Friday, September 4, 2015

Rhetoric and Water

Ten Years Gone
NOMA, New Orleans

Please note: This exhibition closes in a few days. All articles mentioned were written months ago. The piece quoted last was written years ago. I'm just saying, the only thing current is my reaction. 

Dawn DeDeaux from the series Water Markers at NOMA
Part 1 - Rhetoric
The other day I saw the exhibition "Ten Years Gone" , curated by Russell Lord at The New Orleans Museum of Art. Later that afternoon I read Thomas Beller’s Don’t Call it Katrina on The New Yorker website. The article is a roving  exploration of the semantics related to Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood of New Orleans. Both curator and writer moved to New Orleans from New York City after the storm. As did I. Beller’s essay begins: “The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina looms here in New Orleans, an event for which I had every intention of lowering my head and keeping quiet.” I can relate to the author’s instinct to “keep his head down” and I intend to remain mum on the subject of Katrina (both the storm and man-made disasters that followed) except for how it relates to the exhibition "Ten Years Gone" . Beller explored the rhetoric of Katrina; I want to praise the power of quiet things. 

"Ten Years Gone"  was a quiet show. Even the show’s one video was silent. That quiet felt significant amidst all of the talk surrounding the anniversary of Katrina. Art can side-step rhetoric. That’s what I was thinking while I was making notes about the work in the show, Beller’s essay still reverberating in my head. Then, I came across a preview of "Ten Years Gone" published by Doug MacCash on May 27, 2015 in the Times Picayune. Art can side-step the rhetoric until someone drops a crate of rhetoric on it. Which I guess I am adding to.

MacCash wrote, “Based on my brief preview, the show may be emotionally accurate in abstract terms, but it felt too orderly, dry and off target…Don't expect gritty aerial flood photos, passionate paintings of ruined houses, or splintery sculpture made of storm debris. "Ten Years Gone," is not a recollection of the destruction, violence, politics and confusion of late summer 2005." Beyond description, MacCash does not have much to say about the artwork in "Ten Years Gone"  except to say what it is not (flood photos, paintings of ruined houses, sculpture made of storm debris).

I have a few questions about his reaction. Why was his visit to the exhibition “brief”? What does that mean, the show was “too-orderly?” And dry? I would be interested in hearing these criticisms fleshed out. I wonder about the “target” MacCash refers to but I suspect that subject pulls away from art (which I can speak about) and toward the politics of belonging (which is a quagmire I am trying not to step into) Anyway, the issue was addressed in a piece that Cameron Shaw wrote for the New York Times. She quotes MacCash’s calling the show “off-target.” He publishes a response of sorts titled New York Times art review asks “Who has the right to speak for New Orleans?” which MacCash then answers with a quote parsed from Shaw’s own article.

MacCash writes, “the show may be emotionally accurate in abstract terms, but…” This is closest he comes to a favorable comment on show but I don’t really understand it. What is “emotional accuracy”? Can an art exhibition ever be factually accurate? Historically accurate? What would that look like? And what are those “abstract terms”? I would guess that those abstract terms are the nebulous components that make up art. He uses language of precision again, this time regarding not a target but emotions. I think emotional accuracy, if it exists, sounds like an accomplishment.

But a place cannot have an emotional experience. The people in a place have emotional experiences and they are all different. When we try to unify those, to make them homogenous, we enter the territory of rhetoric. There is a notion one encounters in New Orleans: you must love this city this way. And if you don't you don't quite fit in. The thing is, I have heard those born and raised here and generations legit tell me that this is a recent frustration. People are telling each other how to love New Orleans or for that matter how to grieve for its losses or hope for its future. It’s absurd to believe in emotional homogeneity and therefore emotional accuracy.

I have observed in written and verbal discussion of local art that a given work or show is not New Orleans-y enough or it gets New Orleans all wrong. That "Ten Years Gone"  and other exhibitions marking the anniversary of 2005 will attract this criticism was inevitable.

There is one more thing about Doug MacCash’s review that is pretty unusual. Artists seem to be listed in descending order of their local-ness and to what extent their work literally addresses Katrina. Here is what I mean:

MacCash refers to the first two artists as “New Orleans artist Dawn DeDeaux” and “New Orleans artist Willie Birch.” He writes, “Dawn DeDeaux's "Water Markers," are the most explicit references to the 2005 flood.” Of Birch he writes, "...bronze crawfish tunnel castings and drawings of wildflowers imply the power of a natural disaster to displace species. Crawfish and certain flowers only arrived in his yard after the 2005 flood.” 

