Published August 15, 2015 on Daily Serving / Art Practical
“Memorials are the way people make promises to the future about the past.” Alice Greenwald, director of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum, reminds us that a memorial is as much how we describe who we arenow as it is about a prior event. The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina provides an opportunity to look back at a particular moment of disaster, injustice, upheaval, and loss—but also at the breaking down of old social structures and the opening of new possibilities. This cycle of renewal and reinvention is the focus of the exhibitions that address this anniversary: The New Orleans Museum of Art presents Ten Years Gone; the Ogden Museum of Southern Art offers The Rising; and the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleansjoins in with Reverb. Three exhibitions look at where we are now as a culture and as a citizenry who have seen firsthand injustice and incompetence from local, federal, and corporate leaders. But ten years later, can these exhibits provide a clear measurement of the positive and negative affects of the disaster?
Hurricane Katrina rolled in August 29, 2005, devastating 80 percent of New Orleans and ninety thousand square miles of the Gulf South, which were declared a disaster zone. While the storm pinpointed New Orleans, there were many factors that led to the near-total destruction of this entire region. Ten years later, one of those factors—that still goes largely unaddressed—is the loss of the once-vibrant wetlands due to a crisscrossed system of oil pipelines and levee systems. These canals allow salt water from the gulf into the freshwater marshes, killing the trees and plants that hold the wetlands together. In Losing Ground, a project by ProPublica and The Lens, Bob Marshall wrote: “At the current rates that the sea is rising and land is sinking, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists say by 2100 the Gulf of Mexico could rise as much as 4.3 feet across this landscape, which has an average elevation of about 3 feet. If that happens, everything outside the protective levees—most of Southeast Louisiana—would be underwater.”The wetlands are essential to providing vital storm protection.
At the New Orleans Museum of Art, work by Isabelle Hayeur addresses the alarming effects of mankind on waterways by photographing the liminal space between the water and the air. In Etang (2013), she creates a bifurcated view of land and water that exemplifies the process of building wetlands. Dense, rotting detritus gathers on the wetland floor, creating new soil that slowly creates the delicate system of growth and dispersal of land in the gulf. Hayeur’s photographs line the Great Hall in NOMA, and each acts as a metaphor for how water can serve and protect a place if left to its natural ways.
However, Dawn Dedeaux’s Water Markers (2006-2015) are a warning of what happens when that natural process is interrupted. Water Markers is a series of photographs of water on polished acrylic slabs that lay at an angle to the wall; each piece is tall enough so that the waterline clears a person’s head. The series is scattered throughout the exhibition rooms of the museum—one next to an 18th century French painting, another with 20th century modern art—reminders that flooding is a timeless experience. But these works also caution against a future in which the gulf will swallow this city.
Photography, more than many other visual medium, is a clear and visceral document of a moment in time. The lens captures a frozen instant, a trace of what occurred. Richard McCabe, Curator of Photography at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, utilizes this idea to reveal not what was lost, but what has grown back in the interim. Eleven photographers show works made in the last five years, a period of extreme growth in the region in population, economy, and artistic output. While this exhibit speaks to the robust community of photographers working in the area, there is also tenuousness to many of the works, as if the artists are documenting a place while they still can. For example, Colin Roberson’s gritty, black and white photographs archive his life here in New Orleans. Jonas in my bed, Burgundy between Reynes and Forstall, 4am (2014) shows a nude man sleeping. Has he passed out without a blanket or has the photographer pulled it back to reveal an intimate moment? Viewers can almost smell the old cigarette smoke clinging to the bed. Roberson’s work represents a life lived in the city post-Katrina, but also the fragility of those lives photographed—as if life was too close to death here.
AnnieLaurie Erickson’s photograph 29°55’28.56″N, 89°58’48.87″W (Chalmette), (2015) reminds us that the damage done to the region is not just from hurricanes. All along the Mississippi River, clandestine cities appear in headlights; brightly lit, the vast petrochemical complexes are off limits to the average citizen. Using specifically designed cameras incorporating artificial retinas, Erickson reveals the afterimage, a mix of light and grit like a half-forgotten memory. This area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans accounts for one-fourth of the nations petrochemical production.The concentration of petrochemical refineries along this route has a moniker: depending on who you ask, it’s Cancer Alley or Carcinogen City. Erickson’s photograph shows the memory of these petrochemical plants, a much more apt metaphor for the slow poisoning that happens here.
The way in which the local government and national media communicated after the storm was also contributed to the catastrophe. When ex-mayor (and recently incarcerated inmate) Ray Nagin said there were “hundreds of armed gang members” raping and killing people inside the Superdome, he instigated the media’s hysterical, hyperbolic reports. Fear led to a police and mercenary insurgency that effectively turned residents into “the enemy” at one of the most vulnerable moments of their lives. At the Contemporary Arts Center, Isolde Brielmaier curated Reverb, a loosely related collection of works that meditate on the effects the storm. Karoline Schleh’s Red/White/Blue Drawing: Build Up, (2014) is a meditation on what was lost in communication. Highly scripted red, white ,and blue ink runs across the paper. In some spaces, the script is built up in layers, making legibility difficult; in other areas, it disappears as if washed away. Schleh’s work suggests how stories and voices were lost in the chaos of the media, effectively silencing the neediest. The negative space becomes the tragic silence of those who were lost, still echoing today.
All three exhibits focus on the current landscape of New Orleans, and on my first visit I was disappointed that they didn’t make more pointed curatorial statements. However, as I meditated on the shows, it became clear that a catastrophe so unmitigated cannot be summed up in a simple curatorial thesis—the attempt would be trite. The only remaining concern is that New Orleans, in all its brand new shiny glory, does not get lost in our current happiness. A good economy, a rebuilt city, a flourishing art scene—all these things are wonderful and well-earned, but these exhibitions remind us of how far we still need to go.
Ten Years Gone is on view at The New Orleans Museum of Art through September 7, 2015. The Rising is on view at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art through September 30 2015. Reverb is on view at The Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans through November 1, 2015.