- Art in the Anthropocene: Christa Wolf’s Störfall (Accident) and Günther Uecker’s Aschebilder (Ash Paintings)
In his 2009 article, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that we will have to develop a sense of our own species, a sense of “human collectivity” via a shared sense of catastrophe if we want to effectively change global conditions that do not only destroy biodiversity at an alarming pace but that ultimately also threaten the human species in its entirety.1 In an analysis of German language literary responses to the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima, Katharina Gerstenberger maintains that accidents of this magnitude are closely related to the current Anthropocene, that is, the era in which humans have become a “geological force,” and human history has become increasingly intertwined with natural history.2 From this vantage point, disasters like those of Chernobyl or Fukushima are no longer singular catastrophic events but instead occurrences at the interface of complex technological, social, and “natural” constellations with often transnational consequences.3 This contextualized understanding of disaster corresponds with the aesthetic approach of recent literary texts that leave “behind the Aristotelian understanding of the catastrophic event as a turning point in the plot or a sudden rupture in the protagonist’s life.”4 Instead authors like Inka Parei, Elfriede Jelinek, Yoko Tawada, and Christa Wolf employ diverse narrative strategies that take the nuclear reactor disasters as a point of departure for exploring fundamental questions regarding scientific “progress,” ever growing energy consumption, and the uses of technology.
This essay pursues related questions but shifts the focus from an investigation of literary responses to the role of images and the text-image relationship in a special edition of Christa Wolf’s story Störfall. Nachrichten eines Tages (Accident. A Day’s News). This edition appeared in 2010 with the small publishing house Projekte-Verlag5 and includes a series of artworks titled Aschebilder (Ash Paintings)6 by Günther Uecker, a prominent artist whom Christa Wolf and her husband Gerhard Wolf had befriended and occasionally collaborated with since the early 1990s. Similar to Wolf’s literary text Störfall, Uecker’s series of artworks was a response to the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in 1986. It is an uncanny coincidence that the special edition conjoining Wolf’s text and Uecker’s [End Page 30] art was published shortly before the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, an accident that was comparable to Chernobyl in its destructive force and transnational impact. The book thus gained unforeseen new relevance in light of events that exemplify the confluence of “natural” disasters (a forceful earthquake followed by a tsunami) and failures of technology—pointing at a much broader set of problems regarding the adverse effects of humans on the entire planet.
My analysis focuses on the ways in which the juxtaposition and implicit dialogue of Störfall and Aschebilder make palpable a sense of shared catastrophe—the precondition for effective human intervention according to Chakrabarty.7 Scientists across the disciplines have provided ample evidence of the dangerous course of human/natural history and have outlined a range of collective actions that have the capability of limiting the damage, but scientific insights alone do not lead to change. With this in mind, it is worth asking in what ways the arts contribute to fostering an awareness of the current state of the Anthropocene at the level of both cognition and affect. It is in this sense that I employ the notion of the “ethical”: the potential of images, and imagined worlds across the arts, to create new spaces of awareness that may in turn open up the possibility for action. Drawing on Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator I examine how the “ethical,” understood in this manner, is closely aligned with what he calls the “poetics of the image.” While this contribution focuses primarily on Uecker’s Aschebilder, it also looks at how the text-image combination adds special urgency to the issues under discussion. The joint edition of Störfall/Aschebilder can thus serve as case study for exploring the role of intermedial artwork within the global situation outlined above.8 More...