The Aestheticization of Catastrophic Art: Capturing the Imagination of Disasters

From the exhibition description of Catastrophe and the Power of Art, currently on show at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo until 20 January 2019, the text stipulates:

Catastrophe and crisis can drive us to despair, yet it is also true that the energy released as we try to recover can simultaneously spark imagination, and boost creative output. The large cohort of artists from Japan and elsewhere is working for a better society since the 2011 earthquake; attempting to offer new visions, depicting ideals and hopes encompassing wishes for reconstruction and rebirth.

All tragedy must be turned into something productive; don’t let a good crisis to go to waste. The passion for utilising and finding meaning in any national or personal trauma or catastrophe is perhaps one of the main driving forces of the human spirit, embodying and making the most of the situation as tragic, heroic, or both. How empowering it is to feel the power of the catastrophe, and to be able to generate creativity and spark the imagination? As the exhibition text goes on to say, it is “the dynamic ‘power of art’ to turn negative into positive.” Yet if humans were not striving to be positive, what else might there be? The transformation of “negative into positive” seems to have turned into a fetishistic movement in the overall conceptualisation of the exhibition. Be positive or else.

That being said, it feels as though the catastrophe captured in the Mori Art Museum is not catastrophic enough. The future is still waiting for an appropriate catastrophe that will truly challenge the catastrophe status quo. The article The Apocalypse is (Still) Disappointing (2017-2018, Alenka Zupančič) reflects exactly on this topic. She argues that the suspension brought on by awaiting the big tragic event to occur will always precedes the actualisation of that moment. That is to say:

… we have a case of the apocalypse being “disappointing,” in the sense that its actually taking place can never match up to the power it wields in being withheld—that is, with its remaining a threat. Paradoxically, even if the realization of this threat would kill us, we would not be exactly overwhelmed by its power, but rather swept away by its raging impotence. We could of course say that this doesn’t really matter, if it kills us, and that this is rather a poor consolation. Provoking the “coming out” of a power is a very dangerous and dubious game. But we can nevertheless grasp in what sense this coming out may be “disappointing”…

In the context of the continuous disappointment experienced when imagining the apocalypse and disaster events, the ‘too much’ and ‘not enough’ in the same time of the catastrophe-to-come, how does the Mori Art Museum’s show situate itself? By revealing and imagining the catastrophe, does it trivialise its aesthetics and turn the great expectations for the “end of all ends” into something banal and digestible for the viewers? How does one respond to something as tragic as a tsunami or an earthquake, where thousands are killed, go missing or become displaced, and embrace its impact? Is the displayed Catastrophe and the Power of Art serving as a barrier, a coping mechanism between humans and the catastrophe, trying to turn the ‘negative’ into a ‘positive’ while knowing that all will turn to ashes and dust in the end?

Thomas Hirschhorn, Collapse, 2018. Mixed media sculpture. Dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Production support: The Institute of Art, Okutama. Courtesy: Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Installation view: “Catastrophe and the Power of Art,” Mori art Museum, Tokyo, 2018. Photo: Kioku Keizo. Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Thomas Hirschhorn, Collapse, 2018. Mixed media sculpture. Dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Production support: The Institute of Art, Okutama. Courtesy: Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Installation view: “Catastrophe and the Power of Art,” Mori art Museum, Tokyo, 2018. Photo: Kioku Keizo. Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

In Yoko Ono’s installation Add Colour Painting (Refugee Boat), 1960/2016, the viewers can see on the floor written in blue paint the message ‘keep moving’. Keep moving to where? Who will still be there after the catastrophe to keep moving? Moreover, exactly what kind of catastrophe does the Catastrophe and the Power of Art deliver? How catastrophic is it actually? By trying to cope and turn all possibilities into positiveness, there is a crucial space that is excluded, the space of queuing for the apocalypse to arrive:

