Trouble the Water at Legion Arts
It is happening again: five years after the Cedar River inundated downtown Cedar Rapids, this small Midwestern city is bracing for another deluge. After the Great Flood of 2008 the city rebuilt an historic neighborhood on the floodplain that is home to Legion Arts, a non-profit arts space. Legion Arts invited Diane Barber to curate the current show entitled “Trouble the Water,” a timely international exhibition of artwork in a variety of media by sixteen different artists. The most compelling pieces expose how deeply held the fear of flooding is across cultures and connect that anxiety to global climate change
While much of the work in “Trouble the Water” is colorful and playful, these cheerful and vibrant qualities cannot quell an undercurrent of unease. Yuko Nakajima’s brightly patterned parasols are made of flags salvaged from Japanese fishing boats after the devastating 2011 tsunami. The swirling sculptural forms in She’s Coming On Strong (2011) by Nathalie Miebach are made of bold-colored wood and paper, but are actually inspired by weather data collected during “The Perfect Storm” that hit New England in 1991. Other artists in the exhibition, like Lori Nix and Demiak (Maarten Demmink), make clear the devastating power of water. Demiak’s small, washed out landscape paintings interspersed between miniature, dilapidated wooden houses are based on found photographs of flood damage. The sharp contrast between Miebach’s brightly colored sculptures and Demiak’s faded images reflect both the beauty of water and its destructive power; two extremes that recur throughout the show. Exploring the beautiful and the horrific, the exhibition undoubtedly raises the question, what is the purpose of making aesthetically pleasing artwork in response to environmental disasters?
There is a wide range of answers in such a diverse group of artists, but most of the work included in “Trouble the Water” is rooted in documentary photography and exposes the impact of global climate change on water levels. For instance, the black and white photographs in Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe’s Third View, Second Sight are based on found photographs taken in the nineteenth century of the American West. In the 1970s and 1990s, Klett and Wolfe rephotographed the exact same locations in order to document changes in the landscape and dramatic drops in water levels. Sant Khalsa takes a similar documentary approach in Western Waters; a series of sixty black and white photographs of water stores scattered across the American West. Khalsa is both an artist and activist and has been recording changes in the western landscape since 1975. In combination with the artists mentioned above, the large-scale photographs of Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, co-founders of the Canary Project, visually and conceptually anchor the exhibition. Sayler and Morris’ works reveal the underlying historical narrative that girds and strengthens the larger thematic elements of the show.
Sayler and Morris’ large-scale photographs clearly document the effects of global climate change on water levels throughout the world. From Peru to the Netherlands, images like Glacial, Icecap, Permafrost Melting: Cordillera Blanca, Peru (2008) show an ever greener mountainside with only a thin band of ice at the top as water cascades down the hillside. Extreme Weather Events I: Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana (2005) depicts the rotting carcass of a horse tangled in a tree after Hurricane Katrina. This is the most graphic image in the exhibition of a flood’s aftermath and as the accompanying text reminds viewers, the effects of Hurricane Katrina were intensified by global warming which is raising water temperatures in the Gulf. Such images convey a blunt message: the world is rapidly warming and now is the time to address the problem.
While Sayler and Morris’ photographs investigate the present crisis, their piece Exit Strategy (2010), is a poetic rumination on the deep cultural roots of the fear of floods. Exit Strategy is composed of a video and a thin wooden ark suspended between two stacks of newspapers. In the short video Exit Strategy Experts, a dozen Columbus State University professors tell the story of Noah’s ark from memory. The details of the story grow murky with each consecutive narration, but the moral of the story remains clear: the flood is an act of God meant to save the righteous and punish the wicked who brought this upon themselves. One way to understand the message of this piece in the context of the whole exhibition is that changes in water levels worldwide due to global warming are an environmental crisis we have created and how this story ends is up to us. The reference to Noah’s Ark, along with the title of the exhibition that is also from the Old Testament, reveal that floods are an enduring source of human anxiety, so what will be our “exit strategy” from the spiraling crisis of global warming and the rising waters that come with it?
Images courtesy of Legion Arts.