When most of us think about death, we think in very personal terms. Perhaps we worry about the pain of losing a loved one or ponder what it will be like when we are confronted with our own demise. Very few of us spend much time thinking about death on a macro level, at least not here in the United States. What would the world look like after a nuclear holocaust? What would exist in the aftermath of a global pandemic of some devastating disease? Would anyone survive in this post-apocalyptic world?
These are not questions we typically ask ourselves.
But Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber have, and the result is some disturbing but intensely engaging imagery. Since 2005, the two artists have been collaborating on a series of dioramas collectively named “The City,” in which they depict a tiny, incredibly realistic post-apocalyptic world. The duo builds the models in their Brooklyn, New York apartment, each one working on different parts of the whole. For the anatomy classroom above, for example, Nix built the cabinets and furniture, while Gerber created the specimens and skulls. Each one of the intricate models, which range from 20 inches to nine feet in diameter, takes about seven to 15 months to build.
When the dioramas are finished, Nix photographs the scenes using an 8×10 wide-format camera. One photograph takes up to three weeks to produce.
“She’s the sculptor,” said Nix in an interview with National Geographic. “I’m the architect. I come up with the ideas and the color palettes and the camera angle. She does all the detail work — makes things come alive and shine.”
Inspired by Real Events
“Why doomsday scenes?” you might wonder. It seems like an odd preoccupation for two young women living in arguably the hippest borough in New York. But Nix, who spent her youth in Kansas’ Tornado Alley, is no stranger to devastation. “Bad weather, blizzards, floods, insect infestations, and, of course, tornadoes” were the stuff of her childhood. And, she admits, her goal today is to provoke her audience and make them think. “We want them to contemplate the present. Do we still have a future? Will we be able to save ourselves?”
The models and photos are extraordinarily realistic for much the same reason. Looking at the finished products, it’s hard not to wonder, “What happened here? Did anyone survive? And if they did, where are they now?” And, naturally, our next thought is, “Could it happen again, and could it happen to me?”
Once we realize the images aren’t real, of course, some of that existential angst goes away. And that, says Gerber, is also the artists’ intent. “Once people find out they’re models,” she says, “they think, ‘Oh, these are just pretend!’ That creates a safe space where they can ponder the message.”
And the message is pretty clear. We live in a world that seems safe and far removed from complete annihilation. But we all know that is far from true. Looking at Gerber’s and Nix’s creations creates a sense of urgency….a feeling that the end of the world as we know it may not be far away. And given how much work we need to do to save our planet — if we can save it at all — maybe that’s a good thing.