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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From probiotics to poetry: how Rachel Kelly keeps depression at bay

Kelly describes herself as a people-pleaser and yet 12 years ago she fled her own Christmas party, crushed by a deep depression. Now she's written 52 Small Steps to Happiness.

Rachel Kelly describes herself as a people-pleaser and yet 12 years ago she fled her own Christmas party, crushed by a deep depression. Hours later, she returned to her home in Notting Hill, west London, where her husband helped her to bed. The party continued downstairs – the Camerons and Osbornes were present, joined by the family’s other high-flying friends. “The struggle was over,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir, Black Rainbow. “I had tried and I had lost.”

Kelly’s suffering came as a surprise to many. A journalist at the Times, with a successful husband, beautiful house and healthy children, she had achieved everything she had wanted. But her mental health declined after the birth of her second child in 1997 and it took years of medication and therapy to recover.

Kelly’s latest book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, describes the strategies that have helped her stay “calm and well” ever since. Drawing equally from science and art, each chapter (one for every week of the year) offers salves for both body and mind, from probiotics to poetry.

When we met one recent evening at a café near her home, Kelly barely remembered to drink her water, so eager was she to share her experiences. She hopes that her new book will be for “those of us who, at times, find life stressful, or who wish to try to feel a little steadier”. It’s the kind of book she wishes she had read before becoming ill. “I’m a believer in prevention rather than cure,” she said. “I do a lot of work in schools, where we have a massive problem with teenage mental health. What makes me feel so exhilarated is that there really are things you can do.”

Having seen depression from both sides, as a sufferer and a campaigner, she is acutely aware of the stigma that mental illness still carries, particularly among people working in middle-class jobs. “If you’re unemployed or facing real social deprivation, there’s an expectation that you might get depressed. But in that middle cohort – of lawyers, bankers, doctors – there’s a lot of pressure, yet it’s hard to admit you might be suffering.”

Challenging such stigmas is vital. The head of the charity Mind estimates that 75 per cent of people with mental health problems do not receive any treatment. The number of those who do has continued to rise: the NHS issued roughly 53 million prescriptions for antidepressants in 2013, an increase of a quarter in three years. In some cases “antidepressants can be life savers”, Kelly told me. For others, “it’s empowering to take responsibility for what you can do yourself”. In her own case, she found that useful strategies came not only from professionals but from family, friends, readers and those who took part in the workshops she runs. She has found the words of poets helpful. It was a poem, “Love (III)”, by the 17th-century clergyman George Herbert, that she credits with kick-starting her recovery: “Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back.”

Pointing to work being done by the Royal College of Music and a new charity, ReLit, which promotes the use of imaginative literature in treating stress and anxiety, Kelly is hopeful that the bonds between well-being and the arts will grow.

“The NHS rightly has to be evidence-based,” she said, “but I’m absolutely certain that the arts have an important part to play in mental health and we’re beginning to see the research that proves it.” Though Kelly spoke cheerfully about her experiences, her present life is not without anxiety. Like anyone, she worries about the future. “I suppose if I wish for something, it’s for my children to avoid what I went through,” she said. “You wouldn’t wish depression on anyone.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror