The Raft of the Medusa and the Potential of Prospect.1

Benjamin Zeitlin’s Glory at Sea is a short film that tells the story of a rescue effort to save the drowned victims of Hurricane Katrina (featured in Wholphin 7).  To execute this mission, a cast of nameless characters create a boat from a pile of their remaining possessions: a bathtub, a rust-colored car without wheels, an empty birdcage.  As the makeshift boat ships out on the water, its triangular silhouette (and ultimate demise) almost instantly evokes Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. Elements such as contemporary history, criticism of governmental leadership, and drowning tragedies are embedded in the subjects of both works (Wikipedia summarizes the story of The Raft here); this parallel first seen in Kara Walker’s New Yorker cover on August 27, 2007 still resonates in Zeitlin’s short as the boat begins falling apart, returning everything aboard to those lost in the storm.

Benjamin Zeitlin. Glory at Sea. 2008, 25 min.

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Theodore Gericault. The Raft of the Medusa.  Salon of 1819.  Oil on Canvas.  4.91 m x 7.16 m. Image from the Louvre.

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Kara Walker. Post Katrina, AdriftThe New Yorker 27 Aug 07.  Image from Art21 Blog

The Raft of the Medusa is “an icon of Romanticism”, in the words of the Louvre.  At the time of its creation, it provoked questions concerning the definition of art (furthering the conversation on the role of beauty/the sublime) and made bold political statements on the French government’s response to crisis and tragedy (or lack thereof).  Responding to an historical event almost immediately (the Medusa set sail for Senegal in 1816, and the painting debuted at the Salon in 1819), Gericault’s painting was created in a raw, charged environment that provided a meaningful catalyst for this ultimately monumental work.

Approximately 140 people died due to the absence of lifeboats when the Medusa sank.  The scale of Hurricane Katrina’s tragedy was clearly much greater.  While not all of the artists in Dan Cameron’s Prospect.1 biennial currently exhibiting across New Orleans respond to this event in our contemporary history directly, I have hope for this biennial because of its similarly raw environment.  Although the “biennial” itself may be considered a tired format, to the point that this year’s SITE Santa Fe attempted to be the anti-biennial, the idea of Prospect.1 strikes me as different from a biennial in the US taking place in any other city.

Although its city-wide, “museum without walls” approach is not entirely unique, Prospect.1′s potential resides partially in the relationship it maintains with New Orleans.  I have never been to Louisiana, and while I was planning my trip to Prospect.1 during its closing weekend in January, I noticed the map of the art sites on the Prospect.1 website varies significantly from the map in Lonely Planet: New Orleans City Guide; Lonely Planet includes no reference to the Lower 9th Ward and Holy Cross as part of the city, except in narrative sections summarizing Hurricane Katrina.  I wasn’t expecting a shopping guide to these neighborhoods, but I was surprised to see them completely absent from the maps when some of the dirtiest, non-tourist sections of European cities have been included in other guides I have used (even if only to acknowledge the neighborhood and include a brief explanation of why it is a good idea to avoid the area as a tourist).

In contrast, Prospect.1 includes installations city-wide, including the Lower 9th Ward and Holy Cross, two of the most emotionally-charged places in the United States and among the most in need of the rest of the country’s attention.  This structure encourages exploration among the artists in the exhibition and the biennial visitors from outside of New Orleans so that something unseen by most may be seen, both physically and through works of art.  While I have yet to see the final results, I am excited most about possibility that this biennial may be truly American, in its relevancy to contemporary American history, with the immediacy and urgency of masterpieces of the past.

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