The perspective opened by our apocalypse is no longer the perspective according to which we can lose it “all” in a single unfathomable event. The fantasy of this possibility is still alive, of course: the predictions and expectations of, for example, this or that planet crashing to the earth and totally destroying it continue to excite the imagination. But in spite of their catastrophic character there is something perhaps too optimistic about them. Because we know all too well that we won’t get off so lightly, and that dying will most likely be gradual, long and painful…(Zupančič, 2017-18)

Too optimistic, too positive, too ready to embrace the normalisation of the catastrophe in the name of aesthetics and art. The wave, the big bang, the shake, all of it already happened and indeed they were tragic, but at least good art was produced out of it. Make the most of trauma that you are experiencing! The productive input from the apocalypse should not go to waste. In the case that it does, at least make it aesthetically appealing. What else to be done than to keep dreaming about the catastrophe; one day it will probably be on discount. Any and each tragedy needs an imagination to be comprehended. This comprehension embeds itself daily through the routine of experiencing tragedy:

The apocalypse has already started and is becoming an active part of our life and our world, such as it is. It is not waiting for us somewhere in the future, but is dictating our social, economic, environmental conditions as we speak. (Zupančič, 2017-18)

This is both the failure of absence and a failure of presence of the apocalypse. As Matt Colquhoun (2018), a London based writer, states: “it is desire without absolute lack”. The art produced in response to the catastrophe is a desire to restage and re-experience its lack of catastrophe. Not catastrophic enough, not apocalyptic enough, not tragic enough to be tragically experienced. Just normalised and turned daily, as any other traumatic event, which after time, becomes absorbed into the cycles of life. The slogan then becomes ‘une autre fin du monde est possible’ (referring back to the demands of May 1968).

The normalisation of the simultaneous absence and presence of catastrophe is reflected in the location of the exhibition itself. Visitors ascend to the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in an elevator that sways ever so slightly as it climbs higher, entertaining the possibility of an earthquake occurring at any minute. The dim interior light changes colour periodically; even potential risks are aestheticised in such a setting. Waiting right outside the elevator doors, a gallery member courteously welcomes the visitors, and thus the programming of the serene atmosphere in which the show is to be experienced is completed.

As a subject, catastrophe is a generously inclusive one when applied to the artworks in this show. Personal suffering and individual struggles are displayed alongside social injustices, financial crises and natural disasters. The latter no doubt would resonate the most with Japanese society, which constantly encounters and must accept nature’s violence. Traditionally speaking, Japanese art avoids explicit depiction of natural disasters; Mt Fuji for example is usually represented as a peaceful and majestic symbol despite being a dangerous volcano, and such aestheticizations produce a curious and elusive impression. In modern culture, explicit portrayals of disasters are no longer absent, but had morphed into a ubiquitous presence of harm, much like the materiality of radiation. In fact, the famous Godzilla is understood to be a representation of the harmful substance; scenes of the monster repeatedly destroying Tokyo is said to release the built up tension and fear of the Japanese public, whose self-perception as victims of the atomic bomb is rather acute. That aside, the question now is, how is catastrophe aestheticised by current Japanese society?

The answer is as uncertain as it is undecided, if Catastrophe and the Power of Art is anything to go by. The exhibition is split into two sections: visualisation of catastrophe and the potential for (re)creation in its aftermath. The old question of aesthetics or ethics, or art or politics is present, the two rivalling categories under which the artworks are broadly organised. Yet what the works actually show is the differentiation, albeit gross, between art that make use of the space for glitches and double takes afforded by the medium, and those that do not, the latter resulting in relatively pure and straightforward aestheticization.

Miyamoto Ryuji, Kobe 1995 After the Earthquake - Nagata-ku, 1995. Gelatin silver print. 51 x 61 cm. Collection: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Miyamoto Ryuji, Kobe 1995 After the Earthquake – Nagata-ku, 1995. Gelatin silver print. 51 x 61 cm. Collection: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

It is as though the artists saw no point in altering perception since the catastrophe itself already provided the mediation between them and the normal state of things, the “real” life before the mess. For example, Naoya Hatakeyama’s series of photographs Rikuzentakata 2011, 2011, captures the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, where serene seaside scenes are covered in debris. No play with the photographic medium is evident, just honest reproductions. The only probable trick is in nature’s calm appearance, almost resembling a European baroque landscape, it watches peacefully over the destruction it had caused only a short time before.

