Saturday, January 17, 2015

From venerated ships to radioactive cats: art as an identifier of change

In class, we talked about J.M.W. Turner's Fighting Temeraire as a painting that illustrated either the setting of old age (marked by the presence of the HMS Temeraire) or the dawn of the Industrial Age (marked by the dense, black mass, a chimney stack for a mast). Obviously made well into the Industrial Revolution (1838), his painting still stands out to me as a single painting that was made to convey a simple, direct message: the Industrial Age is here to stay. Even the venerated Temeraire, with its 98 guns and storied military performance (most notably the Battle of Trafalgar: Royal Navy vs. French and Spanish), could not prevent its own demise. Here's the painting:

More recently, Sandy Skoglund created in 1980 one of my favorite pieces of art: Radioactive Cats. The sculpted scene depicts 25 (I believe, unless I counted wrong) cats, all painted with fluorescent paint, perusing the nooks and crannies of a drab, collapsed kitchen. In their presence are two human figures, both of whom wear gray. The man's face looks depressed, and though we cannot see the woman's face, she noticeably slouches. This scene is meant to describe life in the Nuclear Age: Skoglund asserts through the expressions of each species that the animals, who've adapted (highlighted [heh] by the neon paint), fair better than the humans, who are still stuck in their antiquated antics.

The depressed state of the humans echoes the message that Turner implied in his painting: we need to move on and adapt. Whether we like it or not, the interminable wheels of progress will continue to turn.

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