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Distant Hammers

February 4, 2016 | by

Notes on art and apocalypse.

From Patrick Reed’s “Distant Hammers.”

How will the end come? Did it already come? Did we miss it? That we can ask this last question shows just how far our current mood of millenarianism has traveled from its antecedents in the distant and not-so-distant past. As late as Eliot, poets and prognosticators assured us that we would recognize “how the world ends.” Most visions of apocalypse were spectacular, sublime. The possibility that we have instead whimpered our way into some kind of boiling-frog scenario—marked by slow but irreversible global warming, mass human displacement, and a gradually perceptible slide toward famine, disease, war, and extinction—is a radical departure from the convulsive display we’d long been promised.

The first properly apocalyptic writings in the monotheistic tradition are the books of Joel and Zechariah, two of the twelve minor prophets in the Tanakh, or Jewish canon. Joel, whose account may date to the reign of King Josiah, around 800 B.C., and who may therefore be the oldest prophet, begins by describing a coming locust infestation, which he claims will be coincident with famine and widespread misery. The lament transforms into a hallucinogenic description of locusts as God’s army (“the increasing locust, the nibbling locust, the finishing locust, and the shearing locust”), of a fire that consumes the world, and of a day of thick darkness “like the dawn spread over the mountains.” The more famous book of Daniel follows approximately in this mold, albeit with new messianic trappings. 

All the old forms of apocalypse invited us to watch, often through a proxy witness like the apostle John. Almost every sentence of John’s Revelations contains a variation of the phrase “and I saw”: “And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.” The invitation to watch is didactic. An apocalypse that passes unnoticed is useless as a moral argument. The predictive visions that once characterized our end-times narratives, and which functioned as a call to repentance and salvation, required that we recognize in advance the apocalyptic moment—the event horizon between our world and the next.

We are still apocalypse obsessives. But lately we’ve transitioned from an eschatology of “almost too late” to one of “already too late.” The apocalypse is no longer a spectacle to be witnessed, and our witnessing may make no difference to the coming cosmic judgment.

According to an extreme version of this argument, the world as we know it is not only doomed but has already ended. Timothy Morton is the most notable architect of this idea, currently in vogue among ecology-minded academics and a diverse group of young artists. In books like Hyperobjects and Ecology without Nature, Morton advocates for a new weltanschauung called dark ecology and proposes that humanity has been radically transformed by so-called hyperobjects: phenomena so massive in size (black holes), duration (nuclear waste), or consequence (global warming) that they dwarf the scale of human experience. We cannot properly hold them in our minds.

According to Morton, hyperobjects have already brought about the end of the world, which he locates precisely in April 1784, the month and year James Watt patented the steam engine, and again, in 1945, with the deployment of the atomic bomb. Environmental handwringing about the end of the world isn’t just useless, Morton writes, it inhibits a true ecological reckoning with the post-world we’re already living in.

This is not exactly a “vision of the last judgment.” Yet Morton’s vision of apocalypse merits use of the term because it presents itself as an “unveiling” or revelation (apokalypsis) of human self-knowledge, and because it depicts the apocalyptic threshold not as an end but as a transition between our world and the world to come. Some form of New Jerusalem accompanies all apocalyptic narratives, whether religious or secular. Morton calls his the “Age of Asymmetry,” a period whose key concepts are strictly nonanthropomorphic and mostly invisible to the human eye. Global warming, which cannot be seen, only observed by computation, is his hallmark example.

But what exactly is “unveiled” in this modern apocalypse? In the 1970s, the nuclear arms race made it clear that, God’s will notwithstanding, humanity needed no help in destroying itself. The apocalyptic narrative was reinvented as a spectacle of our own disastrous velocity. Our speed outstripped our self-knowledge, a fact we would learn only too late, when self-knowledge caught up to technology at the very moment of apocalypse. From there it didn’t take long to arrive at the notion that we might destroy ourselves without even realizing it. We would be unaware that the apocalyptic moment had passed. We have since attempted to imagine that impossibility—a universe that simply keeps going after our absence—most recently in best sellers like The World Without Us. In these modern visions, no messianic figure appears. There is no reckoning of human values. We have left Messianic time. As in the painting competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius described by Pliny the Elder—which Parrhasius wins by painting a curtain so realistic that Zeuxis impatiently asks him to reveal the painting behind it—what is unveiled in this apocalypse is precisely the fact that the veil conceals nothing. The universe is not hiding a human apotheosis. The veil is the object is the veil.

