Fire-Flowers: On Ana Vaz’s Atomic Garden


Ana Vaz, Atomic Garden, 2018, Filmstill, 16mm Film, 8 Min. © Ana Vaz.

by Toni Hildebrandt


Atomic Garden (2018) – an experimental film by Ana Vaz in 16-mm format – opens with a purely textual prologue: Aoki Sadako, an elderly Japanese woman, visits her flower garden in the late afternoons in the summer after 2011. Not until before nightfall does she return to the dwelling to which she was evacuated after the nuclear and environmental catastrophe of Fukushima. The next seven minutes unfold in a stroboscopic cinematography, the sole protagonists of which remain the flowers in Sadako’s garden, individual bees and butterflies, and a night sky filled with fireworks. In other words, Vaz’ nocturne composes an after-history of Sadako’s daily visits to her contaminated garden. The flowers filmed by day appear in the firework-lit night as phantasms. This cotemporaneous correlationsim of fireworks by night and fauna by day, which removes human presence, corresponds with an ambivalent experience of mourning, or rather, of the “post-apocalyptic amazement”[1] in the face of forms of broken beauty, the possibility of visiting an abandoned place, of seeking it out to haunt it by night—of the dream, that is, or perhaps also the nightmare, after the events at Fukushima.

Ana Vaz, Atomic Garden, 2018, Filmstill, 16mm Film, 8 Min. © Ana Vaz.

Human beings do not drop out of this correlation entirely but are rather temporally removed and spatially decentered. It is only in the subsequent and distanced experience of the film that they become witness to the new correlation of euphoric fireworks and contaminated fauna. They become witness to their own absence, but they also feel the presence of this absence. In this sense, Atomic Garden is less a direct, instantaneous record of an immediate experience than it is a construction within a complex experience with historical-philosophical meaning: the cotemporality and unity of meaning of the fireworks, and the ephemeral bloom of the flowers – two “absolute metaphors” of the here-and-now – are consolidated through the montage, the flickering stroboscopy, and the sound collage into a correlative figure of thought under the sign of man-made disasters.

Ana Vaz, Atomic Garden, 2018, Filmstill, 16mm Film, 8 Min. © Ana Vaz.


In Cinders (Feu la cendre), a talk that was written in the context of reflections on post-history and apocalypticism, Jacques Derrida speaks toward the end of a possible “affirmation of the fire without place or mourning.”[2] The fireworks radicalizes this figure of a temporary, kairological sphere, the brief, pulsing, and explosive presence of which in the sky leaves not externalized writing but the momentary traces of retinal after-images. This figure of thought corresponds to the experience of an acute delay and necessary decentralization in the Anthropocene, in which the structure of experience in the End Times is no longer determined from the human point of view or for a human community, as in Pauline Messianism. Here too, at issue is what will remain in a time that has begun to end – but it seems that in the present, what remains is not destined to be apprehended and seized by humans alone.[3]

Bernard Tschumi Architects, Fireworks, Parc de la Villette, Paris, 1992. © Bernard Tschumi Architects.

Since Claude-François Ménestrier’s theoretical writings on the staging of festivals and performances in the 17th century, fireworks displays have been seen in the context of a theory of spectacle. Bernard Tschumi’s Fireworks in London (1974) and Paris (1992) were perhaps deconstructions of this tradition but were also clearly related to architecture and urbanism. As a Situationist concept, the fireworks display in the Parc de La Villette in particular remains legible through the notational drawings and the structures. This is similar to the work of Annette Wehrmann, who in her Sprengungen (Explosions) (1991-95) in the pedestrian zones in Hamburg desecrated sites of bourgeois order and perhaps also deliberately and consciously parodied curatorial concepts such as the then-popular National Garden Show in a social milieu.

Annette Wehrmann, Sprengungen, Fotografie einer Aktion in der Hamburger Innenstadt, 1991-1995. © Ort des Gegen e.V.

The work of Ana Vaz stands in contrast to this. In Atomic Garden, two entities of a correlationism are reflected without any indexical reference to human presence. Fireworks explode in the sky and on the ground, the stroboscopic light makes the flowers glow in the overexposed (“unnatural,” “contaminated,” “phosphorescent”) colors and pulsing rhythms of the visual and auditory montage.[4]

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Fireworks (Archives), 2014, Single-Channel Video Installation HD, Dolby 5.1, 6:40 Min. © Kick the Machine.

Unlike the Otolith Group, which worked with a special camera that could make the radioactive emanations in Fukushima visible,[5] Vaz does not use any new technologies. The impression of “contamination” is due solely to the anachronism of the overexposure of her 16mm film and the stroboscopy. Moreover, the colors of the flowers on the ground often correspond to those of the hana-bi (Japanese for “fire-flowers”) exploding in the night sky.


The new correlationsim for which Ana Vaz finds an image in Atomic Garden has a long and influential pre-history in a counter-model that goes back to the 18th century. This old correlationism, shrewdly diagnosed by Quentin Meillassoux, proves to be a variation of a certain Kantianism, right up to the phenomenology of finitude.[6] In “Conclusion,” the last, poetic chapter of The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant intertwines the image of the starry sky “above us” with the moral law “within us”:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more frequently and persistently one’s meditation deals with them: the starry sky above me and the moral law within me. Neither of them do I need to seek or merely suspect outside my purview, as veiled in obscurities or [as lying] in the extravagant: I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence. [7]

In this figure of thought, Kant condenses a fundamental precept of his philosophy: Science and morality stand side by side, insofar as the infinity of the cosmos visible to humans alone in the “completeness of the stars”[8] demonstrates, as it were, the boundedness and finitude of human perception and existence. This, according to Kant, is how we become aware of our insignificance, but it is this humbling experience that then leads to the humility to which we owe our moral position in the first place. So much for Kant, for this correlationism aims at securing moral law and science as a means to a sure path in life and a meaningful existence: the amazed perspective on the world should lead to scientific understanding, but not in the sense of looking for meaning in the stars, but rather of a progressive science along the paradigm of mathematics.[9]

Meillassoux’s profound critique of Kantian correlationism, however, does not necessarily have the consequence of rejecting correlationist logic as such. It seems to me possible–as also suggested by Atomic Garden–to conceive of a new correlation such that it decentralizes people and metaphorically throws the starry sky into chaos; that it thus replaces a stable order with other concepts and likewise “connects” them, very much in the Kantian sense. The sky is then no longer a stable firmament covered in stars, it is no longer cosmos – rather, for a brief time from the moment of an explosion, in the sense of a temporary seeding point, it becomes the orientation point for that which on the ground cannot therefore follow the paradigm of eternity.

The constellation of fireworks and flowers, moreover, doesn’t take place “above us”; neither does it point by way of feelings of wonder and awe back to something “within us,” but rather to something “next to,” “under,” “before,” or “after us,” in the paradigmatic way of “The Life of Plants.”[10] I find it sensible in this regard to adapt an influential term from Helmuth Plessner and speak of the “de-centric positionality” of man as a consequence of his coming existence, whereby Ana Vaz’s medial praxis seems to me to have sought and actually found the precise image of exactly that.[11]


In the historical sense, Atomic Garden reveals the proximity of reflections on atomic and ecological catastrophes, the way they have been variously theorized since Hans Jonas’ recasting of the categorical into an ecological imperative (1979). The decisive intervention into the image of the starry sky oriented on Kant was however first delivered by Maurice Blanchot in his L’écriture du désastre (1981).[12] Blanchot essentially gives up what I would call an “ontology of stability.” In this connection, Stanley Cavell notes the alienation of the stars themselves in the etymology of “disaster,” leading to a constellation that is “ill-starred”: “[…] for Blanchot disaster is revealed metaphysically to be, or to have become, the normal state of human existence, marked by the release from our ties to the stars, say, from our considered steps beyond, a release that partakes of an oblivion of the transcendental draw of words, of their openness to a future, their demand for continuity with past and present. Empirically this aura of disruption is manifested in human-driven, absolute catastrophes, ones that, perhaps we can say, the Gulag, the Holocaust, Hiroshima/Nagasaki.”[13]

Disaster leads to “absolute catastrophes”, the ontological status of which – according to an earlier thesis posited by Günther Anders – consists in the fact that not only do they bring a danger into the world, but also that this hazardous condition will never disappear from the world again.[14] The causes, responsibilities and guilt connected with this ontology, however, remain directed at humankind. Akira Mizuta Lippit comments on Blanchot’s ontology in The Writing of the Disaster as follows:

Disasters enter the world from above. Disaster, from the Greek astron and Latin astrum meaning star or planet, falls (dis-) from above, from ill- fated stars. In this sense, disasters are always extraterrestrial, even when their elements are deeply terrestrial in nature. They unearth the metaphysical elements of the physical world, exposing the otherworldly dimensions of the planet that are embedded within the earth, imminent and inseparable from everything worldly. Not only does the disaster expose the uncanniness of the earth, the foreign soil at its core, but every disaster is also a return, the return of a disaster that has already taken place on earth and is repressed by it and within it. The event of disaster is also a memory of disaster, of this very disaster, taking place now. [15]

Ana Vaz, Atomic Garden, 2018, Filmstill, 16mm Film, 8 Min. © Ana Vaz.


That Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster deals not with a theory of the extinction of humankind but rather with his “de-centric positionality” under the sign of the new correlationism may also be understood with reference to Walter Benjamin, another philosopher of catastrophic time. Benjamin’s epistemo-critical prologue to the Trauerspiel book is in many respects also an afterword to Kant’s conclusion to The Critique of Practical Reason. After all, Benjamin devoted a great deal of attention during his time in Bern to the attempt to fathom a concept of history in Kant.

What remained of this unfinished project is the conceptual image of the constellation, as developed in the epistemo-critical prologue in conjunction with the “question of representation”[16] of philosophical doctrine. Before introducing the image of the constellation, Benjamin propaedeutically discusses the image of the mosaic. The mosaic consists of pieces that first of all indicate that an original identity was previously shattered and now – in the sense of a historical representation and re-configuration (of the Écriture du désastre) – have been put together into a new structure.

While the precondition of this process is the knowledge of and familiarity with the fragmentation and particularity of the individual “pieces of history,” what is crucial for the mosaic is not this, but rather its function as an image. Benjamin’s theory of the dialectical image, which selectively opens up an understanding of the present, goes even deeper into this, above all in the Passagenwerk. But if we return to a cinematographic way of thinking, we find that the Russian director Kira Muratova has coined a similar conceptual figure of the mirror, broken but held together by the montage because it is framed: “[…] this broken mirror has a frame. In the frame there are the shards of the mirror. In the mirror everything is disfigured, but it has a beautiful frame.”[17]

The idea of the mosaic or Muratova’s broken mirror held together by a beautiful frame is further refined methodologically through the conceptual image of the constellation. Although it consists of extreme points – the stars that are “sighted” or “considered” as such – the constellation differs from the particularity of the individual stars like the idea, in Benjamin’s sense, does from the phenomena that are to be saved.[18] That the historical construction should ultimately be concerned with saving phenomena relegates the entire project to a time of privation in which this has not yet happened–a time that therefore requires salvation because it is ruled by need; a time of catastrophes, or in Blanchot’s sense, a time in the signatures of the writing of disaster.

As Derrida writes in his essay, “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy,” here the much-invoked sense of the apocalyptic itself is reversed. In its literal sense, “apocalypse” originally corresponded less with the contemporary general usage meaning total catastrophe and meant more something like a contemplation. The Apocalypse itself thus accords with the historical contemplation, in Benjamin’s sense, of the extreme points of history (eschatology), the meaning of which in turn is not the end itself, but rather the representation of a (saving) idea–in Derrida’s words, the secret that the Apocalypse conceals and reveals.[19] This secret can be the most ordinary and profane as well as the veiled and forgotten, so that it may take an “apocalypse” in order to reveal it authentically anew, if only for a day or even only a moment: the possibility of the present in the everyday, the idea of community in a state of emergency and an unforseen communistic solidary, which Yoko Hayasuke describes with such vivid precision in her diaries from the time after the catastrophe of Fukushima.[20]


The correlation of fireworks and contaminated flower garden is the general image Ana Vaz finds for the “de-centric positionality” of humankind in the disaster of the Anthropocene. But Atomic Garden also ends with an enigmatic closing gesture that does not actually reveal any secrets. With the textual prologue, we had learned at the start about the story of a victim. Thanks to the prologue, we knew before the actual experimental film began that it was about a contaminated garden near Fukushima; that an elderly woman, Aoki Sadako, visits this garden daily; and that the film temporarily interweaves the night of this world with the flowers filmed during the day. This prologue guarantees and requires a certain legibility of the experimental film: Aoki Sadako herself cannot see this firework display as a substitute for the stars, for she has already returned to the site of her evacuation a short time before it. Rather, this is analog to Friederike Mayröcker’s formulation about the “fireworks of the pasture.”[21] The flowers, grasses, and few insects appear within the stroboscopic frame changes as the actual witnesses. Only they in their meadow cannot look up at the fireworks like the amazed person in Kantian correlationism had done. The new correlationism rather suggests a much more uninvolved coexistence of fireworks and fauna, which in this indifference seems to have a meaning only for humans. Yet in the final seconds of the film, the flowers and the memory of the atomic garden and its last insects also disappear. What remains is this firework display–without a location, without mourning, as a pure conceptual image without a subject.


[1] On the terminology and temporality of the “post-apocalyptic” see Toni Hildebrandt, “Postapokalyptisches Staunen. Ästhetik und Geschichtsbewusstsein im Naturvertrag,” in: Staunen. Perspektiven eines Phänomens zwischen Natur und Kultur, ed. Timo Kehren, Carolin Krahn, Georg Oswald and Christoph Poetsch (Paderborn: Fink, 2019), pp. 237–259.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Cinders, trans. Ned Lukacher (Lincoln/London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), p. 59.

[3] On the Pauline conception of Messianic time, see Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains. A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[4] In this regard, Atomic Garden resembles a formalist experimental film by Sid Iandovka (Rabbit, 2010), which – although it does not refer to a comparable atomic context – similarly works with the alteration between stroboscopic images of fireworks and fauna. Both films also have the absence of humans in common – a contrast that becomes particularly clear when one considers at project such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Fireworks (Archives) (2015). Weerasethakul’s fireworks still imply a human protagonist, albeit mediated through the ritual objects, or their shadows, strewn about the floor of a Thai temple.

[5] Vgl. T.J. Demos, Decolonizing Nature. Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (Berlin: Sternberg, 2016), p. 249.

[6] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2009).

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason [1788], trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2002), p. 203.

[8] Hans Blumenberg, Die Vollzähligkeit der Sterne (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997). Nicola Zambon, Das Nachleuchten der Sterne. Konstellationen der Moderne bei Hans Blumenberg (Paderborn: Fink, 2017).

[9] On the epistomological function of amazement from Plato to Kant, see Christoph Poetsch, “Staunen als Anfang der Philosophie,” in: Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 73, 1 (2019), pp. 100–132, here p. 129.

[10] As a corrective to Coccia’s The Life of Plants, Atomic Garden might serve as a reminder that what continues to be invoked here is still the site of the garden, whose biblical story of the split between original and personal sin is of considerable importance to the understanding of the Anthropocene. In this regard, compare the two complementary approaches in: Emanuele Coccia, The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, trans. Dylan Montanari (London: Polity, 2018); Giorgio Agamben, Il Regno e il Giardino, (Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2019).

[11] On the concept of “eccentric positionality” see Helmuth Plessner, Levels of Organic Life and the Human. An Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology [1928], trans. Millay Hyatt (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).

[12] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster (1981), trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1995).

[13] Stanley Cavell, Little Did I know. Excerpts from Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 522.

[14] Günther Anders, “Theses for the Atomic Age,” in: The Massachusetts Review 3, 3 (1962), pp. 493–505.

[15] Akira Mizuta Lippit, “Between Disaster, Medium 3.11,” in: Mechademia 10 (2015), pp. 3–15, here p. 3.

[16] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama [1925/1928], trans. John Osborne (London/New York: Verso, 2003), p. 27.

[17] Kira Muratova in: Isa Willinger, Kira Muratova. Kino und Subversion (Munich: UVK, 2013), p. 170.

[18] Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, pp. 27–56.

[19] Jacques Derrida, “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy,” trans. John P. Leavey Jr., in: Oxford Literary Review 6, 2 (1984), pp. 3–37.

[20] Yoko Hayasuke, “Journal d’une cervelle radioactive,” in: Fukushima & ses invisibles, Cahiers d’enquétes politiques (Vaulx-en-Velin: Les Editions des Mondes à faire, 2018). As an example of the reflection on this experience, Ana Vaz quotes an entry from the Journal d’une cervelle radioactive of March 11, 2011 in Medium: “You tried to return home on foot and saw that there were people everywhere. All public transport had been halted, the only way to get anywhere was to walk. Everyone in Tokyo was in the same condition. There were many people in the streets and you sort of found it great – in spite of the horrible earthquake that had just taken place. Because suddenly there was solidarity: people driving cars were taking in pedestrians traveling in the same direction, restaurants were opening their restrooms […] That day, you were happy. It wasn’t a mass demonstration that had stopped capitalism, but the earthquake: everyone stopped working, everyone was helping one another. But well, that only lasted a day” (Yoko Hayasuke, “Journal d’une cervelle radioactive,” trans. from the French; translation by Ana Vaz).

[21] In Die Abschiede (1980) Mayröcker speaks – a year before Blanchot’s L’écriture du désastre (1981) – of the “stars of the pasture” (p. 20) in immediate proximity to a passage reflecting on fireworks  (p. 24), see Friederike Mayröcker, Die Abschiede, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980.

About the Author:

Toni Hildebrandt lives in Bern. He is an assistant professor in modern and contemporary art history at University of Bern, and teaches classes in philosophy at the Walter Benjamin Kolleg, the Academy of Art and Design in Basel and in the Maumaus Independent Study Programme in Lisbon. His book Entwurf und Entgrenzung: Kontradispositive der Zeichnung 1955-1975 (Fink, 2017) won the Wolfgang Ratjen Award. With Giovanbattista Tusa, he edited the volume “Geografie meridiane: Pensare a Sud” for the Italian journal Estetica. He is currently writing a new book on Pasolini and the desert.