Even more stripped of artistic interference are Ryuji Miyamoto’s black and white photographs of Kobe cityscapes after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquakes; the destroyed buildings seem enough of a spectacle already. Sadaharu Horio depicts the same disaster, translating directly the destructive energy of nature into abstract drawings, his mark makings quick but heavy as thickly applied crayon. Such apparently simple intentions come across as humble and innocent compared to pieces with more complex approaches to their medium.

The ceiling-high installation by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn is such an example. Explosive in his signature style, Collapse, 2018, reproduces a crumbling building possibly bombed, made primarily from cardboard and duct-tape. The mundaneness of the material trivialises war’s destructive powers, or the ease with which such trivialisation can be achieved.

Making a play-thing out of grave events continue on in Christoph Draeger’s 5000-piece jigsaw puzzles that depict scenes from 9/11, as well as in Thomas Demand’s Kontrollraum/Control Room, 2011, a large printed photograph of the control room at Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The captured interior is in fact a replica made by the artist, who uses photography to explore the unbelievability of reality and the deceptive qualities of realistic mediums.

The differentiation between pure and complex approaches to a medium can be elaborated further thus: works that appear less complicated have a stronger sense of plight of those affected by catastrophe. Two video works in particular stand out in this sense. Tokyo-based collective Chim↑Pom’s REAL TIMES, 2011, combine performance, political statement and symbolic imagery for an intensely memorable piece, whereby they spray paint a red circle on a white flag – the rising sun – and add on three blades to turn it into a trefoil, the international radiation symbol. The filmed performance took place near the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, only a month after its meltdown. Chim↑Pom’s gesture demonstrates how artists can touch on the issue of responsibility of citizens to criticise the government where it is due.

Chim↑Pom, REAL TIMES, 2011. High-definition video installation, 11 min. 11 sec. Collection: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Chim↑Pom, REAL TIMES, 2011. High-definition video installation, 11 min. 11 sec. Collection: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

A less politicised approach is taken in Plan C, 2010, by Eva and Franco Mattes who document a trip taken by a group of artists to Chernobyl, Ukraine. They scavenge scraps from the site of the nuclear disaster, which they transport to Manchester, UK where they construct a mechanical swing that they open to the public. Both video works highlight the repetition of fatal accidents in the nuclear age, where a sense of responsibility is sought in regards to man-made catastrophes.

Catastrophe and the Power of Art may comfort the Japanese public by attesting to the numerous forms of catastrophe that affect many around the world. If the artworks are received as continued aestheticization of tragedy or helplessness, that may be where their imagination stagnates. In such a case, it may help to think back across the Pacific to New Zealand, where arguably art does not glamourise a fatalistic worldview, despite the country being just as disaster-prone as Japan.

Christina Houghton’s Performance Ecologies: The Art of Survival demonstrates an alternative outlook, by gearing up participants for survival without the fetishised optimism discussed earlier. Houghton often leads and guides her performances, instructing participants through preparatory steps in the case of an emergency. Handed creative and practical survival equipment, they inevitably end up rehearsing for disastrous situations as part of the performance, inflating lilos or putting on thermal blankets. The performance may take place along a specified route through public spaces – one performance led a group into McDonald’s – or arrive at more artistic spaces – a darkened performance studio with video installations, torches, fans and a two-person weatherproof jacket, long as a curtain and hung from the ceiling. Houghton’s artwork noticeably ignores the sense of victimisation found in the Japanese artwork discussed, or the sense of awe that they employ to create a distance between the catastrophe and those affected. New Zealand seems to face a reality a little less mediated, its participants not hit by the wave but given the chance to ride it.

This writing was made possible with the support of