Wednesday, September 3, 2008

To things lost

I really did not expect to be moved by the 350 or so dresser drawers that make up Jana Napoli’s Floodwall: A Katrina Memorial currently on display at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center here in Cincinnati, OH. Though, I was immediately surprised by the grandness in scale of the wall. These drawers of various sizes and styles and clearly tattered are arranged in a grid over 8 feet high and 96 ft long that almost eerily evokes stability. It is this blending of strength in form and the fragility of loss that left me a bit unsettled.

The interactive nature of the show is what excites me most about Napoli’s tribute. The viewer can touch and even carefully open and close the drawers. We find in the drawers expected dirt and debris and in one instance, I found a lone sock. Viewers are also encouraged to leave a note in any of the drawers with a promise from the artist delivery to its former owner effectively personalizing the memorial.

Walking behind the wall, I saw the artist had addressed each drawer. These addresses and the show’s map marking the sites each drawer Napoli collected seem to recall home. But perhaps because I’ve never visited New Orleans, this information does not really touch my sense of place. Not until I watched the accompanying video clips of different parts of the city. These videos are displayed on four separate screens labeled according to the part of city and Katrina’s flood level at that location. They appear to be home movies depicting everyday life, life before the flood. That the videos are black and white and grainy, I think is meant to offer a sense of nostalgia. Though, that may be a bit heavy handed on the artist’s part since the flood did not occur that long ago.

Finally, it was Norma Jackson’s story that put me over the edge. I remember hearing many stories like hers. Stories of those who did not evacuate when warned so were stranded for far too long. While watching her tell her story videotaped for the exhibition, I along with a couple of other visitors shook my head. I was reminded of the embarrassing failure of response to those who needed help. A week after visiting the show, I am still haunted by Ms. Jackson saying, “after 3 days, we ran out of ice.” Three days?!

Forced to exit the show through the main gallery I tried unsuccessfully to avoid the sight of the massive wall of drawers Napoli constructed. I was saddened, embarrassed, and even angered by the unnecessarily great loss of life after Katrina. This large collection of drawers, which the artists suggests represents what we the viewers “hold to be precious and sacred,” pointed out to me instead a wall of things that were rescued. In Napoli’s attempt to humanize the loss through the displaying of everyday objects as treasured items, she dehumanizes us. And I think this is a well-deserved implication of the loss.