The Art of Disaster

The waters that swallowed and devoured Japan were black and full of horror. The Hebrews have their Leviathans, the Mayans their serpents, but the Japanese – just black water. It has haunted them for centuries. The Japanese artist, Hokusai, tried to capture the horror and agony in his art, this terrifying black water in his 1830 woodblock that inspired the image above and below the original:

I wonder if when Hokusai originally painted his work, if the people appreciated it or if they recoiled with sadness or anger or agony. The world recently watched in agony as the black waters ravaged entire villages. The art which reflected a tragedy takes us back to a memory in the midst of the new tragedy.

Some of us tend to minimize tragedy and memory for fear that others are living in the past, unable to forgive, unable to acknowledge the progress made, but I wonder if those others are simply “living” artifacts – pointing out what was, in order to warn us of what will be.

Those of us who looked at Hokusai’s work and only saw it for its beauty failed to recognize that this piece of art was not born of his imagination but of the horror that he saw. We put it in our museums or reprinted it for our walls, studied it for his use of color or his technique, but we did not heed its warning or listen to what the art was saying; we gazed and then looked away.

$308 billion worth of damage; quite possibly the costliest disaster to date. I’ve read that this was a hundred times worse than Haiti. Tens of thousands dead and tens of thousands without homes. When art reflects pain and tragedy, those of us who seek reconciliation must not only look at what we see, but remember to hear the messages and the memories behind it. It may be a pretty picture, but it must be heard, not merely admired.

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About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come. View all posts by David Park

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