– Spring/Summer 2007

On Catastrophilia

Dieter Roelstraete

  The promise of ruin has been one of the greatest inspirations to Western art.
  — Christopher Woodward1

1. The Accidental Tourist

Robert Polidori has a great eye for the sublime beauty — this is (philosophically speaking) something of an oxymoron, by the way — that lies hidden, in waiting, among the wreckage of devastation. His lavish photographic tableaux first came to my attention in a glitzy, upscale shopping mall in a newly built stretch of Berlin’s once-fabled Friedrichstrasse, a street that has long been littered with the fading memories of ruination. (Berlin is the capital of the modern ruin; it is also the capital of remembrance — and forgetting.)

Stacked man-high on a shiny black coffee table that seemed all but purpose-built for the occasion, there I found, amid designer shirts, silk ties, organic after-shave and other trappings of modern manhood, his gorgeous Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl, a book of lush colour photographs that Polidori took while roaming the picturesque desolation of the so-called 'zone of alienation', the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster that includes the ghost towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl proper. I had long heard about the near-mythic bleakness of this fascinating post-apocalyptic landscape, now open to its own peculiar brand of catastrophiliac tourism, and the images of it that had come to me (such as Nikolaus Geyrhalter's 1999 documentary film Pripyat) had mostly been fittingly sullen, grainy, depressing

  1. Christopher Woodward, In Ruins, London: Chatto & Windus, 2001.

  2. Susan Sontag, to whom I shall be returning on a number of occasions throughout this essay, located the 'predatory side of photography [...] at the heart of  the alliance, evident earlier in the United States than anywhere else,  between photography and tourism'. With regards to this 'gentlest of  predations', Sontag also noted that 'from the start, photographers not only set  themselves the task of recording a disappearing world but were so employed by  those hastening its disappearance'. Was she referring here to the work of Edward S. Curtis, whose photographs of the Native American tribes of the Plains and Pacific Northwest also presaged the wholesale destruction of  their cultures? Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Delta  Books/Dell Publishing, 1979.

  3. Ibid.

  4. John Updike, 'After Katrina', The New York Review of Books, 30 November 2006.

  5. This reference to — what else? — the sinking of the Titanic is by no means an  innocent metaphor. It is well-worth remembering that Titanic (1997) is still  the single-most successful motion picture in the history of cinema, and, as  such, more than any other movie in recent history, it has enshrined the  disaster flick as the paradigmatic genre of late 20th-century culture on both a  global and national level. In the US Titanic has made a total of $600 million, $150 million more than its distant contender Star Wars; worldwide revenues total a staggering $1,835 million, well ahead of The Lord of the Rings's $1,130 million. Taking into account inflation, however, Gone With the Wind (1939) continues to rank as the most popular movie of all time — a story set on the eve of the Civil War, another (arguably the most) traumatic event in American history. Furthermore, Titanic tells the epic story of America’s very utopian promise and aspiration — that of a classless society in which love and hard work will conquer all — seen through the prism of catastrophe. Disaster, a fatal conflation of both the formidable threat of nature and human  hubris, here functions as the foundational 'act' that inaugurates America's  entry into history. This should remind us that ruins — like most other cultural  artefacts that disguise themselves as partly natural phenomena — are not just  big business in America; they are positively cultic events, garlanded with the quasi-religious halo of 'beginnings': 'In the beginning there was disaster.'

  6. Of course, no political consideration of the ruin can be complete today without conjuring up the spectre of downtown New York's Ground Zero, which in some sense has become America's 21st-century Titanic, another foundational myth that comes with its own brand of Hollywood exploitation (Oliver Stone had the ruinous wasteland of Ground Zero rebuilt for the shooting of his World  Trade Center, 2006). Joel Meyerowitz's Aftermath, published by Phaidon in  2006 — a little cheaper than Polidori's Katrina tome, but not by much —  is, in the publishers' words, 'the only existing photographic record of the monumental recovery efforts post-9/11. [...] From portraits of the people he met to the accidental beauty of the ruins at dusk, Aftermath features 400  breathtaking colour photographs, many taken with a large-format camera. Bronx-born Meyerowitz brings his trademark sensitivity, intelligence and  eye for beauty to these poignant images that will hold an important place in American history.' (Emphasis my own.)

  7. S. Sontag, op. cit.

  8. Ibid., p.37.

  9. Ibid., p.80.

  10. The mid-19th-century obsession with rapid change, disappearance and transience that produced the consciousness of modernity as first expounded by Charles  Baudelaire in his Painter of Modern Life (1859) should of course be considered  in conjunction with the emergence of the one art form and image technology  that was singularly suited to meet the demands of that obsession, namely  photography. ('By "modernity" I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.' See Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, London: Phaidon Press,  1995, p.12). On a related note, my invoking of the great narrative tableaux of  Delacroix also belongs to this historical context: predating the discovery  of the photographic procedure only by a couple of years, they (together with Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, 1818—19) represent the tradition of history painting at its journalistic apex.

  11. S. Sontag, op. cit.

  12. Ibid.

  13. C. Woodward, op. cit., dust-jacket text.

  14. http://www.wonderworkstn.com (last accessed 16 February 2007).

  15. Ibid.