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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump