Currently reading : SB5 Archive (2010): Nuclear Winter

SB5 Archive (2010): Nuclear Winter

12 September 2017

Words by Francesca Gavin

Yo Okada, Fire on my deceased grandfather’s country house, 2007, oil on canvas, 101 x 80 cm, courtesy of the artist,
Scott Treleaven, Untitled, 2007, watercolour on paper, 27 x 16 cm, courtesy of The Breeder, Athens,

Cormac McCarthy’s 'The Road' is a brutal and very disturbing book. The sparse narrative follows a father and son trying to survive, walking across a ravaged landscape to the sea. Apart from their relationship, one of the most haunting elements of the novel is the landscape it takes place in. Blackened shapes of rock. Shoals of ash. Dark water. Desolate.

Landscapes have a traditionally frumpy reputation in contemporary art (a few innovative photographers aside). A bit like an old lady’s floral dress or the medium of watercolor. The view out the window is a dated and irrelevant genre in contrast to concept-driven experimentation. The post-nuclear apocalyptic landscape, however, is one that resonates with the current decade. It is where ideas around the void, the gothic and the culture of fear emerge.

Imagine what the future looks like. The sci-fi urbanity of Blade Runner, techno-grime and robotics seems increasingly present. It no longer has that sense of strangeness. The future is no longer distant or fictional. We are living it. Speaking to William Gibson a few years ago, he said, “I don’t think we have much of a vision today. The ‘80s were the last point at which we had a long enough ‘now’ to envision from”. A linear idea of what is ahead doesn’t fit with modern thinking. History has proven things are more tangential.

The apocalyptic landscape instead has become the true future. It’s not high-tech, but dirty and visceral. A landscape after terrorists have let off the big bomb, the oil tankers have spilled, the wars are rampant. What happens the day after the environment finally takes over. A sticky, abject world scarred by humanity. Rather than our landscape of the past which was about our pastoral fantasies, this is a landscape that reflects our real fears and taboos. Fears of mortality and physicality. Fears about the unpredictability of nature and our own bodiliness.

David Ratcliff, Swamp, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 223.5 x 259.1 cm–88 x 102 inches, courtesy of Maureen Paley, London,
Seana Gavin, Radioactive Landscape, 2009, collage, courtesy of the artist,

It also has something to do with our relationship with technology. The ultimate fear of the world without electricity, iPods, mobile phones, computers, our everyday machinations. The Western world has become so dependent on its technological extensions that they have become part of our identity, how we function on a daily basis. We have become bio-robots, tech-human. In a sense, humanity is not longer in touch with nature but more comfortable with the microchip.

The environment then becomes a locus for the unknown, a space to deflect how we feel, the dark recesses of the human psyche. A gothic space, one best shown in black. It is an uncomfortable swamp or a place of impending violence. It is the intimate, personal, psychological.

Throughout the cold war, nuclear conflict was the fear that motivated politics and society. One day the bomb would drop. The fall out of World War II still was a huge trauma on society. Half a century later, the memory of the bomb is there but it’s less concrete. The fear of nuclear war is more insidious, less explosive. Its more a low level discomfort heightened through the media to sell papers. When in fact we live at one of the peaceful times in history, something discussed in length by Norwegian Lars Svendsen in his book, ‘A Philosophy of Fear’. “There are fewer civil wars, genocides and breaches of human rights than there ever has been… We must after all lead a highly protected life to have the time to fear all the potential dangers that may strike us.”

That fear emerges in the landscape when it is unpopulated. That is the true fear, which Cormac McCarthy’s novel illustrates so well. What we really fear is the void, a landscape with no human comfort.

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