Faces of Death

28 April 2009

Chris Norris recently deployed the term “asteroid porn” for a certain gratuitous style employed by those writing about meteoric catastrophe:

Here is a brief summary of a typical piece of asteroid porn. Dinosaurs are peacefully grazing (or browsing, or doing whatever) on a warm sunny day (or at sunset, or some other time of peacefullness) when they see a big fireball fall out of the sky. It hits the Earth so hard that larva comes out, like a big bursting geological zit. The larva shoots up hundreds of miles into the air and comes down, setting fire to, like, the whole planet. All the forests are on fire, and all the dinosaurs are on fire as well. Then there’s this big blast wave, and it’s so big it goes round the world, like, 5 times at the speed of Concorde, and when it hits the burning dinosaurs they all get blown into burning pieces…

You’ll want to read the entire post.

Not all porn is so literate though.  Books, television, film and, most especially the internet abound with visual artworks that operate in the same vein.  One well-worn style adopts a “dinosaur-eye view,” typically peppering the foreground with a tyrannosaur, hadrosaur or ceratopsian or some combination thereof.  A few enterprising artists even manage a nod to Charles Knight.

picture-4The players in these epic finales span a comical range of emotive reaction to the impact, from “wha?” to “HOLY EFF!” to “screw extinction–I’M GOING TO EAT YOU!!!” A few contemplative dinosaurs, cast in silhouette, even appear rather philosophical about their impending demise.

And of course, it’s a nearly irresistible vehicle for a one-liner:

picture-5Large pterosaurs offer a convenient excuse to adopt an aerial perspective that permits a more graphic celebration of “the junk” (the bolide that is).  Plus there must be a sense of clever satisfaction tat comes when you work Quetzalcoatlus into a painting of Mesoamerican Armageddon.

picture-6Another popular technique takes yet another step back to show what the hypothetical Troodon cosmonauts would have seen.

This view shifts the victim role from the dinosaurs to the planet itself. It also lends a certain historical anonymity to the event–this could be a catastrophe in the distant past, or the not-so-remote future.  In fact, some even depict an anachronistic geography that necessarily implies the latter to the careful observer.

picture-8It’s tempting to speculate that this orbital perspective might not have occurred to an artist working prior to the advent of satellite photography.  A similar argument has been made regarding the link between the Victorian “aquarium craze” and the subsequent proliferation of artworks adopting an underwater perspective (Clary and Wandersee 2005).

With their melodramatic flair, stereotyped compositions and limited pool of motifs, these images might easily be regarded as derivative at best and sure, pornographic at worst.  Much like metal album art.  However, these depictions will also afford ample fodder for a future, likely poor, overeducated and underemployed, generation of science/art historians interested in the cultural impact of late 20th Century neo-catastrophism.  Unless we are all wiped out by an asteroid first.

Coming up: Stravinsky, climate change and the Bataan march

postscripto: Huh, look at that.  300 microecos posts in just over 3 years.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

A note on the images:  All are thumbnails gleaned from Google Image searches of “asteroid impact”, “dinosaur extinction” etc.  They are reproduced here for the purposes of discussion only.  This is a cultural studies blog.  Deal.

6 Responses to “Faces of Death”

  1. Allen Hazen Says:

    I tried to find it a while back but couldn’t: one of the regular posters to the “Dinosaur Mailing List” used to have a signature “typocartoon” (cartoon drawn with keyboard characters) with a variant of the “Make a wish” joke: his cartoon was of two small mammals, and the caption was “One late-Cretaceous mammal to another, returning after a day spent dodging dinosaur droppings to find their burrow trampled: “Look, a shooting star! Make a wish!””

  2. Neil Says:

    Sounds far more clever than the version in the post!

  3. Zach Miller Says:

    One of my absolute favorite “comet strike” pictures is up there: the sauropod (must be a titanosaur) staring up at the comet, questioning whether it actually accomplished anything in its long life, now at death’s door.

    I also like the “from space” picture of what appears to be a very large moon rock touching down on the planet (top row, middle).

    The “Walking with Dinosaurs” T.rex is unintentionally hilarious. “Oh shit, not my tail!”

    • Neil Says:

      Zach, do you happen to recall the original source of that sauropod piece? All of the web versions I have found are uncredited, but based on the style I suspect it might be one of the earlier efforts.

      The asteroid painting you mention and several of the others are NASA commissioned works byDonald Davis. I briefly considered digressing into a comparison of asteroid vs. comet impacts, but you the nerd quotient was already running pretty high.

  4. Zach Miller Says:

    No idea, comrade. I saw it originally at a hideous UAA “walk of life” presentation where students could walk around campus and experience the history of life on Earth. That sauropod image accompanied the K/T extinction text.

  5. […] Posts Faces of DeathFrom the archives: Who is buried in Lincoln’s tombOh-oh here she comes: she’s a man(tid) […]

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