In an eerie augury of Hurricane Sandy’s onslaught, Chelsea galleries in October 2012 were full of art about disasters. Three separate exhibitions put viewers face-to-face with the calamities, natural or man-made, of recent years. Although widely varied in their tone, each beckoned viewers to consider themes of fragility, vanity, and culpability.
At Lehman Maupin, the Japanese artist Mr. used a room full of clutter to depict the horror and chaos left by his country’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The installation Metamorphosis: Give me Your Wings packed the gallery’s center with furniture, toys, books, boxes and chattering television sets. The artist covered the surrounding walls with graffiti and canvases painted in the Manga style. Teen magazines, thick with soft-focus photographs of adolescent girls, were piled and strewn everywhere. With the focus on aspects of Japanese culture that fascinate Americans—the magazines and the Manga illustration—the installation seemed quite like an alternative comic book store that had been run through a centrifuge. Rather than mourn, I felt I was being asked to browse.
Not far away, Thomas Hirschhorn’s room-sized display Concordia, Concordia at Barbara Gladstone commemorated the recent cruise ship sinking off the coast of Italy. Entry to the main part of the gallery was blocked by floor to ceiling wreckage. With paintings on the ceiling, flat panel televisions on the floor, and lamps hung sideways from the wall, the whole scene was topsy-turvy. Skeins of unwound videotape cascaded over piles of orange life vests, and in a reminder of the film Titanic, heaps of broken plates. Seen under the glow of unshielded fluorescent lamps, the installation’s tawdry materials—brass, Styrofoam, fake wood paneling—were a poignant reminder of cruise ships’ paper-thin luxury. That Hirschhorn took a stand on his subject’s banal materialism made his pile of clutter more effective than the previous one.
Ejecting myself from the airless nightmare of the Concordia, I found momentary relief in a serene and spare arrangement of curved metal bars at Mary Boone’s Chelsea Gallery for Ai Weiwei’s installation, Forge. A quiet interplay of form and void focused thoughts on the granularity of matter and how, viewed from a distance, disconnected bits add up to solid forms. Little did I know that the bits I was looking at were actually rubble from the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai’s two-part installation, which continues at Mary Boone’s midtown location) featured twisted rebars recovered from concrete school buildings that had collapsed on their young occupants’ heads. The artist’s orchestrated recovery of the rebar, depicted in a video shown in the back of the gallery, brought dozens of volunteers together to painstakingly collect, clean, transfer, and hand-straighten thousands of pieces of the material. His bold maneuver was at once performance art, craft, political defiance. The undertaking’s communitarian ethos effectively condemned the enforced communitarianism of China’s overlords (who use the word “harmony” as a euphemism for censorship). It also, of course, helped land the artist in jail.
By making disaster art that was not itself a disaster, Ai captured his subject the more effectively. Whether his approach differed from those of Mr. or Hirschhorn as the result of artistic sensibility or culture of origin I cannot tell. Regardless, this multi-national array of disaster exhibitions—and the recent horrors of Sandy—remind us that disaster does not respect nationality. Where human beings presume themselves to be invincible, nature is there to show them otherwise.
Exhibitions discussed in this article:
Mr.: Metamorphosis: Give Me Your Wings at Lehman Maupin Gallery, September 13 – October 20, 2012, 540 West 26th Street;
Thomas Hirschhorn: Concordia, Concordia at Gladstone Gallery, September 14 – October 20 , 2012, 530 West 21st Street
Ai Weiwei: Forge at Mary Boone Gallery, October 13 to December 21, 2012, 541 West 24th Street/745 Fifth Avenue