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
ahisgett - Flickr
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis