We have always had a fascination with the end of times, prophesizing humanity’s impending fall at the hands of a vast range of threats ranging from capricious gods to natural disaster to Obama economics. Some present-day prophets of doom pore over scripture and Mayan calendars calculating our divinely predicted end, and the current climate may seem uniquely catastrophic as a host of voices zealously assess the dangers posed by global warming, asteroids, thermonuclear war, an electromagnetic pulse, and comparable crises. Popular culture has embraced our fascination with apocalypse, with a wave of apocalyptic movies and short films (and some feature films over the breadth of a century); numerous video games including Half Life, Left 4 Dead, and Fallen Earth; and reality shows featuring our neighbors preparing for the end.
What is especially distinctive now is that a broad public imagination of approaching downfall and contemporary ruination depicts it as an aesthetic and even beautiful fate. A flood of graphic art depicts the ruins of our future strewn across a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape. This aestheticized fate illuminates how we see contemporary post-industrialism, an anxiety over contemporary life that offers few explicit moral lessons. When Charlton Heston collapsed at the feet of a crumbled Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes it was an expressly dystopian tale of racial apocalypse, but the future painted in most contemporary post-apocalyptic art is not a starkly dystopian moral lesson: it is instead a strangely attractive, curiously timeless, and even welcoming landscape of utter ruination.
Post-apocalyptic art embraces our anxieties about contemporary material decline and deeper apprehensions of the social processes that fuel and in some minds are accelerating our decline, comforting us with an aestheticized future in gorgeous ruins. Abandonment art depicting contemporary ruins (so-called “ruin porn”) and post-apocalyptic art imagining future downfall fundamentally explore transience and a common feeling of powerlessness (whether it is warranted or imagined). Paul Virilio has argued that “This admission of powerlessness in the face of the surging up of unexpected and catastrophic events forces us to try to reverse the usual trend that exposes us to the accident in order to establish a new kind of museology or museography: one that would now entail exposing the accident, all accidents, from the most banal to the most tragic.” In this vision of ruins and ruination, Virilio suggests we should examine the “progress that turns into catastrophe,” documenting the trajectories of apocalypse. The most challenging post-apocalyptic art aspires to confront our anxieties about the future, and archaeology can trigger equally productive discussions about the future while assessing the material traces of the past and present.
Post-apocalyptic art is an anticipation of ruins, and Will Viney argues that “the anticipation of ruins mark out the present as the condition of the future,” suggesting that the imagination of apocalypse and ruination expresses our anxieties about our own social and material impermanence. He looks at ruins—historical remnants, contemporary abandonment, and future landscapes alike—as disruptions of conventional narrative temporality, arguing that “projected ruins represent a disrupted continuation of present events. … The ruin marks that sense of termination that has not quite come to its end. … Imagining the ruins of the future gives a means to envision a story that both locates a possible landscape and relates that landscape to present surroundings.” An astounding volume of art foresees a non-apocalyptic extension of present-day life, but future ruins undermine seemingly conventional developmental paths, a maneuver that destabilizes our own preconceptions about a stable present.
Sarah Wanenchak argues that the central feature of post-apocalyptic art and contemporary “ruin porn” is their atemporality; that is, the ruins around us and in a hypothetical future are threads in a larger discourse that collapses facile distinctions between past, present, and future. Where contemporary abandonment art evokes heritage and loss through reference to historical buildings and spaces we experience in the present, post-apocalyptic art wields the familiar materiality of our present and imagines its future ruination. Seeing such ruination art as atemporal is a concept thieved from cyberpunk, where William Gibson suggests that we “inhabit a sort of endless digital Now.” Much of the implications for this philosophical framework seem to revolve around resisting conventional linear historical narratives. Bruce Sterling, for instance, refers to the contemporary world as a “network culture” and argues that digitization profoundly undermines authoritative linear narratives for the meanings of a coalescing past, present, and future.
Contemporary abandonment art uses photographs to substitute for the physical experience of moving through a ruin, so its claim to authenticity is somewhat different than that for post-apocalyptic art. Abandonment artists aspire to reveal “authentic” landscapes in natural decaying processes (which some artists argue is “beautiful”), and an image invokes a bodily, material experience of moving through a ruin in time and space, although it transforms it into a selective digital prompt. The photograph in abandonment art makes a claim to historical authenticity (in the form of the building carcass) and embodied authenticity (in the implied form of the photographer’s corporeal self entering buildings).
Authenticity is an exceptionally ambiguous if not ideological concept, but in contemporary abandonment art there is a genuine material reality that images depict, a concrete decaying building or space, so it is “real” in a way that post-apocalyptic art is not. In contrast, post-apocalyptic art stakes a claim to our imagination—and crafts its own authenticity in lieu of materiality–by representing the ruins of our familiar material world in the wake of catastrophe.
Our present-day world is a familiar feature in post-apocalyptic art, with famous structures and familiar spaces routinely looming as visual mechanisms that place us in the imagined ruins of ourselves. For instance, Jonas De Ro’s series of imaginings of contemporary cities in ruins depict cities including Toronto, Dubai, and Singapore, all including material landmarks overtaken by collapse, decay, and nature. A host of artists somewhat inelegantly divine the fall of state societies by focusing on the most famous buildings, with the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and Cristo Redentor among the recurring post-apocalyptic motifs surrounded in flames, ice, water, or vegetation. Those buildings become clumsy metaphorical devices for our contemporary society if not us.
Other artists incorporate the most prosaic materiality but universal things, such as subways and cars. Structures we know or spaces that are recognizable populate post-apocalyptic art as a mechanism to provide them a sort of plausible digital authenticity. Unlike abandonment art that often depicts the most commonplace objects in the midst of ruins, post-apocalyptic images are most often landscapes focused on the grand sweeping spatial dimensions of apocalypse and not really on the detritus of commodities cast about that landscape. In this sense, much of post-apocalyptic art might be interpreted as a post-consumer world that for at least some people is a desirable landscape.
Artists use a wide range of mechanisms to render ruins and catastrophic futures “beautiful.” Like contemporary abandonment artists, post-apocalyptic artists use light and high density color ranges to provide a visually striking representation, and post-apocalyptic artists are granted significant license to interpret the future (abandonment artists, in contrast, tend to take spaces as they are found). Some post-apocalyptic art is of course a landscape of desolation, but others underscore the power and resilience of an aesthetically attractive nature. Trees, vines, and megafauna reclaim a vast range of post-apocalyptic artworks, with greenery carpeting abandoned cities that are in many cases populated by a host of animals that have escaped the zoos. This optimistic vision of environmental rebound soothes contemporary environmental anxieties by suggesting nature can overcome any of humanity’s insults, although those imaginations of ruin rarely identify the concrete mechanisms of ruination. Some post-apocalyptic artists include hypersexualized women in their images (something seen in contemporary abandonment art as well), borrowing the stark and discomforting backdrop of apocalyptic ruination to contrast to a certain definition of beauty and sexual desirability.
The post-apocalyptic landscape is an oblique critique of an alienating social world in which people often feel disempowered. The select few humans who populate most post-apocalyptic art are apparently strong and invested with genuine agency: numerous artworks of post-apocalyptic worlds show a single figure (or a nuclear family) standing with their back to us staring out at the post-apocalyptic world with us, absurdly envisioning new possibilities and perhaps even suspecting that the removal of structural limitations will make us happier.
For archaeologists the implications of post-apocalyptic art may revolve around its creative capacity to imagine the future. That is, as Rodney Harrison and Shannon Dawdy each have argued, archaeologists rarely look into the future, instead committed to a conventional modernist narrative that examines the relationship between the past into the present and ends at our own feet. Harrison argues that archaeologists examining the contemporary world have developed a problematic framework that reduces materiality to “ruins” because the discipline is focused on detritus, the past, and distance. Harrison suggests tinkering with the temporality of ruination, focusing on its dynamism and seeing ruins as an incomplete present with implications on the future that archaeologists can and should examine. Dawdy has likewise advocated a research agenda that resists linear evolutionary narratives and does not reduce materiality to progress or ruin.
It might be possible to use archaeology to creatively rethink our unexamined historical trajectories into the future by drawing on our mastery of the history of things and contemporary materiality alike. Bruce Sterling hints at the archaeological implications of atemporality, which he muses “escapes the literary traps of history. Just history that could not be written about. History about people who were not the winners, history about people who had no literatures. … we can trace it through archeology. … The way we learn about our things, through non-literary sources such as garbage, pollen counts, environmental damage, even corpses.” Sterling is suggesting that things are especially powerful mechanisms to weave narratives evoking past, present, and future and countering dominant narratives and predominant notions of linear temporality. Evan Calder Williams argues that “the cunning of an era, then, is the dreaming of its own grave. Not its gravediggers. The dream image, that standstill halting of utopia and the dialectical image: what is it if not the graveyard?” He proposes a scholarship “I call salvagepunk: the post-apocalyptic vision of akaputt world, strewn with both the dream residues and the real junk of the world that was, and shot through with the hard work of salvaging, repurposing, détourning, scrapping.” As complex theory this is all quite elegant, but as everyday method it risks providing a complicated philosophical framework with few genuine implications. Yet archaeology and art alike may have their greatest power when they simply trigger discussions about the paths we may take in the future, trajectories that do not simply assume a particular sort of progress. This will involve some creativity in how we imagine our futures, but post-apocalyptic art reveals that many people are using materiality to imagine such futures.
Shannon Lee Dawdy
2009 Millennial Archaeology: Locating the Discipline in the Age of Insecurity. Archaeological Dialogues 16(2):131-142. (subscription access)
2011 Surface assemblages: Towards an archaeology in and of the present. Archaeological Dialogues 18:141-161.
2011 Archaeology of the Post-Future. Unpublished paper, academia.edu.
2007 The Original Accident. Polity Press, Malden, MA.
Evan Calder Williams
2011 Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books
Abandoned Richard Allenby-Pratt
Giacoma Costa Post Natural Apocalypse
Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction (Paul Brians)
Apocalypse (woman) image courtesy CommunityVolunteer
Apocalypse (city) image courtesy DearJune
Chicago Ruins image courtesy dynamited.