From the shoreside of Queens to the hilltops of Brooklyn, and right at the riverbanks of Manhattan, natural disasters are a pervasive theme in this summer’s New York art shows.
Fort Tilden, a decommissioned Army site at the Southern tip of the Rockaways, hosts a MoMA-sponsored group exhibit celebrating the rebirth of the peninsula in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Rockaway! includes Patti Smith’s wistful Resilience of the Dreamer, which is installed among piles of detritus thrown out of countless flooded homes. Here she gives the dreamer a place to continue to live, to find new warmth, to seek refuge.
At the Brooklyn Museum, dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei has several works that voice concern and grief over the hundreds of school children who were crushed in an earthquake in the Sichuan province. A snake made from schoolchildren’s backpacks writhes above viewers, while 150 tons of iron rebar, twisted by the quake, are re-straightened and placed systematically back into an order. The installation represents not only a rift in the Earth’s tectonic plates but also in the Chinese political system.
Finally, at Friedman Benda in Chelsea, the group exhibit “Duality of Existence” features several Japanese artists’ interpretations of the impact that the earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Fukushima has had on their lives and imaginations. Motohiko Odani’s video installation, A Dead Man Sleeping shows huge iron globes being dropped into glass tanks. Some result in a simple reassuring thud while others split the tanks into terribly alluring shards.
What may be most surprising about all of this summer’s “disaster art” is that it does not terrify or depress. Instead it stands in defiance and represents the innumerable ways the human spirit continues to overcome, to hope, and create a better tomorrow.
Perhaps this turn of fate, this process that makes beauty out of terrible circumstance, is better described by another New York artist, Henry Miller. From his later novel Sexus:
“The act of dreaming, like a draught of fresh air in an abandoned house, situates the furniture of the mind in a new ambiance. The chairs and tables collaborate; an effluvium is given off, a game is begun.
To ask the purpose of the game, how it is related to life, is idle. As well ask the Creator why volcanoes? why hurricanes? since obviously they contribute nothing but disaster. But, since disasters are disastrous only for those who are engulfed in them, whereas they can be illuminating for those who survive and study them, so it is in the creative world. The dreamer who returns from his voyage, if he is not shipwrecked en route, may and usually does convert the collapse of his tenuous fabric into other stuff.
Friedman Benda closes its show this Friday, Brooklyn Museum closes Ai WeiWei this Sunday, and Rockaway! is on view through the end of the month.