Imagining the Apocalypse - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Imagining the Apocalypse

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Conference, Research Forum

Imagining the Apocalypse

The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London

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John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, 1822, Tate.

Organised by

  • Dr Edwin Coomasaru - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Keynote: Professor Robert Mills (University College London)

Shaped by different religious traditions, the apocalypse has been called upon throughout history to articulate collective anxieties, act as a warning, or a yearned-for spiritual salvation. These contradictory and competing aims behind imagining the end of the world in specific cultural moments make it a fertile ground for analysis. This conference will ask: what are the politics of picturing annihilation, from the early Christian Church to climate change today? From medieval mosaics to Hieronymus Bosh, Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498) to Keith Piper’s critique of Thatcherite-era racism, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1984) – culture has played a crucial role in imagining the apocalypse.

Claiming the end is nigh has always been political. The Democratic Unionist Party’s 1970s ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign, for example, invoked the threat of Biblical floods: “The legalising of homosexuality would open the floodgates of immorality … The consequences of such a deluge would be grim”. What does this nightmarish vision tell us about the way we direct violence at others when fearing for our own survival? Rather than call for a saviour and salvation, could there also be an opportunity to contemplate and perhaps even come to terms with feelings of powerlessness in the face of our own annihilation? If the apocalypse is employed as a metaphor – a framework for conceiving reality, rather than a faithful portrait of it – it is regularly used to describe situations that are not literally the end of the world.

If we scratch under the surface, doomsday is often evoked time and time again to articulate a worldview of ‘us’ versus ‘them’: the desire to re-establish a sense of mastery over those perceived to be threatening. In 2017 The Sun claimed Jeremy Corbyn “would be a disaster in No10” – printing 1970s photographs of warehouses filled with coffins and rubbish piled high in the streets; while The Guardian wondered “are we sleepwalking towards a technological apocalypse?”, telling readers to look out for “Seven signs of the neoliberal apocalypse”. In January 2018, online blogs asked “Is the fatberg apocalypse upon us?” – and by August, The Times reeled in horror at the “End of days feel in Westminster”.

The fear that underscores these catastrophic accounts may be sincere, but if we take a step back from the immediate sense of dread they provoke – how can we unpack the politics and psychoanalytic stakes at play? Can we look across time and space to make sense of how such anxieties are intimately bound up with their specific historical moments, and that considering them comparatively can throw into relief how power and violence often fuel these fantasies of disaster? This interdisciplinary conference will examine imaginative representations of the end of the world from antiquity to the present day.

Programme and booking details will be publicisied soon.

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