Art of darkness: apocalypse, death and disaster in contemporary art

An emerging trend of unease

By Mike Brennan

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Death, disaster and, to a lesser extent, notions of apocalypse are hardly new concerns in contemporary art, but all seem to be gaining a currency that chimes well with global uncertainties.

In recent months, curators and critics have documented a resurgence in art's darker themes, and gloom and doom as a contemporary motif looks certain to proliferate further.

The artists featured here represent newer and older orders: established names such as Thomas Hirschhorn - whose entire career has focused on pointing out unsavoury truths - alongside newcomers such as Ricky Allman and his 21st Century take on Victorian apocalyptic painting. Together, they offer a very brief overview of attempts to grapple with life's doubts and torments, as well as the certainty of its finality.


James Hopkins

James Hopkins

Vanitas, a genre of painting particularly popular amongst 16th and 17th Century Flemish artists, focuses on the transience of life, the certainty of death and ultimate futility of earthly pleasure.

UK artist James Hopkins' reworking of the theme depends, like all his work, on a visual sleight of hand which here transforms items stacked on shelves into a grinning skull, the ultimate symbol of impending death.

The moral significance of the vanitas is cleverly updated to focus on the decadence of contemporary lifestyles, with champagne bottles, disco balls, and technological gadgetry all playing a part in the symbolism of the assemblage.


James Hopkins - death in art

While the illusory - in both a visual and metaphorical sense - is a constant theme in Hopkins' practice, many of his works also investigate precarious balance and the possibility of collapse.

In Brink, left, a chair that seems about to fall is in fact held in place by gravity, poised on two legs which Hopkins has smoothed down to create a perfect, seemingly impossible point of equilibrium. Yet clearly, it would take very little to upset this balance and send the chair crashing to the ground.

Although Hopkins' tricksy art is beguiling and playful, it resonates with far more sombre sub-texts. Life is precarious, replete with illusion. The only real certainty is that it must come to an end.


Oskar Dawicki

the apocalyptic in contemporary art, Oskar Dawicki

Polish artist Dawicki's spoof on newspaper obituaries is imbued with characteristically grim humour.

The dozens of assembled names clearly resemble those of well-known personalities ranging from pop stars to politicians, despite their 'Polish' spelling.

Dawicki's piece is titled Armageddon, and a glance at the dates on the obituary cuttings confirms the fact that all Dawicki's quasi-celebrities died on the same day.

Despite its absurdity, Armegeddon fulfils the function of a sobering momento mori since, on one level, it is inevitably prophetic.

Although all the figures the artist chose to obliquely depict were alive when the work was created, names such as 'Michel Jasckon' and 'Susan Soantag' remind us of the uncertain certainty of death.

Spotlight profile on Oscar Dawicki >

Death and Apocalypse in contemporary art, Oskar Dawicki: Armageddon

Berlinde De Bruyckere

death and apocalypse in contemporary art, Berlinde de Bruyckere

Acclaimed Belgian artist De Bruyckere poignantly evokes pain, isolation and death, with particular reference to tragic episodes in history such as the Holocaust and World Wars.

Her practice consists largely of sculpture and installation, for which she frequently employs mediums such as wax, wood, fabrics and hair.

Animal skins are also a common feature, particularly those of horses, which she strongly associates with scenes of battle and carnage. Her 2000 installation In Flanders Fields, for example, consisted of five reconstructed horses' bodies, each contorted in apparent death throes.

Of all the motifs in De Bruyckere's work, however, blankets are possibly the most poignant. Symbolic of the wounded, ill and dispossessed, they also allude to comfort, shelter and warmth: an evocation of both hope and despair in De Bruyckere's quiet yet determined depiction of dark realities.

Apocalypse in contemporary art, Berlinde de Bruyckere

Gregor Schneider

Death, disaster and Apocalypse in contemporary art: Greogor Schneider

No overview of the darkest realms of contemporary art would be complete without reference to Schneider who, since the age of eighteen, has transformed his parents' former home into the disconcerting work known simply as the Totes Haus Ur (Dead House Ur).

A labyrinth of hidden passageways, sound-proofed rooms, crawl spaces and dead ends, Totes Haus Ur subverts the security of the home into an environment which is bewildering, oppressive and even malignant: the single door leading to one windowless room cannot be re-opened once closed.

Nevertheless, very few are given permission to visit. Instead, interiors are meticulously reconstructed for exhibition or removed entirely to make way for further compulsive alterations.


Gregor Schneider: Die Familie Schneider

More recent projects by Schneider have similarly focused on the transformation of interior space into a chilling source of uncertainty and trepidation.

For the temporary installation Die Familie Schneider (Whitechapel, London, 2004) the artist oversaw the conversion of two adjacent terraced houses into environments reminiscent of the Totes Haus itself.

Complete with dank, clinical interiors and forbidding basement cellars, in each house identical twins performed identical activities (left), adding to the air of hallucination and foreboding.

The installation Weisse Folter (White Torture), 2007, took its name from a form of torture that is psychological rather than physical.

Participants were immersed in a disturbing environment of indistinguishable white corridors, constantly sliding doors and a series of over-heated, freezing, or almost impossible to exit rooms.


Gregor Schneider: totes Haus Ur, entrance to cellar

Most recently, Schneider made headlines with reports of his plans to exhibit a dying or recently deceased person in order "to show the beauty of death".

The story was largely met with outrage, although Schneider insists that his intentions have been misunderstood and that he will, at some point, go ahead with the project.

The artist who has spent his career creating the distinctly uncomfortable may yet broach one of the last remaining taboos in art.


Lori Nix

Apocalypse in contemporary art, Lori Nix, Art Museum

Lori Nix is an American photographer whose principal theme is disaster, an interest developed during her childhood in rural Kansas when floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters seemed to occur with frightening regularity.

A '70s trend for disaster movies seemed to complement this reality, and likewise provided a formative influence.

In Nix's series City (2006), meticulously crafted scale models reveal the ravages of unspecified cataclysm.

Although the photographs could, momentarily, be mistaken for factual records of real-life disaster, a self-consciously cinematic quality enables viewers to quickly ascertain their fictive status.

Lori Nix, Apocalypse in contemporary art

Nix carefully 'directs' her shots through elaborate framing devices and clever juxtaposition: the auditorium of a crumbling theatre is photographed as if from the stage, while in another image the gaping walls of a Natural History Museum reveal glimpses of the outside world alongside dioramas of taxidermied beasts.

In keeping with these cinematic qualities Nix's post-apocalyptic vision is filtered through popular imagination, fulfilling its demand for cataclysm tinged with a glimmer of hope.

Whatever catastrophe has engulfed the city, Nix is anxious to show regenerative nature at work. Plants reclaim the urban environment and animal life is glimpsed in otherwise forlorn spaces. Perhaps, in the best traditions of Hollywood, human survivors lurk somewhere in the ruins, ready to embark on the building of a new and better world.


Apocalypse in contemporary art (continued) >

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