The Odd Beauty and Function of Disaster Art

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February 6, 2013; Source:Auburn Citizen (Associated Press)

What do you do with the detritus of all kinds left in the wake of a natural disaster besides try to clear it? Well, perhaps you make art, and sometimes it is warped, stark and disturbing. “A tragedy can be inspiring or devastating,” said David Terry, the curator and director of programs at the Chashama Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea area, where a post-Sandy show called “After Effects” is on display. “Artists are rebuilding and have to do this as a healing process,” Terry adds. When the exhibit opens tomorrow, there will reportedly be 36 pieces from 23 artists on display, including a set of Kodachrome slides transformed into cloudy images by the storm’s flooding.

The slides were in the Brooklyn studio of Coke Wisdom O’Neal when nine feet of water washed in and when he reentered, he saw that they—and he—had been permanently changed. “The storm destroyed tools, books, old artwork, drawings and unfinished work,” O’Neal told the Associated Press. “They now feel to me like objects that were holding me back from going forward… Prior to the storm I was experimenting with working in abstraction, but was questioning my motives…Sandy gave me the opportunity to take the leap.”

Craig Nutt, the director of programs for the nonprofit Craft Emergency Relief Fund, said that his group is collecting the stories of artists in the wake of the natural disaster and will publish them to inspire other arts organizations to attend to the art made after and out of a disaster.

In a beautifully written article in the New Statesman last year, author Jonathan Socrates points out that at the nearby Tisch School of Arts, you can take a course on the subject, Art and Catastrophe. Professor Radhika Subramaniam’s syllabus reads, in part, “The aim of this course is to examine the demands placed on the practices of art – writing and image-making – by catastrophe…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.”

Socrates writes, “Artists have always seen beauty in disaster, in tragedy, in terror, as is captured in the notion of the sublime.” He goes on to quote Edmund Burke: “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…That is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” –Ruth McCambridge

  • David

    A french Artist, Olivier Buchet, make this kind of work for years !

  • Ruth McCambridge

    Thank you, David! This is beautiful.