Third, Isabelle Hayeur is not from New Orleans but, MacCash notes that she spent time here “during a post-K artist residency” Some, but not all of her photographs were taken in Louisiana. 

Next, MacCash describes Christopher Saucedo as a “One-time New Orleans resident” and goes on to say “Saucedo’s Gentilly home was ruined by the 2005 flood, and he produced several compelling artworks that addressed the levee failures. Yet his ethereal cast-paper collages included in "Ten Years Gone" depict the World Trade Center. “ He doesn’t say it outright but I get the idea that he not interested in exploring a connection. His tone reminds me of that old salsa commercial: This stuff’s made in NEW YORK CITY!

The last two artists, Spring Hurlbut and Nicholas Nixon, are not given any geographical distinction. After descriptions of their work the reviewer concludes “The video has no direct relationship with Katrina or the 2005 flood,” and “Also, no direct relation to Katrina.”

Apparently we are not curious to know where the non-New Orleans artists are from, or where the artists who spent time in New Orleans now live. I can appreciate that MacCash advocates for local artists, at least in this case. But the question is, is it the job of museums to show local work or show work to locals? I vote for the latter. We see the work of local artists in the local galleries. Artists show more frequently here then anywhere I’m familiar with. Most importantly, local artists need to experience artwork from places more distant than Julia Street or Saint Claude Avenue. I also appreciate that Doug MacCash advocates for locally relevant content, especially in this case, but I wonder what conscientiously chosen content is not relevant to local viewers, many of whom are tired of or even bothered by “passionate paintings of ruined houses.”

MacCash had a problem with the show because it wasn’t about New Orleans. I had a problem with his art review because it wasn’t about art.

MacCash was evidently not pleased by the gap between the realities of 2005 and the work in the exhibition "Ten Years Gone". I am sure some viewers responded similarly. In a way, these anniversary exhibitions are a set-up. Charged with the task of commemoration, an art curator (one who moved here since the storm, no less) must contend with what is not a collective experience but hundreds of experiences and do so with museum-quality art. What some people are looking for in these anniversary exhibitions might better be found in a history museum. If art possesses the ability to wash the rhetoric, the art curator must take a courageous step away from illustration, which will merely reinforce it.

Part 2 - Water
Now here are some of my own thoughts about the artwork.

I liked the choice to show the photographs of Isabelle Hayeur in the atrium space. I liked the unifying element of the waterline. This body of photographs introduced the language of water levels, cities, and the almost invisible world beneath the surface of our waterways. These photographs remind us that our human activities affect the water. This work was good looking, and with its good looks it ushered the conversation of the environment into the room.

Willie Birch’s work is the most textured and tactile-looking work in the show. According to the show notes and wall text his sculptures of crawfish holes are said to be “symbols of displacement” while the drawings of wild flowers “represent resilience.” Without the accompanying text I would not have associated them directly with Katrina. Already familiar with Birch’s large, muscular drawings of houses and streets (one of which was present), I liked seeing these intimate observations of nature.

Intrinsic to the language of photography is the language of time. The photographs of Nicholas Nixon take one moment and pull it through a span of forty years and there we see relative youth become relative age. The experience reminds us that our own faces, our own sisters are also moving through time. Now, the question must be asked: What are these doing in this show? If some viewers were frustrated by the inclusion of this artists work I was interested in it. I liked asking myself how they fit in.  I think they are about the passage of time, forty years to be specific. We are reminded that while ten years have passed since 2005; thirty years will also pass. And in a show full of buildings, water, and earth; these photographs lend us humans, they lend us family. expand the scope of the show without diluting it.

Before the Twin Towers were no longer there I worked on Warren Street in Lower Manhattan and would often use WTC subway stop. Atypical to many New York transplants I didn’t make an effort to become the person a tourist could ask for directions. Until they were no longer there I would look for the towers when I surfaced at an unfamiliar subway stop so I would know which way was south and be oriented. Christopher Saucedo’s works on paper made a cloud-weight lightness an unbearably heavy thing: a building, a terror attack, all those deaths including the death of a brother. That tension rested in the work. For me the perspective of these images recalled the physical act of looking up at the towers. I may not be the best person to say how these works hold up for those without a physical memory of them, but in the context of this show they seem to suggest that as humans we share our tragedies in spite of the eggshell territory we walk on to make comparisons. (Again, see Beller’s essay.)

Of the work in the show I was the least responsive to Spring Hurlbut’s video titled Airborn. I made the mistake of looking at the wall text before watching the video and this I think tainted my experience. The smoke drifting upward on a black background resembled chemical vapor more than something from a funeral pyre, which is, I read, what it was. The presence of the artist in the video ought to have humanized the piece but the figure’s face was covered and her movements were not naturalistic. The work was viewed on a flat screen at ordinary viewing height so scale or placement did not become part of the experience. This was also the only artist in the show who was represented by a single piece.

