Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography
By elin o’Hara slavick
Charta, 112 pp.
Since it seems safe to assume that a majority of the Independent‘s readership, like myself, has never faced an aerial bombardment, I invite you to join me in attempting to imagine the moment. A dark speck makes a surgical incision across the sky. Another dark speck peels off from it at an acute angle, growing incrementally larger in our perspective, as a high, thin whistle fills out commensurately. Then, a blinding flash, a deafening report that frays into an all-encompassing silence at its edges, and … ______.
This is the stuff of cinema, of comic books, of base caricature, and there is no way to finish the sentence. To attempt to imagine a showdown with a bomb communicates nothing of its visceral horror, and everything of its zero-sum improbabilitythe mind reels, revolts, stops short.
But if “History is amoral,” as is asserted in the epigraph from Anne Michaels that precedes the 60 color plates in elin o’Hara slavick’s new art volume, Bomb After Bomb, the same must be said of beauty. Without context, sunlight rolling over the fuselage of a banking airplane is beautiful. The sleek contours of a missile, its powerful airborne arc, and its ephemeral tail of smoke are beautiful. A large detonation, viewed from afar, is unspeakably beautiful, a bloom of flame unmatched in its vibrancy of color and elegance of contour. And rubble itself has an eerie beauty, exerting the wild thrall of all things manmade and ruined.
What does it mean for the abstraction of beauty to emerge from horrific realities? This question undergirds Protesting Cartography, the series of drawings and paintings this book collects. Slavick, a professor of studio art at UNC-Chapel Hill, works from aerial maps of places the United States has bombed. In the first instance of perception, before anything of their didactic payload sets in, they are, quite simply, beautiful. Some art begs to be seen in person, and curious viewers can see a handful of these works at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill through Sept. 9, although the color plates in the book do the mid-sized paintings ample justice.
What we encounter first in slavick’s work is color: lurid, livid, kaleidoscopic color. Her maps, which, lacking scale or key, at first appear to be purely imaginative cartographies, are swept through with blazing crimsons, aquatic blues, pastel pinks, phosphorescent yellows, radioactive greens. These interact complexly in deep fields of polka dots, actionist splatters, watery smears, leopard prints and haywire grids.
Then we perceive the lambent energy of her lines. Navigational arrows snake over the maps, as do rhizomatous lozenges, glowing polygons, distressed ellipses, concentric rings. The paintings effectively squirm, as slavick’s lapidarian lines cut hard facets into shimmering hues that bleed into the atmosphere. “Poland, 1943-1944” resembles the work of Joan Miró, with primary-colored, bacterial-looking shapes organized across a surrealistic slurry of color, while “Firebombing of Dresden, Germany, 1939-1945” looks like a Georges Braque cityscape with its cool, spectral cubism wreathed in violently colored, grotesquely slithering flames.
So slavick’s technique is impeccable, and there’s something to be said for pressing modernity’s most ghastly events into the service of beauty. To do so is enough to satisfy aesthetic imperatives, but not political onesbeauty can be as narcotic as it is redemptive, and, lacking context, these paintings might, at best, be the artistic equivalent of rose-tinted glasses. At worst, they might be vulnerable to a critique that has ongoing currency in photography: that the aestheticizing of suffering is exploitative, not revelatory.
But slavick’s project is consummately politicaleven polemicalin nature, and happily, the wealth of auxiliary material in Bomb After Bomb drives home its full gravitas. A back-of-book interview with slavick, conducted by Catherine Lutz, finds her grappling with these very issues of representational ethics, as well as tipping her hand as to her technique, which is not as whimsical as it initially appears. For instance, the diffusing blots of watercolor and ink that are the base for most compositions are direct representations of how bombs “do not stay within their intended borders,” inflicting what’s euphemistically known as “collateral damage” and venting toxins into soil and aquifers.
The volume opens with a lucid, eloquent foreword by eminent populist historian Howard Zinn, who reflects with quiet shame on his time as a bombardier in World War II. Zinn locates aerial bombardment’s ongoing prevalence in the unimaginable scale of its horror, its remotenesseven those who fly the planes feel disconnected from what happens on the ground, and to those of us living comfortably in Western societies, the idea seems almost metaphorical.
In this he divines the animating political force in slavick’s work: its capacity to make us think viscerally about things we usually contemplate in a more existential manner. The mind shuts down in the presence of images of charred corpses, and statistics are so pervasive in our lives as to verge on the meaningless. But abstract beauty is slavick’s hooked worm, and once we bite, we’re immediately yanked out of the cool comfort of our everyday environs and into an awful, amplifying awareness of the destruction our government has wrought, is wreaking and will continue to wreak, in our names, throughout the world (and domesticallyit’s no surprise to find entries for Nevada in the book, but entries for Philadelphia, Pa., Mississippi and Alaska may come as unnerving surprises).
In the appendix, the historical context and death toll for each bombing slavick depicts is summarized in direct, concise prose, and going back through the prints armed with this knowledge, the breathtaking beauty of the plates mingles with a different sort of breathlessness, as the crimes stack up incalculably, the deaths past the point of despair. Perhaps the most arresting image is the one that adorns the book’s cover, a crimson polka-dotted world atlas pricked with a flag pin for each bombing site slavick has depicted. Needless to say, the atlas bristles.
“Blossoming Bombs,” an episodic essay with a poetic tone by Carol Mavor, appears just before the plates, and takes a more discursive path through slavick’s work than Zinn’s no-nonsense beeline. Mavor’s meditation offers a lot of context from slavick’s biography and fills in some of the gaps between the appendix’s stark facts with rhetorical flourishes, but it’s mostly about memory, the restoration of which emerges as one of the project’s primary aims. Here, it’s worth quoting the rest of the epigraph excerpted above: “History is amoral: Events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers. If one no longer has land, but has memory of land, then one can make a map.”
The passage operates at two distinct levels. In the most literal sense, Bomb After Bomb is a cartography of spaces where specific people once lived, and now do notit is an elegy for the exiled, dispossessed and exploded. One can make a map of a lost land, but this map, like slavick’s, will never be the same as the land itself, only an echo, colored in memory by the convulsive history that rent the place asunder. It is also a psychic cartography. What slavick is mapping here is as much of a mindset as a physical space, a repeating pattern of the most fantastical violence and the mental abstraction of same. Only through visceral awareness can this pattern be kept from fading into the static of everyday life, our ongoing ecstasy of forgetting.
elin o’Hara slavick will read from Bomb After Bomb at Internationalist Books Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 7 p.m. Half of the sales will be given to the store. She will also read and sign her book Wednesday, Sept. 19, at Bull’s Head Bookshop on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus at 3:30 p.m., and at McIntyre’s Fine Books at Fearrington Village, Saturday, Nov. 10, at 11 a.m. Nine of her bomb drawings will remain on display at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill through Sept. 9, as part of the Practicing Contemporaries faculty exhibit.