Like death, disaster leaves us speechless. Afterward, there are only questions: Why? Who's responsible? What now?
As the Gulf Coast approaches the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, such questions persist, and upcoming exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Lawndale Art Center struggle to provide an answer.
It may be that nothing's more useless in the midst of storm than art, but little helps more than the perceptions of artists as we sort through the wreckage. Celebrated photographer Richard Misrach may not have suffered through Katrina, but he made his way to New Orleans in the months after the storm with a simple pocket camera and a keen eye.
The fruits of his labor opened this weekend and are on display through Oct. 31 in Richard Misrach: After Katrina. The show features a collection of 69 images Misrach gifted to the MFAH as well as the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery, San Francisco's MoMA, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Misrach is no stranger to MFAH, which featured his mid-career retrospective, Desert Cantos, in 1996.
Misrach's images are uncannily full and eerily empty as they reflect on forms of death and survival that occur outside the frame. There are no images of living creatures. It is as if all that's left are buildings and cars that range from almost pristine to almost obliterated. And while the objects in his photos at first appear in the rhetoric of documentary, there's something intelligently discomfiting about the perfect and plain composition of a red door, a yellow house, or deep brown broken branches. But ultimately it's not things that interest him. Misrach follows the words.
The series of images in After Katrina gathers together an archive of what we might call disaster graffiti. These are the messages of hope, rage, desperation, and dark humor. If you could speak to a storm, what would you say? To whom would you call? Job cries out to the storm in his pain, but there's no satisfying answer. Christ calms vicious weather with just a word on the Sea of Galilee, but for the rest of us words fail us.
What did the survivors of Katrina had to say? Some signaled their persistence in red paint: "We have animals. Not leaving." For others, persistence was militancy in the anticipation of looting: "I am here. I have a gun." Or, more elaborately, "Don't try. I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shot guns, and a claw hammer." What is there to do in disaster but collect things and gather them around yourself in the hope of safety?
Have a sense of humor, perhaps. One image features an abandoned store with a red arrow pointing down to the ground and the words "Wicked Witch" where there appears to be something sticking out from the foundation. In another, a piece of particle board inexplicably nailed to a tree features the words "Elvis has left the house." Is this a joke or an elegy? Some graffiti memorialize the dead, while other messages are meant for the living, featuring names and phone numbers of survivors. Some of the oddest referred to the efforts of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to track dead or trapped animals: "9/30 SPCA 2 DOA K-9" or "12 Pets Left to Die in Crates."
The SPCA seemed to be the only trace of official intervention — except for the rage-inducing presence of insurance companies. A wrecked white panel van in one picture bears its branded "State Farm" while another message cries out on the yellow brick of green-shuttered house "I died waiting for an Ajuster [sic]."
But much of the rage is simpler. Misrach features three photos that gradually close in on a sad white trailer painted with the words "F@ck you." Elsewhere, another crumbling house sports the slogan "Katrina is a bitch."
For me the biggest question posed by these images was how much of the decay resulted from the hurricane and how much preceded it. In one photo, a Times Picayune newspaper box seems as ready to tumble over as the telephone pole above. The crumbing corner of the blue brick structure behind them might be damaged by storm or by prior neglect. Even many of the houses, undamaged but surrounded by debris, seemed to suffer from the ravages of time, not storm.
Later this month you can also see how the Lawndale Art Center presents a photographic approach to the New Orleans disaster five years later. From Aug. 20-25, you can see Kadir van Lohuizen and Stanley Greene’s mobile exhibition Those Who Fell Through the Cracks.
The traveling show features mural photographs mounted on and in a 24-foot truck that will be touring from Houston to New Orleans to share their powerful documentation of Gulf Coast residents struggling to rebuild in the toughest of circumstances. Those Who Fell Through the Cracks opens at the Lawndale Art Center on Aug. 20 at 6:30 p.m. with a reception, and MFAH will host a symposium with van Lohuizen and Greene on Aug. 21 at 2 p.m.
It's hard to know what to think about these images of disaster. How did it come to be that a large crucifix would be propped against a green dumpster on which was painted "We will rebuild" and "Keep the Faith"? Who knows.
The facts about Katrina won't tell us how to feel, but these photos will ask us to keep thinking about how to survive, how to rebuild, and even how to keep the faith.