The first work I ever saw by Dawn DeDeaux was from her StePs HomME series, which was made in response to the events of 2005. These were public sculptures in the shape of steps that resembled stoops bereft of the house they once lead to. With minimal language these sculptures spoke of loss and even hope (they were lighted). They offered solidarity with those gone both from the city and from the earth. The series represented in Ten Years Gone titled Water Markers was equally minimal, and also used the physical and local vocabulary of the Flood. Tall, slender slabs of polished acrylic contained the translucent image of water and, near its top the water’s surface. Stains made by high floodwater could still be seen around New Orleans when I arrived in 2008,. Most been painted over or razed. These objects remember them. They are to scale and as you stand beside them the experience is physical. There is a terror in these beautiful objects. Like the steps, I don’t know how these works will translate outside of New Orleans or with the distance of time but this immediacy is part of what I like about them.

One Water Markers sculpture was situated among the landscape paintings specifically between two seascapes. This may have been my favorite moment of the show. I imagined all of those old paintings under water. 

I like the breadth of the show and that the artists (with the exception of Spring Hurlbut) were represented by more than a single work. The show managed to be conceptual without being opaque. If you looked with patience and asked questions of the work and of the show itself, concepts emerged, concepts of mortality, time, and the elements intermingling as they do here in New Orleans and everywhere else for the span of the human lifetime and subsequent lifetimes. Through a minimal palette and rhythm (the majority of work occurred in like-sized works, displayed in regular or semi-regular intervals) a tone was established. That tone was a little mournful and a little hopeful. Not a bad tone for a ten-year anniversary show.

In his essay Beller relates a conversation with NPR’s Eve Troeh who he quotes as saying “In the media, after Katrina, there was a lot of sympathy, not a lot of empathy.” They compared the reactions to 9/11 and Katrina. I don’t objectively recall the reactions in the media to 9/11 the way a news professional would but I remember my students in a rural college in Upstate New York. The majority of these students had never been to New York City. They had little understanding of the magnitude, of the physical scale of that event. I would say they also  has less empathy than my students at a nearby University, many of whom lived in or outside of New York. My point is that empathy is encouraged by parallel physical experiences.

When you stand next to DeDeaux’s Water Markers you feel the height of the water compared to your body and are physically moved to empathize with those who saw the water rise in New Orleans. When you look at Saucedo’s floating tower-clouds, you feel a weight, the weight of your body, the weight of all the ugly, human-perpetrated disasters that haunt the timeline of history, not just in 2001 or 2005. Crimes of inaction occurred in 2005 and are also occurring right now. We must remain moveable. If art can help move us to greater empathy, if we can not just read or listen to events but feel them, art is worth the space it takes up. A painting of a ruined house would have done noting to move me and I don’t think it would have honored the victims of Katrina as meaningfully the work in the show did.

One final thought: "Ten Years Gone" is a Led Zeppelin song. The Song engaged in repeat-play in my head every time I read or wrote its title. Was this intentional? I mean the lyrics don't not fit, but I felt as they were running through my head that this was the wrong direction...I cannot expect that everyone listened to Physical Graffiti as much as I did in high school but there you go; in my world that phrase has been retired. Zeppelin aside, the title alludes to the events of 2005 but does not name them. The show was more open than its title, which scarcely contained it. A title even less specific to Katrina may not have fit either and would have required another act of courage judging from the MacCash review. Then again, does Doug MacCash represent a majority of people New Orleans? I came across the term K-10 when a friend (born and raised local) told me she hated it. Rhetoric, like water, must move to stay potable.

Which reminds me. I just read David Forster Wallace’s commencement speech This Is Water for the first time. He opens with a story: "There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?" He goes on to say, "The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about." The speech concludes, “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.” 

Art helps us stay conscious. It not only refreshes the rhetoric, it washes our eyes when they have become gritty with cliché or politicized images. This is why art necessarily cannot do what you expect of it, why it cannot become mere illustration.

If you haven’t read that commencement speech you should. This is Water. It could have worked as an exhibition title too.

Christopher Saucedo  Installation View  New Orleans Museum of Art


  1. Time to stop reading your blog. This was a pretty obvious rehashing of Cameron Shaw's piece for the NYT (she's also the ED at Pelican Bomb, who you seem to love to love to hate or whatever). I'd like to give you the benefit of the doubt, but that seems wildly generous.