How art deals with disaster, from Guernica to the climate crisis

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When faced with catastrophe -- war, famine or natural disaster -- most peoples' first priority is simply to survive. Art is often not made until the aftermath, by those who survived or were far away.

It's this distance -- of both time and place -- that produces the tensions at the heart of art's response to human catastrophes, since, in the end, the question asked of such an artwork is always: What good can this do?

In recent years, however, a sense of impending disaster has become an everyday aspect of cultural and political life -- the threat of terrorism, the tragedy of the migrant crisis and, hanging over it all, the specter of the climate crisis. In such a zeitgeist, artists are making works that respond to current issues and anxieties in increasingly direct ways.

Take, for example, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, who last December transported 30 icebergs from a Greenland fjord to the doors of London's Tate Modern to highlight (if it needed emphasizing further) the urgent threat of climate change. And, perhaps more controversially, one of the most hotly debated artworks at this year's Venice Biennale was Christoph Büchel's "Barca Nostra (Our Boat)," the wreck of a ship that sank in the Mediterranean in 2015, killing an estimated 800 migrants as they attempted to make their way to Europe.

Situated on a Venice quayside, with little comment or explanation, the work sparked intense debate over whether it was a justified moral protest against humanitarian disaster and a memorial to its victims, or whether, by contrast, it disrespected those who died inside its hull, turning their deaths into an exploitative spectacle of human suffering. Among the most persistent criticisms of Büchel's work was that, in the context of the Biennale, it turned the death of migrants into entertainment for well-heeled, Prosecco-sipping cultural tourists.

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