Morton has found a receptive audience among young Parrhasiuses, including Pinar Yoldas, whom I interviewed last year, and Patrick J. Reed, whose work is the occasion for these notes. Morton’s rejection of Greenpeace-style political panic appeals to Reed’s generation, a group that has witnessed time and again the failure of traditional activism to effect meaningful change for the environment.

Historically, the visionaries who articulated the conditions of apocalypse were artists or writers of great literary imagination, like the apostle John, or like Dante or Milton. William Blake was probably the first artist/writer to inhabit this Gnostic role whom we might have recognized as modern; he was also among the first to connect the idea of apocalypse with the modern city, for example in his dismal descriptions of London in Songs of Experience and their attendant promises of renewal in Golgonooza, his city of imagination on the Thames.

William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment, 1808.

The Gnostic tradition in which Blake’s vision participated has since faded, replaced by a tradition of apocalypse that relies on processes whose technical workings flummox the nonspecialist. The artist can no longer predict. She can only follow the scientist, whose theories and observations suggest instead a gradual disaster. She can enact the theories of someone like Morton, an English professor who offers a nontechnical vocabulary of the global-warming crisis that is rooted in the sciences, not to mention filled with pop culture references, speedy summaries of Kant and Hegel, and a dose of eschatological doom.

A consequence of this changing of the guard is that the apocalypse is no longer a visual object. Even among artists, the apocalypse now appears as a shared mood of exhaustion and extinction. In the 1995 documentary film Signers Koffer, the Swiss-born kinetic sculptor Roman Signer describes apocalypse “in the modern sense” as the simple and steady process—increasingly apparent in the decayed industrial towns he was visiting in former East Germany—of “making the world uninhabitable.” There is no Rubiconic spectacle, nothing to amaze the eyes and ears.

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According to a certain mind-set, the Earth has always been about to seize up and cast off its unworthy inhabitants. The methods of delivering this news have evolved, though, usually in tandem with advances in media technology.

Consider the development of linear perspective during the early Italian Renaissance. Some of the most bizarre and unstable uses of perspective from this era are found in depictions of global destruction and cataclysm, especially in renderings of the biblical flood, a popular Renaissance theme. The Florentine Paolo Uccello painted one of the strangest scenes in his singularly strange oeuvre on the subject of Noah’s deluge. Readers of Vasari’s Lives of the Artist will recall that Uccello was “intoxicated” by linear perspective to the point of monomania. According to the biographer, who may have exaggerated or invented the anecdote, Uccello would ignore his wife’s amorous cries at night in order to train his efforts on drawing a perfectly proportional vase or cornice. “Oh, what a sweet thing is this perspective,” he is said to have muttered while his wife waited in the bedroom.

Paulo Uccello, The Deluge, 1447–48.

In his depiction of the flood waters receding, Uccello’s foreshortened ark is proof enough that he was entranced by perspectival studies, which allowed him to imagine stories of religion and myth in the same infinitely extended geometric space we ourselves inhabit: a new dimension—depth—in which to situate the apocalyptic spectacle. The effect, taken here to a vertigo-inducing extreme, was chilling. Vasari describes how Uccello decorated the space of The Deluge with meticulous proportioned figures, “the dead bodies, the tempest, the fury of the winds, the bolts of lightning, trees breaking, and the terror of men, that is all beyond description.” Linear perspective outstripped language. It was itself a veil lifting, a seeing through (perspectiva).

The apocalyptic tradition is especially vivid in Germany. Walter Laqueur wrote that Germans spend more sleepless nights than other peoples, and that they tend to obsess publicly—far more than other nations—over their anxieties, including the fear that the world is coming to a quick end. It goes without saying that Wagner’s Götterdämmerung was an exercise in apocalyptic thinking, or that Nazism was, for its adherents, a “venture in apocalypse,” as Sontag wrote. For whatever reason the “apocalyptic tone” (as Derrida called it) finds special harmonic resonance in Germany, and has for centuries, long before the pandemonium of the last hundred years. Not for nothing is Michael, the angel of apocalypse, Germany’s national saint.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, Europe was gripped by what is now called the Little Ice Age, a period of frigid winters and cool summers. At the same time, the Reformation was producing seismic waves of unrest across the continent that would soon culminate in the Thirty Years’ War, the most apocalyptic event to befall Europe until the twentieth century. The mood was more millennialist than usual.

