As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, expect to see media outlets and cultural institutions trotting out images of the storm and its aftermath that are likely all-too-indelibly seared on your memory already: houses, neighborhoods and lives destroyed by the floodwaters, National Guard markings inscribed like hieroglyphs on every building still standing.
But the New Orleans Museum of Art is marking the occasion with a show that barely references Katrina directly at all — and is all the more engaging and powerful as a result.
Curated by NOMA Curator of Photographs, Prints, and Drawings Russell Lord, “Ten Years Gone” takes a quieter and much more oblique approach.
Work by six contemporary artists exploring what Lord identifies as the four themes of the show — the passage of time, memory, loss and transformation — is used in consistently surprising ways both to reflect on the circumstances of how those concepts played out in post-Katrina New Orleans over the last decade, and to remind us how they transcend the particulars of time and place.
“The 10 years since the storm has brought a rich history of responses,” said Lord. “And those responses are already a part of our history. So this show was conceived in many ways as a response to those responses.”
Three of the artists in “Ten Years Gone” are based in New Orleans. Dawn Dedeaux’s magisterial “Water Markers,” quietly imposing monoliths of glass superimposed with varying levels of displaced water, are displayed in the museum’s Great Hall and semi-randomly as “interventions” throughout the museum in juxtaposition to works which also use water as a visual motif.
In the main body of the show, Willie Birch’s richly textured and enigmatic drawings of overgrown vegetation and sculptures, based on transient natural formations created by migrating crawfish, delicately underline some of the more subtle ways the natural order — and by extension, the human-made one as well — was upended by the storm.
And Christopher Saucedo uses the events of Sept. 11, 2001, (during which his brother, a New York City firefighter, lost his life) as a point of departure for his suite of deeply affecting images of the World Trade Center buildings floating serenely like geometric clouds in a cerulean blue expanse of sky.
It’s a reminder of the gloriously saturated backdrop against which the horrible events of the day unfolded, similar to the way Katrina created occasional moments of surreal, disruptive beauty amid a shattered landscape.
The other three artists in “Ten Years Gone” approach the show’s themes more indirectly.
A starkly moving video piece by Spring Hurlbut appears to show little more than wisps of smoke unfurling in slow motion and high contrast against a dark background — until you realize that those wisps are actually composed of the remains of the artist’s friends and loved ones, each one endowed with its own distinctive personality by the viewer’s imagination.
Large photographs by Isabelle Hayeur line the perimeter of the museum’s Great Hall. Taken with a specially outfitted medium format camera and composed of dozens of individual exposures, each image depicts a bifurcated view of location divided by a water line into dry land and a submerged landscape. The images serve as visual metaphors, describing how New Orleans has always defined itself via its relationship to the water that surrounds and supports it, and how Katrina threw that delicate equilibrium into destructive imbalance.
But it’s a suite of photographs documenting 40 years in the lives of the photographer Nicholas Nixon’s wife Bebe and her sisters that may have the most emotionally resonant impact of all the works in the show.
At first look, Nixon’s plainspoken but eloquent photographs don’t appear to speak directly about any kind of Katrina narrative. Yet, in the context of “Ten Years Gone” the project asks the viewer to consider the relative nature of time — as Lord points out, there are four “post-Katrina” equivalent time periods represented here — as well as the nature of resilience itself: no matter what else has happened over the past four decades (and despite Nixon’s own observation that “Everyone won’t be here forever”), the Brown sisters are indeed still here, and together.
Of the many messages to take away from this brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed show, that may be the one most worth keeping in mind.
John d’Addario writes about art. He can be reached at email@example.com.