The latest instalment of Creative Sensemaker, a cultural series by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Peter Hoskin Above image: Agnes Varda (Alamy) Friday 7 August, 2020 Long read
Those are the words that appear on screen at the start of Es Devlin and Machiko Weston’s new video artwork ‘I Saw The World End’, and then they are spoken. This is not some science fiction – it is the testimony of someone who survived the atomic bomb blast on Nagasaki. More testimonies follow across the video’s 10-minute running time. It is suffocating.
The artwork was commissioned by London’s Imperial War Museum to mark the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, on 9 August 1945, and also that of Hiroshima, three days before. It’s thought that at least 100,000 people died in the immediate blasts, with thousands more following in the days, months and years after. The most destructive war in history had been brought to an end by an unprecedented act of mass destruction.
What can art do in the face of such horror? The answer has to be: everything possible. Writers must try to find the words; photographers must strive for the most powerful angles; sculptors and painters must help us to find meaning. For most people, books, films and images are the only way to gain some degree of understanding of what happened.
Thankfully, numerous artists have looked at – rather than looked away from – the atomic bomb blasts. Among them is John Hershey, whose extended article for The New Yorker in 1946, Hiroshima, is one of the finest works of journalism on this or any other subject. Several years ago, The New Yorker made all 30,000 words available on its website. They tell of six survivors and their experiences of both the explosion and the terrible weeks after: ‘…they were coming down with the strange, capricious disease which came later to be known as radiation sickness.’
There is also Alain Resnais, whose elliptical film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), written by the novelist Marguerite Duras, is set in a Hiroshima that’s largely rebuilt, but where memories of the cataclysm keep breaking through. Its prologue cuts freely between a pair of lovers, the city’s modern public buildings, and then, suddenly, footage of the dead and the dying. It was a challenge to its audiences then, and to us now – it shouldn’t be easy to watch.
Not all artworks about the bombings are solemn, nor even explicitly about the bombings. Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954) features a man in a monster suit – but it is nonetheless a product of post-attack anxieties. Godzilla himself is awoken by hydrogen bomb tests and trails radiation in his wake. His rampage around Tokyo is barely an analogy.
And now others are trying, in a new context. Devlin and Weston’s ‘I Saw The World End’ was meant to be shown on the great curved screens of Piccadilly Circus. But then it was decided that the video would be kept to smaller screenings and to the internet, while the shockwaves of another explosion – the one that blew away Beirut’s docks on Tuesday – still reverberate around the world.
Artists will eventually have to confront that tragedy, too. In the meantime, the Lebanese Red Cross is taking donations.
Here is our usual selection of cultural recommendations.
Wandering In Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins
The strange lands through which Morgan Jerkins wanders are, in effect, her own past – but also a broader American past. From New York, she travels to and through the southern states of Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana. Then, she goes westwards to Oklahoma and Los Angeles, tracing back through the lines of her family tree. Like so many other Americans, hers is a story about race, and therefore complex, untidy and often upsetting. But Jerkins’ clear prose manages to make some sort of sense of it all; beautifully so. If you’d like an example, The New York Times has an extract.
Alien: The Original Screenplay #1 (Comixology)
What do you do when you’ve consumed every single bit of Alien media that’s ever been made? Start on the stuff that was never meant to be made, of course. Over the past couple of years, the publisher Dark Horse has been excavating old, rejected and forgotten ideas – and turning them into comics. First came the novelist William Gibson’s unused screenplay for Alien 3 (1992). Now comes the original 1976 screenplay for what became Alien (1979) itself, with the first issue of five out this week. So far: the characters have unfamiliar names, the famous Space Jockey doesn’t look the same… but these small differences are what cultural archaeology is all about.
La Pointe Courte (Criterion)
Once Upon A Time In Iraq (courtesy of BBC)
The Complete Films of Agnès Varda (Blu-ray)
Is physical home video – which is to say, discs – dying? If you look at the sales spreadsheets, then yes. But if you look at the quality of new releases, then no. Next week sees the launch of Criterion’s boxset of all the films of Agnès Varda, the French director who died last year. It will play much like a collage, as Varda made features and shorts, fictions and documentaries, and experimented with numerous formats. But remember, too, that a collage is still a single work. What unites everything from Varda’s first film, La Pointe Courte (1955), to her last, Varda Par Agnès (2019), is an intense curiosity for people and places – and all the small things that make up life.
Once Upon A Time In Iraq (BBC iPlayer)
It’s pushing 20 years since ‘Mission Accomplished’. But what really was accomplished by the invasion of Iraq in 2003? That’s the question that this five-part documentary series, directed by James Bluemel, sets out to answer. And it does so mostly by speaking to people involved in the conflict – on both sides and in between. The interviews, anecdotes and remembrances build up, in the spirt of The World At War (1973-74), to something that feels monumental and historic. Hasten to watch it while it’s still on BBC iPlayer.
The Delta Sweete by Bobbie Gentry
Drop 6 by Little Simz
The Delta Sweete by Bobbie Gentry (Spotify)
Bobbie Gentry is finally getting her due. It’s not that the Mississippi singer-songwriter has been ignored since she mysteriously retired, aged 40, in the early 1980s; it’s more that one brilliant song has been allowed to overshadow all the rest – her ‘Ode To Billie Joe’. The Girl From Chickasaw County, a boxset released in 2018, did something to rectify that. Now a new deluxe edition of her finest album, The Delta Sweete, continues the work. It is an experiment in oil and water: can you put wildly different styles together, from gospel to psychedelia, and expect them to mix? Somehow, Gentry pulls it off.
AIM Awards (online, 12 August)
It’s a music awards show in 2020, so of course it’s being streamed online. But what makes the AIM Independent Music Awards stand out is its line-up of past winners – last year, there was plenty of love for the great Dave and for the almost-as-great IDLES – as well as its line-up of performers this time around. We’ll hear from AJ Tracey and Arlo Parks, but Little Simz could well be the main reason to tune in, not least because lockdown seems to have done something to the British rapper. Her recent EP, Drop 6, is overflowing with menace and restlessness.
Thousand Threads (PC, Mac)
Thousand Threads is a relaxing game: you guide yourself through its beautifully gradated landscapes, from meadow to woodland to hill, occasionally bumping into other people who might ask some favour or other. Until suddenly – oh no! – it’s not a relaxing game anymore. There’s a bear lunging for you, or a pack of wolves tearing after you, or those people have decided that you’re actually better for target practice now. But, don’t be mistaken, suddenness is not the same as randomness. This is, as its name suggests, a game about connections – pull at a thread, and it will have consequences.