The End of Days
Five years ago, 9/11 freaked out the whole country. Now a recently leaked intelligence report has revealed what most of us had already figured out -- the Iraq war has made us less safe than ever. And if creating a whole new generation of terrorists isn't enough to cause you sleepless nights, there's the environment. FYI: It's going to hell in a hand basket, there's that global warming thing with polar ice caps melting, killer heat waves and devastating hurricanes. "Run For Your Lives!" is not only the catchphrase of 21st-century America, it's also the title of a show at DiverseWorks, curated by new director Diane Barber, which explores disaster, both natural and man-made.
Some of the artists take on 9/11 itself -- it's not just for Hollywood anymore. 9/11 (2001), Joseph Peragine's digital animation of the World Trade Center attacks, is eerily upbeat. Set to a snazzy jazz track, it's the kind of thing Ann-Margret might have danced to in some circa-1962 movie. The animation is stylized -- brightly and flatly colored, digitally sketchy and abstracted. Flames spew from the towers, emergency vehicles rush in and the towers rain down. An anthropomorphic rabbit with bulging, bloodshot eyes sits in a recliner and watches it all on TV.
The music is key to the video, making it feel like some hip, lighthearted action sequence in a cartoon. Peragine ridiculously stylizes contemporary events, parodying infotainment media. Music also dominates in works such as Ring of Fire (2001), which is set to the Johnny Cash song of the same title. In it Cash's iconic American song takes on new meaning as the soundtrack to quasi-South Park images of flags, bombs, Muslim-bashing, nationalism and anthrax. (Remember anthrax? School kids being busted for spilling powdered sugar?) But sometimes Peragine's animation style is a little too glib -- the images seem too simplistic and quickly drawn. He should take another page from South Park's animation, which, though simplified and flat, incorporates enough pointed detail to make it incisive. Things are better resolved in a later work, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition (2003), which features flag-draped coffins and Abu Ghraib images set to the song of the title.
While Peragine works with digital technology, Lillian Tyrrell uses an ancient handicraft to create one of the exhibition's most graphically dramatic contributions. She weaves blankets based on images from actual disasters. In the strongest one, a tiny falling figure is set against the stark vertical lines of the World Trade Center. It's visually and emotionally striking; first you admire the image, then a beat later it hits you -- that's someone plummeting to his death. Weaving is incredibly labor-intensive and painstaking, and there's something weirdly meditative about slowly crafting, strand-by-strand, images of death and destruction.
Redepicting disaster is strategy for other artists in the show as well. Katherine Taylor conjures grisaille images of Katrina's carnage in paintings that are both elegant and tragic. Working the other end of things, Gabriela Trzebinski's brightly colored and almost folksy-looking paintings recreate television screens lit up with broadcasts of war and natural disaster. She pointedly includes the headlines, logos and scrolling text the media pastes over news coverage in ADD fashion.
One painting depicts a television showing CNN coverage of the bombing of Beirut and the blood-spattered walls of a room. At the bottom of the screen, text scrolls by with the dramatic information, "Clijster ruled out of U.S. Open." Trzebinski ironically used that as the work's title. After all, people may be dying, but some viewers really just want to know what's happening in tennis.
Other paintings show TVs tuned to coverage of Hurricane Katrina and U.N. tanks in Rwanda. This is how we live and experience the world, natural disaster and war, coming soon to a television near you -- until it finally reaches youÉ
Some of the most interesting work employs toys to create sculpture and photographs of disaster. In Los Andes (2004), Paula Abalos balances the charred hull of a toy aircraft atop a giant white air-filled mountain, incorporating the technology of inflatable car lot advertising to create a diorama of disaster. The squishy inflatable mountain looks cute until you remember that in the Andes crash, survivors ate the dead to stay alive. Thankfully Abalos has enough subtlety and self-restraint not to include little dismembered action figures along with the toy plane.
Christoph Draeger's Catastrophe #1 (1994) is a wall-size paint jet print of the artist's exacting recreation of Hurricane Andrew's trail of destruction. Working from an aerial photograph of the devastation, Draeger used bits of wood and metal, the occasional toy car and shattered models of tiny buildings to carefully mimic a ruined suburban landscape. Then he photographed the results. It's a compelling idea and image, but it seems a little faded and unintentionally hazy, probably because of the printing process used back in 1994.
The photographs of Lori Nix also use toys to craft her own invented disasters. Her series of photographs, Accidentally Kansas, depicts death and destruction in middle America. A tent revival is struck by lightning; a plane zooms down to strike a water tower; houses are flooded; and a train is derailed, spilling toxic-looking orange goop. Small-town America becomes a place fraught with danger. In these miniature versions of destruction, part of the twist, as well as the appeal, is the use of tiny cars, dollhouse parts, model train sets and accessories. They're unsettling, but they also look like they were a lot of fun to make.
There's a pointed juxtaposition of works at the entrance to the main gallery. A huge video projection presents Climaxes 19662001 (2004) by Joe Sola. Extracted from a variety of films, this montage of explosions features buildings, volcanoes, cars, planets, airplanes, monsters, spaceships, etc. as they blow up, one after the other. Watching these images taken from their original context, you realize how inured we have become to actual disaster, having seen it so spectacularly fabricated our entire lives.
Facing the on-screen explosions is Ride the Bomb (2004), Anitra Hamilton's kids' ride retrofitted with a bomb casing. Put a quarter in, climb aboard and ride into the eye of destruction, just like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove.
In another work in a back corner of the room, a small blond boy stands quietly, as if patiently waiting his turn on the ride. Crafted from silicone, he looks incredibly lifelike. He stands in white socks and little tighty-whiteys, as if he's getting ready for his eight o'clock bedtime -- except he has red sticks of dynamite duct-taped to his chest. It's the kid next door as tiny Aryan suicide bomber.
Dietrich Wegner created the creepy boy terrorist, but he is also the only artist to offer us escape from the destruction -- sort of. To create Playhouse, he sculpted a giant fluffy blast cloud of polyester fiberfill that doubles as a tree house. A dangling rope ladder leads to a heavenly white interior with a rough wood floor. Sadly, it's only a marginally more hopeful take on the Slim Pickens solution.
We live in screwed-up times, but hey, at least artists are managing to get something out of it. If the end is really nigh, the artists of "Run For Your Lives!" are going out with a bang, not a whimper.
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