the injured, the dispossessed, the maimed, the traumatised that. Try telling the dead that. No, catastrophe is not "for" anything. And that is what makes it so compelling to artists: its unquellable, unappeasable, pointless nature. To say it is for something, to say it serves a purpose, to ascribe functionality to it – this diminishes its terror, diminishes the tragedy of the loss of life it causes, and diminishes the power of the art it inspires – which is contrary to what Barnes is trying to do. To suggest that catastrophe is for art suggests agency and intent. Perhaps Barnes has solved the age-old paradox: if there exists an omnipotent, benevolent God, how can He allow catastrophes to take place? I doubt that is what Barnes is attempting. I believe what he’s guilty of, by ascribing a function to catastrophe and granting artists exclusive use of that function, is the tedious crime of romanticising art, and, thus, elevating the status of the artist beyond that of, say, a plumber – which is, or should be, nonsense. As shown above, the Japanese artists, with their broadening definition of art and their temporary rejection of the appellation "artist", have a much more modest approach.

The Tisch School of Arts which runs the Art and Catastrophe course is part of New York University whose website last week had an information alert reading: “NYU is Closed Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 29-30, Due to Hurricane Sandy”. If catastrophe is what art is for, as Julian Barnes says it is, then closing an art school at a time like this seems unbelievably, squanderingly irresponsible.


Still of Hurricane Isaac from the Wind Map by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg
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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood