We are often paralyzed by the images of destruction; sometimes because the images shock us into consciousness (like the photos in this month's National Geographic of slaughtered mountain gorillas in the Congo) and other times because the composition of the images startles us with a new representation of what should be a familiar landscape, like the charred remains of a mountain after a fire.
Most of us watched with uncomfortable attention and interest at the recovery efforts of the recent earthquake in China, much the way we kept tuning in to see similar efforts after the typhoon in Thailand and Indonesia a few years ago. Awe-ful in the worst way, visual coverage of these events both humanizes and globalizes such tragedies. We watch and we worry and we wonder and we weep.
The artful images from the recent floods in the Midwest reminded me of two different Katrina-based art projects I encountered on a recent trip to New Orleans. The first is an installation that existed for one day only in a small, edgy gallery owned by Kirsha Kaechele, located in a predominantly African American neighborhood of the city. The brainchild of artist and architect Mike McKay and his wife, artist and architect Liz Swanson, the Cloudline project replicates through fishing weights and lines, the topography of the living room in McKay's childhood home that was destroyed by the Katrina levy breaches. Part of the artist statement reads as follows:
Made by a series of 3800 weighted filament lines suspending over 8,000 aggregated points, the project replicates a specific debris field documented within a living room of the artist's childhood home. The debris field contains the exact forms of household furniture, such as chairs, end tables, a sofa, and a piano, yet one’s reading of the objects remains abstract due to its construction. Instead, one is left only with a vague sense familiarity based on scale and proximities to the human body.McKay suggests the exhibit looks at the relationship between chaos and stagnation, which it certainly does, but for me, it is also about the conversation between destruction and construction as well as this notion of aesthetics and disaster. Though it takes a while to load, you can view a short documentary of the project here. As you watch, you may ask yourself what sort of conversation tragedy and beauty might have with each other.
Across the street from where Cloudline appeared stand two small empty houses that now serve as exhibit spaces, both of which comment on what it means to "reside" in New Orleans post-Katrina.
Visitors walk through the houses to confront dirt floors, ducks hanging from ceilings, overturned appliances, broken fireplaces, and secret spookily lit indoor gardens.
In the case of Cloudline and these houses-cum-canvases, exterior becomes interior, and we are forced to reconsider easy distinctions between "nature" and "civilization," as well as facile notions of what is "artistic" and what is "created."
Such art may not fix the damages caused by floods, but it does reorient us to the process of meaning-making that both floats on the surface and simultaneously lies at the very depth of human lives.