Tamia Thompson // Columnist
Catastrophe in the human imagination is a repetitive force shaping our future before our eyes. The tiny rock we occupy within the vast multiverse is spinning into chaos and that knowledge acts as a cultural fuel. While the admittance of responsibility by large-scale corporations is slim to none so far, the countdown to reduce emissions continues as we all watch and cross our fingers.
The Anthropocene, our current era of greater impact on the planet, became visible to us consciously when the cultural narrative in art changed to match it. The portrayal of destruction in art is a fascinating and provocative topic to examine throughout history. Yet in the post-postmodern period, there’s a surge of responsiveness to global tragedy that characterizes this moment that we’re collectively experiencing.
The cultural fascination we have with our own reckoning can be found in the popularity of the classic horror movie Godzilla. While it wasn’t necessarily the only movie of its kind at the time, what we know to be true of the King of the Monsters was that it was actually a metaphor for nuclear warfare and radioactive fallout against Japan around WWII. In 1954, while the film Gojira was in pre-production, a Japanese tuna fishing boat called Lucky Dragon No. 5 fell victim to the aftermath of nuclear weapons testing by the United States. The director of the film, Ishirō Honda, saw inspiration in this and once stated that he wanted to “make radiation visible” through bringing to life a monstrous, terrorizing dragon that represented the senseless effects of nuclear war.
The point in time of when people started to affect the Earth more so than the Earth affects us is something that is highly debated, but the most commonly agreed-upon moment was the creation of the atomic bomb. The chaotic nature of creating something so destructive and using it so relentlessly against humanity and nature has been the source of so many different works of art and music, beyond disaster films. The metaphor can even be found in the universe for which the popular kids TV show Spongebob Squarepants is set. Bikini Bottom is underneath Bikini Atoll, a coral reef in the Marshall Islands where 23 nuclear tests were done by the United States (including the Lucky Dragon incident) from 1946 till 1958. Spongebob, Patrick, Sandy, and the rest are all supposed to be mutants. It’s a hypervisible yet passively-received piece of history in the package of an eccentrically positive cartoon.
History and art inform each other in so many intriguing ways relating to the drama of social collapse. Learning about any ancient civilization or society can begin with uncovering more about how and what they created artistically to explain their experiences with life and death. Cataclysmic destruction is one of the oldest concepts found in all forms of art and now climate change has dramatically altered the ways artists create. The view we’ve come to have of the human capacity for annihilation of the environment has become more active in our imaginations simply through the idea of trying to beautify it and make sense of it. In her essay, The Imagination of Disaster, Susan Sontag speaks on 1950s science fiction movies and describes them as a “matter of quantity and ingenuity…concerned with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc.” Sontag’s words drive home the point that the manufacturing of an aggressive and beastly unknown in fictive narratives comes from the desire to place aesthetic value on chaos and the darknesses of living on an Earth that we are unable to control.
The pervasiveness of the atomic age onto art is extensive—it predicted the social desensitization to everything that comes with disaster. Yves Klein notably made a wealth of public remarks on how he would go about living in the destruction of nature that industry has created. “I will fill the valleys with mountains, then I will pour concrete over the surface of all the continents,” Klein says in Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974. He also at one point wrote to the president of the International Conference for the Detection of Nuclear Explosions suggesting that “not only the explosions [of the ‘cobalt bomb’], but the fallouts ought to be unalterably tinted in blue by my [International Klein Blue] procedure”. Colouring an outlook of anti-war sentiment in this letter, he made light of the most destructive weapon known to exist.
Living in the Anthropocene presents us with an array of opportunities to contribute to the narrative of our era. Expressed creativity in art and culture are all not only incredibly important in the ways we document the moment, they are necessary for reserving optimism as we descend into a climate crisis. Understanding the complexities of the doomsday we’re all scared of coming to is difficult, but through art we are taking more interest in seeking a solution. From Sun Ra’s Nuclear War to Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), there are a myriad of fascinating examples of people giving the world art centred around the destruction of the world as we know it. We can learn from this initial artistic response to the destruction the world has faced by planning efficiently and sustainably in the ways we move forward, protecting what energy and life we have left.