Saturday, June 26, 2010

BP: In the gallery

The threat of the advance of Tropical Storm Alex in or near the Gulf of Mexico in the coming days has complicated the already impossible process of trying to stem the BP oil spill, on its way to becoming the worst such disaster in history.

McClatchy is reporting that winds above 45 miles an hour — winds not expected to make an impact for some time — could force efforts to stop the leak to be abandoned, possibly for as long as two weeks.

“That timetable would conservatively unleash another half-million barrels of oil back in the sea -- twice the Exxon Valdez spill. Using upper-end federal estimates of the leak, 840,000 barrels would gush out. That's 35 million gallons,” McClatchy reported.

That latest development will no doubt add fuel to the populist fire against BP, a fire that’s manifested in, among other things, a wide range of expressions of artistic outrage. Rarely have a corporation and its logo been so creatively maligned.

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The images include some that borrow from history; the art above appropriates the outlined images from a famous AP photograph of a general executing a prisoner in the Vietnam War.

Others couldn’t be more of-the-moment. One illustration borrows from the Twitter visual moitif, with a flock of birds lifting an oil-stained whale from the waters of the Gulf. Others are not-so-subtle tweaks on BP’s gold-and-green logo (more than one in circulation dumps oil on the logo itself, a nod to the old Sherwin-Williams “Cover the Earth” logotype).

If anyone decided to launch a Gulf Coast Catastrophe Reaction Museum, there’d be no end of images to line its walls. And of course, there’d have to be a video wing. Some of the most evocative images of the spill haven’t come from artists and designers; they’ve come from the meandering spill itself.

That’s best observed from space. NASA Goddard Center recently released a haunting time-lapse of the spill as viewed by satellites above the Gulf of Mexico from April 20, the day the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, until May 24. You can see the oil increasing in its breadth and drift day by day. As bad as it is by the end of the two-minute video, you can’t overlook the other, deeply sobering fact: its last image is from a month ago. How much worse is it now.

Void of their meaning, isolated from the context of their existence, the images have a surreal beauty. But of course, there’s really no way to look at them void of their meaning.

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The artist bears moral witness in times of crisis. The BP environmental debacle will be no exception; what makes it so different this time is the immediacy with which these and other images sweep the globe. The global implications of the oil spill, evolving graphic-arts technology and the megaphone of the Internet have combined to update that artists’ ideal: the world as inspiration, canvas and gallery.

But given the spark for their artistic expressions, considering the cause of all this, it’s a very safe bet those artists would rather be doing illustrations of something, anything, else.
Image credits: Top image:, via The Huffington Post. Second image: Twitter whale:

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