THE RESILIENCE OF NATURE - THE ART OF RESILIENCE: LORI NIX IN THE ANTHROPOCENE By Timo Skrandies
It was the year 2000 in which Paul J. Crutzen, together with his co-author Eugene F. Stoermer, published a short article entitled “The Anthropocene”, which attracted a great deal of attention in scientific circles. Crutzen, a meteorologist who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995, argued: “During the Holocene mankind’s activities gradually grew into a significant geological, morphological force […].”1 This force manifested itself and materialized in the form of various magnitudes of influence, for example population growth, mass production and global networking in commerce and transport. All these factors have an enormous effect on local, regional and global ecosystems as well as on the processes and chances for Nature to regenerate. In contrast to his earlier colleagues, who postulated mankind’s impact on Nature as part of the Holocene, Crutzen clearly states that it is appropriate “to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch. The impacts of current human activities will continue over long periods.”2 A date of around 1800 is proposed for the onset of this new geological epoch, which succeeds the Holocene. The reason is that it has been possible since that time to identify significant global impacts caused by human activities through measurements and the observation of nature. We are talking about an age in which, for example, “data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several ‘greenhouse gases’ in particular CO2 and CH4.”3 It should be noted that we are not dealing with that group of natural phenomena where it is (still) a matter of controversy as to whether they are merely results of nature’s intrinsically capricious behavior or should be understood as symptoms of human influence on climatic conditions in this geological era, for example, periods of drought, floods or the increase in storm activity. When Paul Crutzen speaks of the influence of human activities he is pointing to the multidimensional processes of profound changes in mankind’s relationship to the rest of nature that started around 1800.
Pictures enable us to imagine some thing as something – in the sense of a scene. This is made possible through the alternation of closeness and distance – and is also valid for experiences in extreme situations, such as a disaster or even the Apocalypse (paintings by John Martin come to mind). We should not forget that the death of the world as we know it, its end which we see in so-called disaster pictures, is only a perceived and thus preliminary ending. We will not experience our real end, because the event will happen before we realize it. Yet there, within the space of this image, the Apocalypse is now taking place – in other pictures it is about to occur or has already come to pass (post-apocalyptic). The fact that we can attend the Apocalypse as we stand in front of the picture in the here and now points to one of the main powers of images: the depiction of something is always combined with a sense of distance, fictionalization and narrative quality.
For this reason it is especially worthwhile when dealing with the topic of disasters to also see a “scenario” in a “picture”. For, as Eva Horn summarizes in her book Zukunft als Katastrophe [The future as a disaster]: “Scenarios are invented, yet they are possible ways an expected occurrence might develop within the framework of a specific basic situation, ways that should reveal which factors could play which roles in this occurrence. […] Scenarios are neither forecasts nor visions of the future, but analytical explorations of possibilities.”4
The benefit of recognizing a scenario in visual fictions also lies in the concrete nature of the depiction. As opposed to predictions or prophecies, which claim for themselves that they will definitely occur in the future, scenarios offer a tangible, complex and differentiated image of what is nevertheless only a possible future. With such scenarios, thanks to their openness to a range of possibilities and the way they incorporate potentiality within the state of concrete, visible form, narrations open up, allowing us to connect our present with bygone or possible future realities.5
“We anticipate the ravages of time, and our imagination scatters over the earth the very buildings in which we live. […] The ideas that ruins awaken in me are great ones. Everything turns to nothingness, everything perishes, everything passes. Only the world remains. Only time endures.”6 Disasters form an integral part of natural and human, or cultural, history. Their history did not begin with the destruction of Pompeii in the year 79 and it certainly will not end with the disasters of our times (Fukushima, global warming, etc.). “Only the world remains,” Denis Diderot already observed in 1767, and it is precisely the very status and meaning of this world that are called into question if it is only to be seen as a history and society defined by mankind. The earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, which transformed every area of life, rapid urbanization plus population growth and mass poverty, the triumph of capitalism, the findings of the great nature expeditions – these and many more make up the new basic conditions that put man into context. And a special aesthetic of ruins, evident in the words of Diderot, tags along.
What is special about the Anthropocene is that we find ourselves involved in a quest to understand and determine the relationship between mankind, technical-scientific determinants and what we call nature differently than we did in the past. For, provided that no global catastrophe, whether of natural causes or man-made, intervenes, human beings will remain a central influencing factor on the global Earth system far into the future.7 This also means, however, that the impact of a giant meteorite, a nuclear war scenario, an epidemic, the sustained anthropogenic influence on climate change, which constitutes the tipping point leading to rapid and radical changes in the conditions of the global biosphere – these or similar disaster scenarios demonstrate that the advent of an apocalypse that would eradicate or at least strongly decimate the human population remains a long-term possibility, with which we now live and have to live – whether or not we are the last people on Earth.
One thing is clear: destructive natural phenomena are only deemed disasters from an anthropocentric point of view. Intrinsically they are neither “good” nor “bad”. Changes are, just like growth, genesis, decay and movement, inherent qualities of Nature. Nevertheless it is not easy to perceive the productive-creative moment in such changes, for are we not used to viewing from the standpoint of architecture and thinking about how we can build up our relationships to biospheric spaces from this perspective? And we are just as accustomed to this even where we are faced with the decay and collapse of what man has made; ruins – real, ideal, symbolic, allegorical – are in fact emblematic of what is passing and what is past. In the liminal function of ruins, in their aesthetic quality as a threshold between imaginary and real space, the signature of our experience of the present day can emerge.8 If we take the currently popular aesthetic of decay as symptomatic, it becomes obvious that we of today take pleasure in visualizing our present in its transiency and imagining the “future as a disaster”.9
Lori Nix’s pictures, however, do not end here. On the contrary, they only start picking up speed. For in that imaginary point in the pictures where architecture gives up its civilizing function, our view suddenly changes and we recognize that here a reality without any human beings (as it had existed on the planet for so long) has long since returned, one which has nothing to do with decay. We are forced to admit that what we call nature also lives an independent existence, without mankind. Not a ruin, this Nature lives, grows, moves; Nature overgrows, decomposes und spreads over everything that was once fashioned by human hands. In short, Nature proves to be resistant. What a paradox! Indications of life, seen from Nature’s own perspective.
That Nature can do all this – be resistant, spread out again and regenerate – is termed resilience [Lat.: resilire, Eng.: to jump or bounce back]. In general, resilience describes: “… the ability of a system to cope with change without collapsing. It is the capacity to absorb external perturbations, by actively adapting to an ever changing environment.”10
In months of painstaking, detailed work, Lori Nix constructs her miniature dioramas, which she then photographs with analog technology. She shows us familiar urban sites: a shopping mall, library, museum, laundromat or means of transportation. Yet it seems that no human being has frequented these places for a rather long time. The materials decay and fall apart. Flora and fauna reconquer their habitat and biotopes, and appear to have maintained their resilience throughout the long years of being pushed and cut back and contained by human beings.11
If we do not look at these pictures from the point of view of decay, mankind or society’s annexations, but rather from the angle of the natural processes of resilience, they do not show us ruins or a place of death or skulls. Instead we see an art of resilience, which offers us scenarios of Nature’s resilience – growth, movement, change and life. If we see art as an integral part of the Anthropocene, the question of what art in the Anthropocene can and should be arises. Perhaps this in fact lies in the idea that life can never be fully integrated into the humanum. Or, to put it another way, it might just be the case that art, although it can be marketed, makes us responsible for responding to the fact that life cannot be depicted. “We like to say that artists ‘deal with an issue,’ ‘broach a topic,’ or ‘react to a problem,’ without making all that many promises about any practical approach or changes. Yet perhaps the distinguishing feature of political art simply lies in its ability to reverse these assumptions. In reality the Anthropocene makes us the subject.”12 In her highly localized scenarios, Lori Nix’s art of resilience shows us how the Anthropocene turns us into the subject. In this “world without us“, there are no ruins, disasters or decay to be seen. We only see the powerful, vital and seductive resilience of Nature.
1 Crutzen, Paul J./Stoermer, Eugene F.: “The Antropocene”, in: IGBP Newsletter (2000–05), no. 41, pp. 17–18.
4 Horn, Eva: Zukunft als Katastrophe, Frankfurt/M. 2014, p. 38 [English by the translator].
5 Ibid., pp. 38–43.
6 Diderot, Denis, in: Orlando, Francesco: Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures, New Haven 2006, pp. 89–90.
7 Crutzen/Stoermer 2000 (see note 1), p. 18.
8 Böhme, Hartmut: “Die Ästhetik der Ruinen”, in: Kamper, Dietmar/ Wulf, Christoph (eds): Der Schein des Schönen, Göttingen 1989, pp. 287–304.
9 Cf. the title of the book, The Future as a Disaster, by Eva Horn (see note 4).
10 Folke, Carl/Berkes, Fikret (1995): Resilience and the Co-Evolution of Ecosystems and Institutions, http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/handle/10535/1357 [accessed on 03/11/2015].
11 Cf. www.lorinix.net/about.html
12 Bennett, Jill: “Leben im Anthropozän”, in: Documenta (13), catalog 1/3, Ostfildern 2012, pp. 369–372, p. 372 [English by the translator].
THE COURSE OF EMPIRE: THE EMPTY WORLD OF LORI NIX by Magdalena Kröner
In the 1830s, the American landscape painter Thomas Cole (1801–1848) created his five-part cycle The Course of Empire in a narrative style rich in fantasy. These paintings traced the rise and fall of the Roman Empire as a metaphor for the ecological and cultural threats facing the American nation on the threshold of modernity. Starting from an untamed wilderness (The Savage State), over a peaceful early form of civilization (The Arcadian or Pastoral State) and a flourishing complex and elaborate city-state, like those of the Augustan age (The Consummation of Empire), down to the spectacularly pictured stage of Destruction, Cole conceived the final painting as an almost bucolic image of a post-apocalyptic phase of uninhabited calm, in which only a few overgrown ruins still stand, empty and alone, in an extensive landscape (Desolation).
Albrecht Dürer, Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco de Goya all painted world-famous images of the Apocalypse. However, the painters of the Hudson River School, such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), were the ones who created those impressive examples of apocalyptic and especially post-apocalyptic scenes that even now remain deeply engraved in the collective visual memory of the USA. No one was closer to the fears of the emerging period – for did not Cole’s picture cycle envision the end of American society, which, full of hope and regardless of the consequences to culture and civilization, was just preparing itself to break out into a new era? The fall of the nation, which at that time was barely one hundred years old, is still one of the most significant cultural topoi in the United States and virulent in art, literature and film. The New York artist Lori Nix (born 1969) numbers among those who are currently inventing what are arguably the most vivid examples of the end of the world.
Lori Nix transposes Thomas Cole’s clairvoyant world of images into three dimensions, and it is uncanny how closely a motif like Great Hall from her series The City resembles Cole’s apocalyptic scenes. “And the road to the future is usually paved with disasters of all sorts,” is how Lori Nix puts it. The underlying feeling of being threatened thus formulated reveals itself in the work of both artists in a very similar way: as decay and the deceptively idyllic state in which all human achievements are overgrown – a future world picturesquely adorned with the fragments and ruins of human civilization. Lori Nix often needs months of exacting handicraft to construct her dioramas out of countless pieces. Subsequently, each miniature set is photographed and then destroyed. The resulting photograph constitutes the work of art.
In her pictorial worlds Nix presents dystopia as the final stage of the neoliberal American Dream. The artist transforms every single work into a complex display of a world that is gone but deeply and unconsciously familiar, whose after-images she meticulously reconstructs. In their sculptural vividness and aggressively staged banality, Nix’s overcrowded tableaus become effective traps. First seen from a distance, almost everything shown appears familiar and rather unspectacular. Offices, libraries and laundromats seem to have just been vacated, for example during a short lunch break, after which the people who work there, read the books or do the laundry will return and everything will proceed as usual. Yet the longer you examine her imaginary shopping centers, gambling casinos, churches and aquariums, the closer you look at that miniature cup, blackboard or telephone, as if all these items were imbued with an inherent truth that would invest them with meaning even after the end of all mankind, the clearer it becomes that nothing more will come after these scenarios. In fact, it is precisely the tiny, seemingly random details that dash any hope of mankind’s return: the moldy-edged styrofoam ceiling panels coming loose at the Chinese Takeout, the grayish green mildew covering the originally pink chairs in the Beauty Shop, and the enormous banana tree standing in what was once a Mall and symbolizing serious climate change.
Nix’s highly detailed sets draw on motifs from dystopian literature as well as special effects in Hollywood movies. Her pictures seem to be literal illustrations of a distinct topic that developed out of the broader field of cultural studies long ago: post-apocalyptic studies. Within this field of study, aesthetic and philosophical theories about the end of the world are culled from literature, art and cinema. “I grew up on a steady diet of disaster flicks,” Lori Nix explains. A fan of science fiction, the artist produces contemporary images of the post-disaster world. The way in which art and pop culture deal with real and imaginary risks that could lead to disaster helps western societies to find effective counter-images to modern capitalism, but, especially in Hollywood films, also serves as the engine for fear-induced thrills and a vehicle for collective trauma therapy.
Lori Nix does not play on cravings for spectacles; she does not depict dramatic disasters, but instead, ordinary, everyday life after the end of all that was ordinary. She is not interested in the deterioration of historic monuments and does not show damage to universally-known American landmarks, such as the Pentagon or the Statue of Liberty. Rather than presenting the surely spectacular fall of Manhattan in her works, which the American painter Alexis Rockman (born 1962), for example, so memorably portrayed, Nix focuses on forms of daily life. In her works she shows those functionalized places which once provided for the smoothly running machinery of western civilization: for the uninterrupted supply of food, clean laundry, education, electricity and entertainment. In his 15th-century book Utopia, Thomas More described a fictional place which lay beyond reality, where a society safeguards its fantasies of a better life. Lori Nix’s scenes of daily life are located at the other end of Utopia. Her gas stations, libraries, laundromats and stores used to ensure the continued existence of society while providing for its destruction in equal measure.
Whereas the Biblical Apocalypse was integrated into the realm of human imagination by the notion that the promise of salvation awaits us after the Apocalypse, Lori Nix’s post-apocalyptic scenarios have a nightmarish presence and hardly seem transcendent in their picturesque, dollhouse quality. This here is all that is left, and for a very long time indeed, her pictures seem to say. Lori Nix shows – to use a term coined in the 1990s by the French ethnologist and anthropologist Marc Augé – “non-places” as the logical outcome once history has ended and an alternative model to utopian thought. “The non-place is the opposite of utopia,” Augé says. In science fiction films, which play out ever new variations on the theme of dystopia and the post-apocalyptic, the phase which Thomas Cole once called Desolation usually marks the very moment right before the appearance of a savior, a legendary figure ascribed with the power to mark a symbolic or actual new beginning. The contemporary version of this type of savior figure is Dr. Robert Neville – played by actor Will Smith – in I am Legend (2007), a film made memorable especially through its impressive images of a deserted Manhattan-turned-wilderness.
The utopian blueprints in modern literature and the visual arts were characterized by the hope for a better world shaped by man, the triumph of civilization over menacing, uncontrollable natural forces on the one hand and the dark side of human nature on the other. The 20th century marked the age of the great dystopian disasters, and in the 21st century, images like those of Lori Nix depict the time after the end of all things. Here man becomes a legend by his very absence. Nix’s works are full of reminders, etched into the decaying structures. The combined sobriety and wealth of detail of these imagined pictures of the end generate all kinds of feelings in the viewer. What is presented here might seem old-fashioned and desperately in need of renewal, or, in contrast, wonderful, worthy of preservation and perhaps even without alternative. Thus these tableaus, however full of connotations, allusions, and visual and cultural baggage they may be, are surprisingly open to a reading that allows us to speculate about what will come after these images, after the moment of obliteration, which is a re-animation at the same time. This is exactly the moment where Thomas Cole’s paintings ended: Desolation. It is here that Lori Nix’s pictures differ from Cole’s visionary painting. They do not work with metaphor; they do not moralize; they do not take a political stand. They do not show common sense, but that which comes after it. These pictures only ask what could be the next picture, the one following what is shown here. What comes after Desolation?
In the works of Lori Nix, unlike the Hollywood film I am Legend, there is no one left to bear witness to the legend or carry it forward into something like a “future”, however that may look. The end, as the artist most vividly envisions it for her viewers, is very chaotic and very quiet: machines and motors have slowed to a halt; things are falling apart; the ground is cracking open. The world as it used to be is depopulated and will turn into jungle or desert. Yet it is precisely in this uninhabited disorder, where all that was effective or functional has been left behind, that some indication of what is still to come might appear: in the lichens which slowly overgrow concrete and steel; in the rust creeping up the steel consoles of a power plant and eroding its metallic control panels; in the trees breaking through the roof of a library; in subway cars full of sand, rusty automobiles and shattered windows.
 Quoted from: Christian Cotroneo: “Lori Nix’s Apocalypse Dioramas End The World In Stunning Style,“ in: Huffington Post Canada (Sept. 8, 2013).
 Quoted from: Christian Cotroneo: “Lori Nix’s Apocalypse Dioramas End The World In Stunning Style,“ in: Huffington Post Canada (Sept. 8, 2013).
 Marc Augé: Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London 1995, p. 111. French original: Non-Lieux, introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Paris 1992, p. 140: “Le non-lieu est le contraire de l’utopie […]”.
THE POWER OF NATURE IN A WORLD WITHOUT PEOPLE: On the Photographic Visions of Lori Nix
by Dr. Bettina Paust
Nature and its dynamic forces determine the history of mankind, which seems like just a blink of the eye in the course of the world’s evolution. Today natural forces still threaten the very existence of mankind while simultaneously exerting a deep fascination on those endangered. Currently, scientific studies on the collapse of civilization abound, as do apocalyptic visions, disaster films, and documentaries about earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and tornados. Mankind’s days on earth are numbered. Its presence appears to be only temporarily tolerated by Nature and the image of humanity’s extinction fires the imagination.
Initially, the American artist Lori Nix took her inspiration from disaster films of the 1970s, such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Nevertheless, she does not make apocalyptic scenarios the subject of her photographs. Instead she tells quiet tales about the absence of mankind and enduring Nature, which not only outlasts human civilization, but also gradually reclaims its achievements after its demise.
In her photographic works from the series Lost (2002–2004) Lori Nix conjures up unsettling situations in deserted places, which arouse the viewers’ fascination and curiosity, but also make them cringe. She leaves us in limbo, raising questions about mankind’s disappearance – evidently people used to be there – rather than answering them. In both Nevada (2003) and California Forest Fire (2002) a dramatic red and yellow sky dominates the scene, portending imminent danger. Possibly the driver of the 1970s Dodge Charger was aware of this when taking the highway through the Nevada desert, in large part a restricted military zone and still the biggest area for testing American nuclear bombs. He seems to have hurriedly fled from his car to seek shelter from a disaster, perhaps manmade, but one he cannot escape. In California Forest Fire campers on the banks of a river that winds its way through woodlands abandoned the seemingly idyllic spot, presumably to save themselves from a gigantic wall of fire heading straight towards them. Almost every year the State of California suffers from serious fires that destroy wide territories, including parts of large national parks. Thus, in her photographic series Lost Lori Nix tells stories that could have happened or might still happen this way. These pictures are neither inventories of actual occurrences nor visions aimed to warn us of future events. Instead, just like other works such as Bounty (2004) and Junkyard (2003), they transport us to natural sites or places shaped by civilization which cannot be fully identified topographically. The car dump seen against a midnight blue sky in Junkyard or the sunken sailboat surrounded by the remains of a Ferris wheel, train cars and automobiles against the nocturnal skyline of a large city above in Bounty bear testimony to the transience of human civilization. In both these photographs an illuminated wooden house as refuge constitutes the last flicker of human existence. The narrative moment in Lori Nix’s work, her delight in detail, and the pointedly placed ironic and humorous elements, such as the giant squid in the shipwreck of Bounty, only unfold in all their dimensions when the viewer examines the scenes, for he will continue to spin these open-ended tales in his imagination, investing them with his own individual experiences and feelings.
Lori Nix grew up in the American state Kansas. Influenced by her childhood and youth in this rural region of the Great Plains, which is regularly plagued by tornados, heavy storms and insect infestations, the main subject of her artistic work is the power of Nature and how it continues to exist – in spite or indeed because of how people interact with the environment.
In her photographs Lori Nix constructs artificial worlds as small-scale dioramas, which she first builds in a painstaking process, collaborating with her partner Kathleen Gerber, a glass artist. These fictitious microcosms, designed with an astonishing wealth of very realistic detail, provide the subjects for her pictures. In the digital age, which is characterized by the creation of virtual worlds, Lori Nix fashions her imaginary landscapes in the traditional medium of building models into stage-like scenes, which she then photographs with analogue photo technology and as a rule destroys after the photograph is complete. Thus, her photographs, for which she does not use any digital processing, depict a real situation, the diorama itself, which in turn is the result of Lori Nix’s landscape and spatial visions. In this way she transposes the small-scale motif into a monumental image, which opens a window onto an unreal reality for the viewer to survey.
Lori Nix creates another unpopulated world in the photographs of her on-going series The City, which she has been working on since 2005. What will remain of the achievements of civilization when they are no longer cared for, monitored and further developed by human beings? How will Nature behave when people no longer influence, constrain and exploit it? The American science journalist Alan Weissman first engaged with this experimental speculation in his article Earth Without People, which appeared in the scientific journal Discover in 2005. Expanding on his work he published a book entitled The World Without Us two years later. Based on scientific studies and prognoses, both Weissman and the TV documentary Life Without People broadcast in several parts by channel N24 sketch out a world after the sudden disappearance of mankind.
In contrast the photo artist Lori Nix sets individual episodes of her series The City in a post-mankind world which Nature is gradually reclaiming. She invents scenes derived from reality and arranges them like still life. Locations of our consumer society (Mall, 2010, or Shoe Store, 2013) have lost their reason for existing as has public transportation (Subway, 2012). Now natural forces have reconquered these reminders of a world where mankind had built over and largely suppressed Nature and where the drive for material gratification generally outranked environmental protection. Important landmarks of human culture are likewise taken over by flora and fauna, for example the Library (2007), Great Hall (2006), and Museum of Art (2005). Swarms of wasps and birds have become permanent visitors of the Museum of Art, while plants timidly edge their way towards the artworks. Trees, which had supplied the pages for the countless shelved books when man was still alive, put down roots in the Library years ago. Along with some birds, they are now the reading room’s only users. The Great Hall, once part of a museum of natural history, has already lost its roof and long fallen victim to decay. Most of the skeletons and exhibits of prehistoric animals still stand upright in their original positions, but one pterosaur is flying away, suggesting how the world will develop once mankind no longer exerts any influence on it. It will return to its natural state prior to the birth of man.
In her photographs Lori Nix has developed a meaningful pictorial idiom with which she monumentalizes her staged rooms. Her love of detail and her motifs’ naturalistic coloring give the impression of reality, which, however, begins to falter on closer inspection. This game of confusing fiction with reality is as typical of Lori Nix’s work as her penchant for narration. She has the ability to set up pictorial narratives as restrained in their dramaturgy as they are rich in detail, with the result that the photograph becomes the catalyst for the story to be continued in the observer’s subjective imagination. In her series, The City, Lori Nix, who belongs to the tradition of staged photography, is the first artist to deal consistently with a topic that currently lies within the domain of the film industry, science and scientific journalism: the vision of a world without people. Yet instead of designing scenarios of dystopian drama, she creates stories that stimulate critical reflection on the possible future of the earth and sharpen our awareness of how we treat the natural world. Her photographs make clear that man is not the measure of all things and consequently not the measure of the world.
SOMETHING CATASTROPHIC: LORI NIX’S ARCHITECTURAL RUINS by Dr. Alexandra Brown
In each of the photographs that currently make up Lori Nix’s series “The City” (2006–), we witness what appears to be an urban space in ruins. These apparently abandoned interiors contain traces of relatively recent human occupation, despite their advanced state of decay. In all, there are almost thirty scenes of destruction and deterioration — pieces of the same story that contain an abundance of fine-grain detail, and yet somehow remain unfixed in space and time. In Subway (2012), Violin Repair Shop (2011), or Laundromat (2008), we could be somewhere at the edges of New York City. The architectural features of Fountain (2008) and Museum of Art (2005) seem to make reference to the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art respectively, but there is no way of knowing for certain where we are. What seems clear, however, is that something disastrous has happened.
Nix’s images from “The City” are, in fact, photographs of meticulously constructed dioramas, spaces shaped from both memory and fiction, reimagined in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. While there are no people depicted in Nix’s modelled spaces, we do see the occasional fox, raccoon, beehive and even the odd pterodactyl. Vegetation has started to reclaim the city, making its way back into the structures that once so successfully shut it out. The city remains inhabited, but no longer a city as such. These beautifully eerie post-human scenes speculate on the city as a historical term – what it was once as the dominant mode of human settlement and development for 200 or so years up until our extinction.
The project of documenting, reconstructing (and even inventing) ruined sites has a significant history in western architecture. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the importance of Ancient Roman ruins within the tradition of the Grand Tour or the mock ruins of English landscape follies were part of this enduring fascination with the architecture of classical antiquity. The architectural languages of ancient Greece and Rome recalled an idealised heroic past, while the ruins as they stood served as a reminder of the fallibility of these empires and the passing of time.
At around the same time as the Italian architect and artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, began work on his famous Vedute di Roma during the mid-eighteenth century, he also completed i Grotteschi. The series of four etchings of fictional sites depicted layers of architectural fragments and human remains overgrown with vegetation. Within the Grotteschi, traces of built form retain the appearance of ancient ruins, but they appear abandoned and in an advanced state of decay, one far beyond that of the more picturesque scenes of Vedute. In this sense, both Piranesi’s Grotteschi etchings and Lori Nix’s dioramas from “The City” are concerned with the post-human city-turned-landscape. In each case, the constructed is in the process of being rendered organic, as vegetation takes hold and the people and the networks that ordered the urban condition are no longer in view.
Much has been written about the figures occupying Piranesi’s etchings, from Vedute to his later Carceri scenes, but Piranesi’s Grotteschi, like Nix’s city, show no clear signs of human occupation. The figures depicted amongst the skulls and other bones of these scenes seem to be made of stone, while those in the distance appear to be no more than ghost-like apparitions. Even where the subject of Piranesi’s Vedute were deteriorated fragments of Basilia Maxentius or the Temple of Minerva Medica, he was careful to capture human presence in and around these sites – not only through the inclusion of figures themselves, but also the paths and roads that carve through each scene. With the conspicuous absence of both these motifs, chaos rules in the Grotteschi. The same absences occur in “The City”—we see a decaying interior, sometimes a broken skyline or building in the distance, but never a view from the street that might offer a chance to connect these moments.
After the Aftermath
While a discussion of Piranesi alongside Lori Nix may seem strange, despite the many years separating the scenes of the Grotteschi and “The City”, we might argue that both sets of images are concerned with a moment that arrives after the aftermath. These images project us beyond the events that caused these sites to be abandoned, and beyond even their wake. The dust has settled in Nix’s Chinese take-out shop, flesh has turned to bone in front of Piranesi’s triumphal arch.
At this point, however, the limitations of this tenuous comparison become quite clear. Unlike Piranesi’s etchings and drawings, Lori Nix’s models and photographs are not preoccupied with the language of architecture. There is no heroic view of architecture in “The City”. Beauty parlours, malls, shoe stores and casinos receive the same careful attention as museums, great halls and libraries. And yet this work is clearly architectural. In the design and construction of these previously abandoned urban structures, Nix approaches the role of a post-human architect.
The process of architectural design calls on us to speculate on the life of a structure, its physical presence and modes of use once realised. Nevertheless, our conception of how a project might be left is typically more limited to pragmatic requirements concerning the circulation spaces that might facilitate egress in an emergency. We are rarely prompted to imagine more dramatic or permanent ends to the buildings we design, especially with the relatively limited life spans of contemporary structures. Through “The City”, Nix confronts what architecture so often avoids by designing the mortality of the urban fabric in unflinching detail. While the extinction of our species sits at the heart of the series, this is demonstrated through views of the structures we once inhabited and their contents as the traces of our existence—but perhaps not necessarily in that order.
The buildings of Nix’s city are deteriorating containers that hold within them a set of more revealing clues about the past. Wrestling with nature, the architecture of “The City” tells us that time has passed and no one lives here anymore, but the messier ephemera and the precious pieces within these spaces have something more specific to say about the people who were once here. This tension between the more generic role of architecture of “The City” and the precision of each building’s contents is particularly evident within the photographs Fountain, and Church (2009). These images reference, through revival styles, two important historical architectural types from antiquity and the high Middle Ages: the Roman basilica and the gothic cathedral respectively.
We may be more inclined to take particular notice of architectural features in these photographs, to pay attention to the pointed arches and rose windows of the church or the coffered vaulted ceilings and Corinthian columns of the fountain hall. Nevertheless, the contents of these grand ruins seem to make an important point: that both the church and the fountain hall have been dead buildings for far longer than many of the other interiors that make up the series. Nix seems to suggest that these spaces were forgotten when the city was alive. Looking more closely at Fountain, there is graffiti across the column pedestals, while mattresses and shopping trolleys are scattered across the floor. This hall was seemingly a space for squatters seeking shelter before it was emptied. The church also appears to have been a relic prior to the apocalypse, its interior used as a storage space for old neon signs and equipment.
Perhaps it is due to the influence of 1970s disaster films on Nix’s process, but the spaces in “The City” that tell us the most about the sudden catastrophic event that took place are those that belong to mid-to-late-twentieth century buildings. The bar is still stocked with drinks, the vacuums within the showroom are plugged in and the mannequins remain standing and fully clothed in the shop windows at the mall. Even the violin repair shop appears almost operational, were it not for the hollowed out buildings at the back of the scene. But the grand ruins of the city that approach the condition of the architectural monument have much less to say directly about how we might have lived in (and then left) the city. These places weren’t left behind suddenly – they were already decaying when humans disappeared.
In this way, “The City” reminds us that, although we’re looking at ruins and fragments of structures, the architecture of the city isn’t really the city, as such. Architecture plays an important role in the series, but not as individual buildings that informed the way the inhabitants used and occupied the city. Rather, and despite the stunning variety of spaces that Nix shows us in her photographs, we could read the architecture of “The City” more as a collective stage set, used to invoke the condition of the city. Nowhere is this idea more apparent than in one of the most recent additions to the series, Living Room (2013). In it we see what appears to be Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber’s apartment with the diorama for Subway set up on a table and some model making equipment on another. This is the only time so far that we’ve seen the exterior of a space represented in the series. It’s only a shell, really—primed for something much more interesting to happen inside.
IT'S A TWISTER By Barbara Pollack
And Kansas they said was the name of the star, so sang the Munchkins when Dorothy was blown into the sky by a tornado and landed in their magical world of Oz. But, it was not this film that had the most profound effect on photographer Lori Nix, born in 1969 and growing up in rural Kansas. It was the disaster films of the 1970s, such as Towering Inferno, the Poseidon Adventure and Return of the Planet of the Apes, all featuring worlds turned upside down by a combination of natural calamities and nuclear explosions. In these films, the survivors play a secondary role to the special effects that steal our attention. It is these effects, once so unbelievable but now made much more realistic by current events, that Nix captures in her post-apocalyptic images of Laundromats, libraries, subway cars and classrooms, where human beings are chillingly absent.
Back in the 1970s, who would have thought that a tsunami could produce 20 foot high waves dowsing a resort town in Thailand, drowning thousands? Who would have predicted an earthquake blowing out nuclear power plants and releasing radiation on the northern coast of Japan? Who would have considered the imminent melting of the polar icecaps, springing polar bears loose on Arctic communities? And who could have thought that the World Trade Center, then under construction as the tallest building in the world, would be felled by a pair of jet liners controlled by terrorists?
These are all scenes that could only have been imagined by sci fi writers and movie directors, and even they would have never assumed that these disasters would be annual occurrences. Our modern world has become marked by disaster, happening with increased regularity, far beyond even the most psychic visionary's imagination. Year after year, we see the destruction of cities, the catastrophic impact on human life, the impotence of even our most sophisticated predictive technology. We cannot keep pace with the end of the world. When we laugh with relief that the Mayans got it wrong, when nothing special happens on 12/21/12, we are soon proven wrong by yet another occurrence--Hurricane Sandy or the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school--that makes it clear that the end of the world is at someone's doorstep any day of the week.
Lori Nix is not frightened by this turn of events. Instead, she is like a child who decides to master her world by constructing it on a miniature scale and using this model like a doll's house to play out her fears. Manipulating banal details--the washing machines in an empty laundry, the skeleton hanging in an anatomy class, the escalator at a shopping mall, the hair dryers in a beauty salon--she builds sites that are clearly beyond repair. We know them on first sight, but on second glance we realize that they can no longer be fixed because there is no one left to do the dirty work. All the architects, designers, repairmen, Red Cross workers and volunteers who might get the job done have been erased, with the rest of humanity.
These are works constructed by someone who knows disaster intimately, not only through the nightmarish visions she saw at movie theaters. In Kansas, tornadoes, blizzards, insect infestation, hail storms and lightening strikes are normal occurrencesthat Nix witnessed every year of her childhood. These events were scary but also fun. She recalls running out to catch the falling hail as a tornado passed through, eschewing the safety of the basement for the thrill of watching a dark cone pass through cornfields not far in the distance. Many of her neighbors had storm cellars. Many of those storm cellars seconded as nuclear fall out shelters. In addition to natural disasters, nuclear threat was never far from home. Riding her bike on a back road, she could come upon an empty field, enclosed in a chain link fence. Everyone knew this demarcated a missile silo, buried deep in the ground.
Nix wasn't supposed to be an artist. Her father, a gas distributor who drove his tanker to local farms, hoped she would get a steady paycheck as an accountant or a pharmacist, something close to home. Instead, she gave up accounting almost as soon as she got to college, and switched to ceramics and photography, a combination that allowed her topractice craft-making. Even in photography, she did not start by taking pictures, but by working in the lab--a lab rat, she calls herself--and she still does printing in a color lab as the chief way she makes a living. She went on to concentrate in photography in graduate school, also in the Midwest, at Ohio State University. It would take a few years more for her to move to New York, in 1999.
A year earlier, in 1998, Nix created her first series, Accidental Kansas, by creating dioramas of her home state, though by then she was living far from home. In her first one, a blue car is found abandoned in a cornfield, its tires falling off and surrounded by dust balls. She knew little about constructing a diorama at the time, but she got her hands on several books, geared towards model railroad enthusiasts, and followed the instructions. Instead of manufacturing functioning nostalgia, as amateur railroad men would do, she created post-utopian scenes of imminent danger.
In Accidental Kansas, the Midwest countryside is not a place of carefree farmsteads and family values. It is a site offear-inducing traumas, even without a human being in sight. In one picture, Flood, 1998, a street of modest grey houses stand roof-deep in water, like a scene after Hurricane Katrina more than a decade later. In another, Tent Revival, also 1998, the big white tent, obviously a site for an Evangelical gathering, is illuminated, not by the presence of God, but by a bolt of lightening. There are also common everyday occurrences--ice broken on the edge of a frozen pond as the only indication of a drowning or the truck overturned holding crates of chickens--as well as more shocking views ofa jet plane heading towards a water tower or mammoth insects filling a golden yellow sky.
Even at this early stage in her development, Nix had an assured sense of color that lends a romantic cast to her landscapes. It is telling that she cites the Hudson River School painters and German Romantic artist Casper David Friedrich as early influences. Like Thomas Coleor Frederich Edwin Church, Nix embues her landscapes with a preternatural glow, shimmering in the golden light of sunset or the violet blues of early dawn. Eighteenth and nineteenth century artists used this coloration to tap into the spirituality of nature--the Sublime--and infuse the landscape with a sense of transcendence. In their paintings, the presence of God is palpable, not only due to the awe-inspiring waterfalls and mountain ranges captured in these views, but also in the way the artists themselves interpreted the scenes. Nothing, at first glance, would seem farther from Nix's vision of the land, a place where God has all but abandoned humanity. But Nix is actually as concerned with transcendence and the Sublime as any of her predecessors. It's just that in her world, we are being asked to transcend our own limitations and our own narrow concerns to envision the end result of our narcissistic and materialistic actions. If we can only get passed such limitations--Nix seems to say--we might be able to bypass the inevitable destruction brought about not by God, but our own shortsightedness.
Another photographer might have driven back to Kansas and documented the forces of nature so prevalent there. But, Nix already knew she was no photo-journalist, no documentarian. Instead, she chose to build her landscapes from ephemeral materials--foam core, balsa wood, colored paper and occasionally, a store-bought prop--not as works in themselves but as models to be photographed. In constructing her photographs, she is following a group of artists who emerged in the 1970s and 80s, for whom studio-based photography was a savvy way to challenge presumptions of reality. If people commonly believed, or as they did believe in the days before Photoshop, that a photograph could only depict reality--something real in front of the camera--these artists, post-modernists, struggled to come to terms with the fact that the camera, and photographers, often lied. James Casebere, for example, constructed minimalist models of prisons, factories and housing tracts, often in black-and-white, to create alienating environments on film. David Levinthal and Laurie Simmons particularly used dolls and toy figures to delve into the subconscious of modern society. Nix was familiar with these artists and admired their skills at constructing fictions and photographing them as convincing, albeit surreal, realities. For her, the constructed image became a way to illustrate ideas that people did not want to think about, such as global warming and nuclear destruction. Or, perhaps, as she learned from her own experience with disaster movies, it was easier to get people to think about such things when they were presented as fictions.
Over the course of the past decade, Nix increased her skills at building models and at photographing these short stories. Her partner, Kathleen Gerber, whom she met in 1997 just about the time she began building her dioramas, must be credited with adding many of the models' most endearing details: the tiny furniture, plants and animals that animate the scenes and the faux finishes that instill the look of deterioration. The dioramas can now take up to fifteen months to build and several weeks to photograph. At her best, Nix produces five new photographs a year.
With her slow and meticulous production method, it is not surprising to find out that Nix has been working on her current series, The City, since 2005. In it, we discover a place very different than Kansas, with obvious references to her current residence in New York City. The sky is no longer filled with glorious beauty, but has turned an ashen grey. The buildings, all brick and marble as if built to last an eternity, are in a state of atrophy. In this city, there are civic spaces--an art museum, natural history museum, an aquarium, a couple of libraries and a theater--but not the neon signs, multiplexes and porn shops of contemporary New York. It is a tasteful city with an appearance of timelessness, but like so many Main Streets past their prime, as commerce has moved out of town to the shopping mall in the suburbs, this place has lost its functionality. Or, taken on a new function, as the residue of a civilization and a reminder of the past.
Take Circulation Desk, 2012, a view of a library whose roof has been blown off, leaving the books and front counter splattered with falling plaster. It might be a scene from the future. But then, you can spot on the far left an old-fashioned card catalogue, that book locating device that has long since been replaced by computers. Is this the future? Or the destruction of the past? The image asks you to choose which fiction you prefer. Or, Majestic, 2006, a classic theater with heavy blue velvet curtains and an orchestra, mezzanine and balcony filled with cushioned seats. The only indication that it is no longer functioning is the flock of pigeons that have taken up residence, replacing the actors that once filled this stage. Museum of Art, 2005, is likewise an antiquated space, even as it faces its demise in some future time. It is a marble-filled atheneum, not a modern sleek white cube, decorated with the most conservative of art works, not unlike the Hudson River painters that Nix admires.
These are all public institutions that have lost their primacy in contemporary life, where shared experience has shifted to Facebook and iPhones. Already bookstores and record shops, sites that Nix remembers too well as places to get lost in and to find new worlds. They might as well have been bombed or flooded, as in Nix's photographs. We no longer wander the aisles and hallways of these haunts.
But there are also common place sites in Nix's city, whose destruction are in some ways even more frightening. In Subway, 2012, we see an empty subway car rusting out in a desert, its floor already buried in sand. Nix tells me that this particular subway, the B train, is the one that she rides every day, out of Brooklyn into Manhattan. At the moment, the train emerges from the darkness to cross the Manhattan Bridge, revealing the New York skyline, Nix often finds inspiration, rapidly taking notes as her ideas clarify. Yet here in the photograph, the subway is no longer capable of travel or transporting the artist into a new realm. It is dysfunctional, except as a signpost of the end of a civilization, the river it used to cross replaced by a sea of sand dunes.
There is humor here as well, as in Mall, 2008, in which the sleek interior of an upscale shopping mall is overrun by a jungle of plants, growing taller than its 3-story escalator. Once closed to the outside, in order to trap shoppers in a daylight free environment that encourages consumption, it now has its ceiling cut open to the sky. Similarly, Church, 2009, is a blown out space, with an empty spot where there once was a stained-glass windows. Instead of pews, the holy space is now filled with defunct neon signs from a bowling alley, a hotel and other establishments. It is still a place of worship, a junkyard of sacred icons in a capitalist society, holy neon replacing the Crucifix and confessional.
But, Nix is most frightening when she addresses those storefronts we pass every day. Beauty Shop, 2009, looks like a hair salon after a terrorist attack, the hair dryers and cutting stations bleached grey and covered in ash. Laundromat, 2008, and Laundromat at Night, 2008, depicts a typical laundry room, lined in washing machines, abandoned for no apparent reason. The lights still works, as indicated by the florescent glow in the night scene, a rat scampers across the floor. But everything else is overturned, the front door wide open, the clothes have disappeared. Where did everyone go to? Or, most chilling of all, is Control Room, 2010, where the scientists, CIA agents and rulers that once controlled the world from a bank of computer stations, are gone, disappeared, their machines left rusting and untouched. This image is particularly disturbing, made more so by the fact that the machines on view are not modern-day PCs or Macs, but something more like the UNIVAC, that took up an entire room and embodied science's hope for the future. Here, those hopes have rusted away and remain in a permanent state of detritus. There is no escape from this hermetically sealed room, which may have been the place where the destruction of the universe was first spotted and yet nothing could be done to rescue humanity.
That sense of hopelessness would dominate Nix's dioramas, if not for absolute artistry which transcends her pointed critique of contemporary civilization. Library, 2007, is a tour de force of model-making, brimming with imagination and creativity. In this scene, we encounter a private library in what must have been a palatial home. It is two story talls, with a delicate railing around the second landing and a bank of windows encircling the room near the ceiling. It is filled with teensy tiny books and a miniature globe. But through the middle of the floor springs three mammoth trees, reaching up to the sky above. This is scene equally about enlightenment and the end of the Enlightenment, about the demise of books as materials for learning and the hope of transcending ignorance through education in whatever form it takes. The library itself is in a state of demise but the trees, like the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden, are almost symbols of reaching for the sky, beyond the limitations of human capacities.
While this, and other of Nix's pictures, are obviously a commentary on global warming and the freakish nature set loose by human error, her technique elevates her work beyond didactic environmental causes. It makes me sad, a bit, that she goes to all this work, all the effort that goes into building each diorama, only to destroy them after the photograph is taken. Just as she builds from scratch worlds that look as if they are being destroyed or are already destroyed, she builds in order to destroy. All that is left is a photograph.
In so ways, Lori Nix's photographs remind me of the classic views of Egypt taken by French photography Maxine du Camp in the mid-19th century. Employing a technology that was newly invented, the camera, du Camp captured a civilization long gone. His resulting pictures of pyramids, the Sphinx and other monuments, buried in sand and frozen in time, were considered startling new when seen by home-bound viewers upon his return to Europe. Nix makes images that are equally startling, of a civilization of her own imagination, whose destruction has not yet occurred and yet, it has already come to pass.