Saturday, April 2, 2011

Disaster art

I wrote yesterday about my "elevator speech," a very brief commentary about my quilt "Regatta."  I referred to a cheerful scene, "But the threads holding it all together are so skinny, so delicate. What if there is an earthquake or a big storm, or the power plant blows up?"

Postage 1: Regatta  (detail) 

Sandy in the UK responded, "I am wondering about the dating aspect of the comments about current events. Were these things on your mind when you made the piece?  Not to be too picky I hope, but it might be better to just go on from mentioning the delicate strings to the comments in the second paragraph about the fragility of life.  People will make their own connections."

First, Sandy's question.  Obviously I wasn't thinking about the earthquake in Japan when I made the piece three years ago.  And I wasn't specifically thinking about disasters at all when I made it and others in my "postage stamp" series.  But I was specifically thinking of disasters when I did another body of work at the same time.

Crazed 3: Red Tide

My "Crazed" and "Fault Lines" series both deal explicitly with disaster, whether actual or potential.  "Fault Lines" even look like geological disruption and instability, so they probably go more toward the earthquake sector of the disaster universe.  I've given subtitles to my "Crazed" quilts, referencing a lot of other types of disasters. 

Fault Lines 1

One day I was discussing art with a friend and remarked that I was working in two parallel and unrelated bodies of work.  She laughed at me and said "They're all the same!"  And of course, the second she pointed it out I realized that both the pieced quilts and the postage stamp grids are made of many, many tiny bits held together by fragile bonds, an apt metaphor for the state of our world.

Don't you feel stupid when you realize the existence of something that was there all along?  When you belatedly bring something important out of your subconscious and put a name to it?  So is it intellectually dishonest to ascribe a meaning to a piece of art that at the time you made it, wasn't yet articulated?  I hope not, because they they'd have to lock me up.  I've often made quilts whose real meaning didn't surface until late in the making, or even a while afterwards.  Occasionally I've held off giving them names while awaiting clarity in my own mind.

But once I realized that all my recent work has been about disaster and disorder and our inadequate attempts to keep things under control, it brought me to a new plateau of intellectual smugness.  When you worry about these kind of things current events are always confirming your dark thoughts.  Before the Japan quake there were plenty of earthquakes (Haiti, Chile, NZ) and big storms (Katrina) and power plant accidents (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl).  There will be another disaster of some sort in the future, whether environmental, economic or otherwise, and I may very well have already made a quilt that already deals with it.

Postage 5: Epidemic  (detail)

Was it heavy-handed to include the specific references to Japan in my elevator speech?  Possibly.  Maybe people would make their own connections, as Sandy suggests.  But what the heck -- why take a chance?  There's a time and place for subtlety, and I'm not sure thirty seconds in an elevator is it.


  1. Hi Kathy,
    I hope you didn't take it as snarking! I was just wondering. I think the delicate and the connections that you have stated above IS obvious.

    I also didn't realise you weren't vetting the elevator speech but had already sent it. It will be fine I am sure.

    It is just that when I hear people make comments in such a specifically connected way when work has obviously been done previously, it just makes you wonder if they really mean it or are going with the current political atmosphere.
    Perhaps the following phrase, copied from your current post would have worked as well as the one in question. "my recent work has been about disaster and disorder and our inadequate attempts to keep things under control". Says it in a nutshell really.

    I hope the work and the exhibit goes well with the visitors and makes them think.
    Sandy in the UK

  2. Sandy -- I didn't take it as snark, and I take your point that people sometimes try to make their past work fit current events whether it works or not. But (a) I really have been thinking about disaster all along, and (b) the "just like Japan" part is in the mind of the beholder, not the words of the statement.

    Unfortunately, disasters can be infinitely recycled; if I make a specifically-Japan-earthquake quilt next week it will look prescient when the next Big One hits somewhere in the future.