Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Disaster themes have provided an enduring subject for artists since the first images of panicking animal herds were painted, hooves thundering across the contours of rockfaces. Disaster themes foreground the role of the hero; they allow communities to give terror an imaginable form, a focus; they provide a framework through which a community is able to articulate a sense of drawing together in the face of adversity.
The tempo of disaster tales has—or had—a pitch and trough kind of rhythm. The prose of Dante established a pattern of build-up, cataclysm and subsiding of tension that has been carried forward throughout history as a template through which to describe travails and the threat of annihilation.
Traditionally, disaster tales have made a great read—the Old Testament unfolds like a disaster roll-call—high seas, flood, fire, famine, plague and pestilence, whale-swallowings: you name it, it’s there. And it all makes for a rollicking good yarn, all the way right up to Ecclesiastes. It’s there that the real chill sets in. That’s the point at which the frozen stillness of “the futility of all endeavour” casts its spell of deadly ennui and the blood runs cold. Stillness. Inaction. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
The general run of disaster films, on the other hand—where action can be taken—make satisfying entertainment; the terror strikes, it passes, it’s dealt with for better or for worse. The sense of experiencing and living through disaster vicariously is a good way of putting things into perspective. It used to be the same with the news: the good news was that shit was happening, but it was happening to someone else.
But something has shifted. Nowadays shit is happening all the time everywhere to everybody. Everything is told in terms of disaster and crisis: weather patterns: disastrous. Climate Change: disastrous. Global Financial Crisis: disastrous. Political situations: disastrous. Unemployment: disastrous. And so on.
The high-pitched wail of this lament corrodes the peaks and troughs of potential emotional responsiveness; the vapours of benumbing apathy steam upwards like a bewitching spell. All stands still. Action, like in a bad dream, seems impossible.
That chilling sense of stillness—that miasma of hopelessness coalesces from time to time throughout history. It is the subject of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797–98) an epic marking the beginning of British Romanic literature that describes how, as a penance for his violation of nature, the protagonist is cursed with a penance that condemns not only him but the entire crew of his ship to a slow floating journey through hell. While initially it seems like nothing could be worse than the ship’s course being driven hopelessly south to Antarctica, then there is the mist, and after that the becalming and after that again the convergence with the ghostly vessel crewed by Death and Life-in-Death.
The Mariner’s guilt is only ever partially expiated, and when his pardon eventually comes upon being rescued from the whirlpool and pulled from the water, it is delivered with the embargo that he can never desist from wandering the earth telling his tale as a warning to those he meets about the dangers of transgressing the unwritten laws of nature and, ultimately, cosmological forces.
Both the sense of stillness in this, the longest poem written in the English language, and the hopeless futility of the Ecclesiastes verses hover around the edges of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) where Armageddon proportions of disaster are woven into a contemporary scenario. As with Coleridge’s Rime, the festivities of a wedding slide sideways as the guests, and in particular, the bride herself, subsides into the spell of the times—the creeping melancholia that describes both a planet hurtling towards ultimate disaster and a malaise. The wedding comprises the first half of the film, and we the audience feel ourselves caught like Coleridge’s wedding guest by another tale even as we watch, transfixed by the beauty of the current moment.
The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear
It’s a film that elicits divided responses, but it’s difficult to dissociate from the haunted futility that blankets the sensuous loveliness of the imagery in a suffocating autism. Here, too, is the sense of nature violated; the beginning scenes where birds fall slowly from skies, where powerful animals stumble and fall and where plantforms behave like sentient sinister triffids, act as both an introduction and, paradoxically, a conclusion.
The hypnotic slow motion of these scenes seems so familiar to art-educated audiences; the dioramas of Jeff Wall or Bill Viola come to mind, or AES+F’s Feast of Trimalchio, where the orgiastic industries of feasting and leisure take place in a de-natured ersatz Garden of Eden punctuated by intermittent catastrophes. As we enter these worlds from the sound-byte/info-byte helter skelter of the everyday, the gorgeous lingering slow-speed of the lens is indulgence incarnate.
This ambience of perpetually deferred climax is no stranger to contemporary culture—two of this year’s most celebrated music videos seem shadowed by the same albatross. Although Romaine Gavras’ video for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s No Church in the Wild feature a riot scene set in Prague, the futility of post-apocalyptic resistance is ultimately cast as a series of beautiful, hypnotically choreographed, grisly circus-tricks. Critics have pointed out how “real anger, real resistance, real desire for change” have been hi-jacked in this pop music video, and yet the picturing of resistance as a hollow performance is carried through with a poetic poignancy that seems all-too-familiar.
The appealing tragedy of post-apocalyptic vacuity takes a range of beautiful forms in popular culture: the chillingly direct mantra “money is the anthem—to success”, uttered with the collagened sincerity of Lana del Rey’s performance in National Anthem (directed by Anthony Mandler) ghosts up memories of Marilyn, Jackie Kennedy and Priscilla Presley with all the tropes of Americana nostalgia intact. Del Rey is partnered by “rapper, music video director and fashion icon” A$AP Rocky, and the familiar scenarios of the Kennedy shooting and life in the Hamptons is re-cast as a parodic lament for entire generations of American dreams that have evaporated into ether. Endemic narcissism has taken over, and the sense of acceptance that everything is rotting from the inside and nothing can be done about it poisons every hand-held frame detailing the saccharine in Kodachrome rose-tones in the most beautiful, seductive way.
Meanwhile, back in everyday land, we watch the graphs of polls and exchange-rates as they rise and fall to the background wallpaper of crises and disasters. Freud defined melancholia as a mourning built on a profound sense of loss. If it is the will to action we have lost, then the tragedy is indeed a final one. But if, as has happened intermittently in the past, we are cast in a time when we must, for a while, keep re-telling the tale, there is still hope that ultimate disaster can yet be forestalled.
Pat Hoffie is a visual artist based in Brisbane. She is a Professor at the Queensland College of Art, Director of SECAP (Sustainable Environment Asia-Pacific) and Unesco Orbicom Chair in Communications, Griffith University