VISUAL ARTS REVIEW: No Body Home 

Totems of Tragedy: Donna Hurt captures the comic pathos of New Orleans

No Body Home
Through Feb. 29, 2008
Free
The Art Institute of Charleston
24 N. Market St.
(843) 727-3500
www.artinstitutes.edu/charleston

When I visited New Orleans earlier this year, I was told by friends that I had to see the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: "You can't understand it until you see it," they said.

We toured parishes around Lake Pontchartrain, where the flooding was the worst. We saw houses flattened, blown over, or completely absent from their foundations — they just weren't there anymore. The stuff of civilized life was smashed and scattered. Weeds and vines had begun repossessing man's dominion over the earth, water, and air.

But the more I saw, the less I understood.

My senses were overwhelmed. My feelings numb. The scale of devastation was too big, the magnitude of terror and abandonment too alien. It was the kind of experience that perhaps inspired early humans, as they faced the dangerous, meaningless, and amoral forces of nature, to scratch out the first cave drawings, to render the first bit of bone into an emblem of the world.

Like religion, the dawn of human creativity could have been an effort to understand a destructive and incoherent world. More than religion, though, art could have been an effort to take command. If early man could draw the likeness of a mastodon, he could pay homage to the gods but also be like the gods, taking some small measure of comfort in the bargain.

I don't want to make too much out of this (anyway, art and religion were indistinguishable then), but how humanity has tried to understand and control nature came to mind after seeing a photography show by Donna Hurt last week. Called No Body Home, the exhibit was the first showcase at the Art Institute of Charleston's new gallery space. Hurt joined the school's faculty after fleeing Katrina and New Orleans, where she had lived for many years.

Returning six weeks after the levees broke, Hurt sought out color, warmth, and signs of domestic life that could ease the ache of monotony and decay. Thus, her photographs, each 11 inches by 14 inches, focus on toys, baubles, trinkets, mounted animals, and other symbols of human habitation, that stand in contrast to the catastrophe and carnage around them.

These objects are each photo's centerpiece. "Alligator" depicts a stuffed and mounted alligator, along with stuffed birds and a stuffed wildcat. "Stargazer" has a child's musical toy as its focal point. Captain America, the comic-book hero, is the center of a photo by the same name. Other images have, respectively, toy trucks, a ceramic chicken, a paper raptor, a toy dog.

None of the objects were staged, however. Hurt found them as they were. We'll never know for certain, of course, but one can presume these objects were arranged by former residents, relatives of the dead, sensitive souls needing to pay tribute to the decimated and fallen.

One can't help noticing their resemblance to totems. "Captain America" is like the image of a hero-king offered for sacrifice to demonstrate humility while the other icons — many of them, notably, animals — are like totems left to appease forces beyond human understanding.

Others, like a picture of a toy truck and bulldozer, seem to symbolize man's former grandeur and current diminution. Meanwhile, "Stargazer" calls to mind mankind's desire to eat the fruit of knowledge, to discover his place in the cosmic order, only to experience the pain of knowing the insignificance of that place.

There's also a sharp tension between the chaos of the subject matter and the order provided by the photo's frame. Despite destruction, Hurt discovers beautiful patterns and textures. For instance, in "Galaxy," creeping black mold makes concentric cirlces and elegant designs.

Within the frame, the mold indeed recalls far off solar systems and twinkling stars in the night sky. Knowing what we know of black mold and why it spread mindlessly over a section of a child's bedroom wall diminishes that beauty, but not entirely. Not as long as it's inside the frame. Mediated by human consciousness, even chaos can be beautiful.

One might notice a sense of humor inherent in Hurt's shots. Especially when bathed in outdoor light, there is a coy kind of rebellion, a buoyant impishness. But even as they seem to defy nature, they also affirm it. Like the court jester in King Lear, these tokens mock power only in the security of knowing that the king — or God, if you will — is in charge.

Or is he? It's widely believed Katrina resulted from global warming, something we did, not God. If the objects in Hurt's photos are totems, who are they totems to? Nietzsche said God is dead: He is of our own making. He is not independent from us, he is us. Seeing these small but powerful depictions of post-Katrina New Orleans, it seems we have also become him.

Not very funny if you ask me.


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