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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage