Things we lost in a hurricane

Sandy's destruction offered yet another punishing reminder of how ephemeral the art we produce truly is

Topics: Art, The Weeklings, Hurricane Sandy, Babel, iCloud,

Things we lost in a hurricanePeople walk through sand that washed up from the beach and onto Route 35 during superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Lavallette, N.J. (Credit: AP/Julio Cortez)
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings THERE’S FOUND ART, and then there’s lost art. Found art sometimes ends up in museums or galleries or personal collections. Lost art ends up—well, I can’t say exactly where.  People are thinking a lot about this now because so many artists’ work was damaged or disappeared in Hurricane Sandy (see Jennifer Kabat’s thoughtful Weeklings piece on this subject). Art—images, objects, words, sounds—has always been in danger of perishing, in the physical sense—by acts of nature, by governments, by carelessness or neglect. With so many ways of “backing things up” now, we’re lulled into the feeling that everything is safe, everything is permanent.  If only there were some sort of iCloud to make this true, to automatically save physical objects, someone could surely make a killing.

I guess it’s like with anything you treasure—it blasts your heart when it goes away. But if energy went into the work in the first place, and if energy can’t be destroyed, then maybe the picture is not quite the way it seems.

Dire example, and the sort played out too often through history: The great Russian writer Isaac Babel was arrested by the secret police in 1939, taken to prison, and his work was confiscated and destroyed—including unfinished stories, plays, and film scripts. In 1940, at the age of forty-five, he was shot by a firing squad. At the end he begged, “Let me finish my work.” So there was the work that was destroyed and there was the future work that never came to be. The potential, aborted.  I’m looking for a silver lining here. Babel did publish a large number of extraordinarily influential stories, and some plays, and all of that remains. He worked fiendishly hard during his short time on this earth. He left traces of his world. And I’m wondering this: What if during his life he spoke to someone about a story that was among the ones destroyed or never to be finished, and that person was affected by the words and took them, even a shard of them, and let them grow in some other form? We can’t always know in what way life goes on.

You Might Also Like

In 1961 the famous Bel Air fire in California destroyed the home of actor Dennis Hopper and with it three hundred paintings he had made. He tried to start painting again and couldn’t seem to do it. According to a book about his work, 1712 North Crescent Heights, Hopper said “fuck painting” and found himself obsessively taking pictures instead. He went from one form to another, and his passion didn’t stop. When I talked to him about his artwork for a magazine article in 2001, he said, “I’m not a nostalgic person. I think you only make so many images in your lifetime that have any chance of lasting.” It struck me as a sobering remark then, just as it does today, but maybe I’m starting to see his point.

Another fire: My friend the artist Sky Pape lost fifteen years’ worth of her paintings when the New York City building she was living in was intentionally set on fire in 1997 by a crazy neighbor. “The initial reaction was pure shock,” she says. Then there was “depression, disorientation, anger, futility. The loss of so much work did make me wonder whether I could carry on as an artist. What could I show for myself? I suddenly was without a current or past body of work. But what I lost was the work, not my abilities, not my identity, not my dedication,” she says. “As soon as I had a space in which to work again, I shut out the thoughts about how the tragedy had completely derailed me and focused on my materials and making a mess. I got back to work.” In fact, other losses had already been steering her in another direction artistically, and after the fire, she moved definitively from representational to abstract work and was drawing rather than painting. She utterly transformed.

I’ve lost some of my writing along the way. My hard drive crashed and there was a lot that was not backed up.  Stupidity—that was the reason for my loss of art, which I forgot to list among the reasons above. I lost many short stories, part of a novel, years of journal writing. For some reason what sticks in my mind most is the disappearance of one particular short story that I felt proud of. I can’t even recall the title now but I remember the feeling of it, the main character’s essential struggle. I’m sure the story had its flaws, but it had some pretty good lines in it. I wish I could have those good lines back so that I could shoehorn them into something else. I can’t re-create them from memory—it’s been too long—but maybe they’re still in me somewhere, waiting to surface in some other form.

And one last example, innocent enough, but one that still stings: When my brother and sister and I cleared out the house we grew up in, a large box of our childhood artwork was accidentally thrown out. My father, sentimental to the end, had carefully saved it and stored it in the basement for thirty, forty years. When we had to sell the house, we hired a crew of guys to help us deal with the overwhelming amount of stuff in it. The guys were grumpy and unfriendly. Even though the box was set aside and they were instructed not to take it, one of them grabbed it and threw it in the dumpster outside. I suppose it ended up in a garbage heap somewhere. Bits of our childhood imaginations saved in time, then gone. Or I could be wrong. Maybe some of it escaped. Maybe a few pictures got up the gumption to blow away and were found and tacked up on some other child’s wall. Maybe art sometimes has a mind of its own.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>