It was in this climate that the invention of moveable type made possible a new genre of apocalyptic art: the prophetic broadside. Throughout the sixteenth century these large posters, boasting color images and printed German or Latin text, spread news of important events quickly across great distances. Among the earliest forms of mass media, they are the distant ancestor of both cable news and the Facebook meme. Many of the earliest broadsides concerned peculiar occurrences that had been observed in the night sky over a foreign city, which were then illustrated and interpreted for catastrophic significance. Their woodcut illustrations showed a diverse collection of celestial phenomena, such as comets, shooting stars, eclipses, the aurora borealis, and parhelia.

Looking to the stars for evidence of catastrophe is a practice old enough to have been baked into our language. (The etymological home of disaster is a star out of alignment: dis-aster.) In the sixteenth century, the climatic and cosmological cues from above were inherently newsworthy, inasmuch as they spoke to dangerous imbalances on Earth.

Typical of the genre is a 1557 print that depicts northern lights and sun dogs converging over Vienna as a crowd of crippled peasants, presumably from the nearby Hospital St. Marx, gathers to watch in astonishment.

Signa Et Prodigia ... , 1557.

Sometimes the style of illustration telescopes the scale of event to include both the human-sized and heavenly, a strategy that feels almost modern, like Hollywood’s cinematic spectacles. The textual exegeses, however, were not narrative entertainments but prophetic warnings, cautioning readers of what the astronomical event portended.

A printmaker from Nuremberg, a center of commerce whose merchants hoped to remain neutral during the Reformation, depicted in a 1558 print certain events observed in the French Kingdom of Navarre: a bearded man, dragon, and siren appearing in the sky, a mysterious hunt for varied wildlife by a group of unaccompanied and silent hounds, and a flock of birds followed by three black ravens.

Nuremberg, 1558.

Although scholars today often cite the northern lights in their attempts to explain these oddly specific visions, such back-formations don’t help to illuminate the apocalyptic impulse of the artists themselves, which seems to have been simultaneously visionary and documentarian. Artists wanted to inform their audience of actual phenomena while at the same time warning them of a coming catastrophe of biblical proportion. The prints therefore attempt to collapse the familiar and the astonishing, the astronomical and the biblical, the present and the near future. They worked with translated texts by Nostradamus and developed occult visual systems of astrological significance.

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Although the symbols are obscure, the mood of these broadsides persists today. The more you look at them, the more the images lose their exoticism and resolve into saturnine accounts of the Second Coming that exude a familiar dread. We feel the imbalances of the present day in the dark visions of this earlier century, when climate change and the competing ideologies of religious extremists seemed to bathe the world in a final twilight.

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I had the opportunity to revisit the history of apocalyptic art through the work of Patrick J. Reed, an artist from Iowa who lives and works in Germany. Reed’s first solo show, “Distant Hammers,” is a collection of images inspired in part by the tradition of sixteenth-century catastrophic broadsides, and in part by other nebulous forces of our own century: man-made global warming, pop kitsch, postindustrial capitalism. He is a Morton acolyte who spent a year researching the broadside form at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. Since then he has remained in Germany, a country whose apocalyptic vibrations match his own.

Patrick Reed, from “Distant Hammers.”

“Distant Hammers” features about two dozen quadruple broadsides: four-panel illustrations, each paper pane of which was made with lye and alum according to the specifications of sixteenth-century papermakers. By contrast, Reed’s media are postmodern and therefore catholic. Floating across each page are scribbles, patterns, cutouts, text, and drawn or stamped figures, which form an eclectic and modern cosmology.

The world these images occupy is dreamlike but not surreal—there is order, just not on a human scale. Whatever geometry guides the placement and repetitions of each object seems to be alien, if not divine. A laurel wreath appears again and again in different guises, first in its triumphal form as a marker of human glory, elsewhere as a mushroom cloud or shock wave, yet elsewhere as a rainbow covenant, or a golden arch, or half a Bohr atom. A submarine surfaces at the bottom of one page, shooting off fireworks mirrored elsewhere as starscape. Pines wave and prairies wither. An organic bloom spreads mold-like across an otherwise abstract page. Wolves howl at twin black suns. Marlboro logos batten to mountaintops.

