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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear