Inspirations II – Culture – A passion for empty worlds

I have, in short always loved a good apocalypse. Long before 28 Days later and the Walking Dead made the end of days fashionable I have been fascinated with the concept of the empty earth. As my work this year has developed I have become more and more aware that this is the key theme that I am trying to actualise – that I am trying to create my own embodiment of the other world that has fascinated me ever since childhood, the sense of a world, sometime benevolent, but most often hostile, but a world in which I stand in and explore alone. The body of work I have created this year as in many ways become the document to a journey through these fantastical abandoned lands, a study of their silence and isolation, but also of the tiny beacons of hope that illuminates each of them.

The Andromeda Strain – Michael Crichton

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I remember, at some ridiculously young age, sneaking downstairs to be met and transfixed by the opening scenes from the 1971 film The Andromeda Strain. Completely without context I watched as a group of scientists explore a deserted small town, its population decimated by a plague virus bar only lonely crying baby. These scenes fascinated more than scared me, fuelling my imagination for many years before I even found out what the film had been. Something about the eerie emptiness and isolation of that scene reached me on a very deep level, the fascination born perhaps entirely from the lack of context or closure, the scene taking on an almost found footage like mystery – encouraging my imagination to fuss and scratch at this idea of an abandoned world.

Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

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“You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realize how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain."

The day of the triffids terrified and fascinated me in equal parts as a child, as a book and as TV series. But I was far more excited by the blinded world left behind by the meteor shower than the menace of the Triffids themselves, it’s emptiness, silence and sudden vast foreignness is utterly compelling. In one scene Bill and Josella seek refuge in an empty tower block – and look out over the empty city contemplating the end of civilisation and all that has come before, to suddenly spot a beacon lit far across the city – such a powerful and evocative narrative (stolen by the film 28 Day Later almost wholesale) and one which I was so excited to pay quiet homage to in my San Francisco painted lady print.  

On the beach – Nevil Shute

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No realisation of the end of days felt quite as affecting as Nevil Shute’s, perhaps because it is taken from such a removed standpoint of calm inevitability. Witnessed through the lives of a small Australian community, initially unaffected by a global nuclear war, we experience a slow-motion apocalypse as the radiation slowly sweeps south to blanket the planet. This quiet suffocation is punctuated by more dramatic tales of the end witnessed from a patrolling nuclear submarine, but there is no sense of hysteria, no fire and brimstone in this tale, only a sadness and a humanity in the portrayal of a society that know it is at its end, and can only wait patiently for its demise.  

 

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

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Both Cormac McCarthy’s book, and the 2009 film affected me profoundly when I first read and watched them. Both McCarthy’s words and Hillcoat’s visualisation of an abandoned world have massively influenced the imagery I have sought, captured and printed over the past 12 months. McCarthy’s is a world at an end and beyond hope, and yet his Man and Boy inject a humanity and sense of hope, even beauty into this desolate apocalyptic landscape, and it is undoubtedly the landscapes that Hillcoat creates in his adaptation that linger in the mind, stark, lost and utterly devoid of life, yet constructed with a delicate beauty that is utterly breath taking. It is a world I feel drawn to explore through my own work and my own quiet earth.

The Tripods – John Christopher

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Though more dystopian than apocalyptic, John Christopher’s young adult sci-fi novels tell the story of an agrarian civilisation held under the control of an alien civilisation, who loom over their human slave charges from tripod like craft stationed across the arable landscape. Christopher creates a rich and enthralling narrative around the adventure of two boys who seek to challenge the rule of the tripods (a quest which ultimately ends in disaster). Undoubtedly for me though, the strongest memory I have of these novels (and the early 1980s TV show taken from them) was the powerful visual of the Tripods ships themselves, looming ominously over the landscape. The unnerving sense of authoritarian surveillance seems even more omnipresent and threatening even than Orwell’s 1984, but what is truly unique is how this is realised through the image of the tripods themselves, ultra-futuristic monolithic beings, towering menacingly over idyllic green landscapes. This juxtaposition of the industrial and the agrarian, this tension, wrought when society invades, or nature reclaims has fascinated me ever since I first read The Tripods. The towering tripods also seeded within me a fascination with scale that has surfaced strongly in my current work. To imagine these monumental alien constructs towering omnipotently over the landscape, their true size incalculable by the human eye. Constantly in my work now I seek out buildings and environments that hold this same tension, this same sense of unfathomability. I have never realised this more so than in my water tower studies, and in one of my final pieces – “A storm is coming” which depicts a brutalist water tower surrounded by forest – in almost direct homage to John Christopher’s alien overlords.

The Omega Man and Dawn of the Dead – Boris Segal/George A. Romero

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Undoubtedly seminal works in the post-apocalyptic genre, the reason both of these films feel so influential to me is not the action, but the silences, the nothingness and mundanity of the empty world. In The Omega Man it is the life that Charlton Heston’s character creates for himself in this completely empty world, trips to the store, endless reruns of Woodstock that are so captivating. In Dawn of the Dead, it isn’t the zombie apocalypse that is the true heart of this film, rather it is Romero’s damning comment on consumerism as his protagonists explore and slowly rebuild their materialistic but empty lifestyles in an abandoned shopping mall.

Stranger Things

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When Stranger Things arrived on Netflix in 2016, it felt like Christmas had arrived early. Leaving aside the perfectly on point 80s references, the true revelation of the show was the concept, and the realisation of the Upside Down – a netherworld that is a doppelganger of our own, except diseased and dying, bathed in the half light of a nearing apocalypse. The idea that this other world is a constant – an alternative existence, shifted slightly to the left, the ghost of a darker reality overlaying the same GPS – is as unsettling as it is intriguing. I feel that at it’s best the Pinhole camera is capable of acting almost as a lens to see into this alternative netherworld – a filter to view the upside down, to capture a fractured other reality hidden in plain sight.

The Quiet Earth – Craig Harrison

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The thing that captivates me most about Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth, is that it is one of the few truly “empty” worlds in this loosely defined genre. Harrison’s main character wakes into a world that is all but uninhabited, no chaos has been wrought, there has been no apocalypse, merely the removal of all human life. It is this concept, this sense of a frozen and silent world, that I find utterly captivating. Reading the Quiet Earth again as I began the final modules of this course provided a real eureka moment for me in realising what I wanted my work to communicate this term. Whilst other influences I’ve written about here have undoubtedly had a greater aesthetic and thematic influence there is something about Harrison’s exploration of his empty world, and the delicate eloquence of the title that has inspired and infused every piece of work I have created over the past year.

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