Patrick Reed, from “Distant Hammers.”

As in Uccello, some patterns are suggestive of obsession, although Reed’s compulsion is not with perspective but with some unnamed principle of organization. His flirtation with and abandonment of linear perspective as a mode of representation accords with the nonvisual apocalypse he wants to show us. How do you depict a dying planet?

“Distant Hammers” confirms the suspicion stated earlier that apocalyptic art is no longer visionary—and can’t be. The apocalyptic moment in our culture is no longer visual, so no vision can hope to prefigure it. The scientist has replaced the artist as the figure responsible for articulating the conditions of apocalypse. Its shape can only be measured, not seen. And even if the apocalypse could be visualized, it’s too late for visions: the end has already happened.

The drawings reflect this state of affairs through an abiding attitude of uncertainty and exhaustion. Edits and erasures are left present on the paper, which thanks to its preindustrial composition holds onto every tentative mark, every attempt to cover or rewrite. Reed’s catastrophic imagery lives in a constant state of revision and refinement wherein contours are redrawn and overdrawn, painted over, left half finished, or smeared with their creator’s careless handprint. The paper is polluted with the gray exhaust of its maker.

Patrick Reed, from “Distant Hammers.”

Patrick Reed, from “Distant Hammers.”

Reed’s decision to have his drawings betray their own process of composition may be his most ingenious. The language of error is central to religious millenarians, who must revise their predictions of the end of the world as each successive date fails to reward believers with catastrophe. The artist, too, lives with the failure of his discipline’s visionary past. A remainder of artistic labor on the page lowers him into the debased position of unknowing craftsman to which he has lately fallen.

The exhaustion of the Anthropocene is another important concept. Because the world is infected—because we are the unwitting parasites and genitors of our own apocalypse—the work is similarly polluted: by fantasy trash found on the streets of Munich and Berlin, gilded garbage like beer-bottle wrappers and pinup magazine figures. Just as Reformation-era broadsides embraced astrological objects, Reed embraces the exhausted objects of pop culture, which is to say those objects that have passed into camp: palm trees, hypermasculine bodybuilders, opulent midcentury living rooms. His is a queer ecology that sees the apocalypse as an essentially ironic object. The mythical Atlas shrugs his shoulders, then flexes his biceps on Venice Beach.

Other panels are occupied by figures exhausted in other ways, such as the Pegasus we encounter whenever we visit a Mobil gas station, here playing the role of the horseman of fossil fuels. One four-panel work is covered with microtext transcriptions of the emergency weather broadcasts that accompanied an Iowa flood Reed experienced. But explicit references to catastrophe are otherwise rare. Most often exhaustion is signaled by a dim, etiolated palette, coupled with a sense that some panels were simply abandoned unfinished.

Patrick Reed, from “Distant Hammers.”

Finally, “Distant Hammers” is also an exercise in stylistic recycling, from the miniaturist calligraphy of Cy Twombly to the geometric forms of Malevich and the midcentury camp of Warhol. But Reed’s plumbing of these exhausted forms, rooted in the apocalypse as a historical object already past, feels new. So do his methods of artistic obeisance: his monk-like repetition of small scales or patterns, his devotion to an obscure geometry of space. Reed is working toward a vocabulary of cosmic transformation whose language will decay but whose mood will echo across the centuries, like the catastrophic broadsides that are his models, or the figural signs designed to warn future civilizations of radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain.

Reed’s clearest forefather is Paul Klee, the Swiss German artist who flirted with death and transformation up through his very final painting, the hieroglyphic Death and Fire. Klee’s unclassifiable style, variously claimed by Cubists, Surrealists, and Abstract Expressionists, serves an apocalyptic sensibility, although not a dark one. His Angelus Novus has been cherished by those with revolutionary and utopian impulses since it appeared in an essay by Walter Benjamin, who named it the angel of history. “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” This storm called progress is the inexhaustible subject of Reed’s work.

A version of this text accompanies “Distant Hammers,” an exhibition by Patrick J. Reed on view through February 18 at KN: Raum für Kunst im Kontext, Skalitzer Str. 68, Berlin.

Ben Mauk lives in Berlin.