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When natural disaster hits home: ‘Quake/Temblor’ at Bethel University

"Edificios Revisados," engraved formica table from the multimedia installation "Quake/Temblor: A Forensics of Interior Life and Natural Disaster"
Courtesy of Bethel University’s Johnson Gallery
“Edificios Revisados/walls like windows.” Study, photo combining historic illustration with found photographs.

With the recent climate change talks in Copenhagen making headlines, Susannah Bielak’s exhibition in Bethel University’s Johnson Gallery seems particularly timely.

“Quake/Temblor: A Forensics of Interior Life and Natural Disaster” — a multimedia installation that includes video, drawings, prints, photography and engravings – is the artist’s exploration the small-scale devastations in individual lives and family homes that are left in the wake of massive “acts of God” sorts of disasters.

In her artist statement, Bielak describes going through old family photos one day and finding among them slides of the horrific aftermath of Mexico City’s massive 1985 earthquake, all taken by her father. A civil engineer whose family roots lay in Mexico City, Bielak’s father returned to his native home to document the quake’s effects. She remarks that when she stumbled upon her father’s photos, the juxtaposition of her family’s intimate snapshots with images of such large-scale destruction was “destabilizing, pushing me to question the issue of terra firma in daily life.”

For “Quake/Temblor,” the artist capitalizes on that disorientation, exploiting our wish that home and family might be inviolable spheres; she upends that cherished, if untenable, expectation of safety, literally shaking it (one of the pieces involves a powerful seismic shake table) from its foundation.

“The project,” Bielak writes, “joins spaces of scientific testing, public memory, and private history — making reference to the Richter Scale, the broken city, and the kitchen table. Quake/Temblor aims to make visible some of what lies between everyday family life and the experience of an earthquake.”

The installation is a composite creation, an archive of sorts recording both the geographic and human toll of large-scale natural disaster — using photographic and historical records of the 1985 quake, performative re-enactments (on video) of the event itself, and ingenious engraved pieces and prints, for which she’s carved scenes of destruction on ordinary Formica kitchen tabletops. (You can see images of many of the pieces in the show online here.)

“Quake/Temblor” is a perceptive but unsentimental reminder of just how closely our individual fates are tied with that of the natural world around us. It’s well worth a visit to the gallery to see this show for yourself.

“Quake/Temblor”  is on view in Bethel University’s Johnson Gallery through Jan. 16.

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