It’s 2015, a hard-edged year, and in the quiet upstairs gallery of an art museum, a water marker sculpture leans against the wall, translucent yet with a thickness and angle that gives it a sense of imposing weight. It doesn’t threaten the other artworks in the room, but it doesn’t let you forget its presence either. It is there.
There are others like it throughout the museum right now, part of a temporary exhibit: clear acrylic planks with photographs of water printed onto them, giving them the illusion of a scientific sample brought in from the field like arctic ice cores. An unclassified body of water trapped inside a clear casing for study or measurement. They vary in height, each one supposedly a reference point to an actual crestline of Katrina floodwaters somewhere in the city.
In a room full of art from other centuries in a city that will no longer exist in the next one, the water marker both belongs and doesn’t belong.
I remember the first time I visited the New Orleans Museum of Art after moving back to the city in 2007. After the more basic duties of moving were taken care of, I felt the need to see many of my favorite places, including NOMA. The process of readjusting to the city would be incomplete until I did. That day, I exited the main gallery on the first floor and instantly became aware of an enormous photograph attached to the wall of the throughway. In it, a law enforcement officer squints through the scope of a long rifle pointed straight towards the camera.
As I remember it, the photograph’s perspective was very close to the gun and the officer’s focused stare. It was at least six feet tall. I had to back up a little to see it in total, and that’s when I realized that the little fortified post captured in the shot was the same front desk in the great entrance hall of the museum I’d checked in at earlier. I want to say the identification marker next to the giant photo told me of the security forces who had been drawn to the museum in the days after the flood, protecting the thousands of pieces of art and the handful of staff who had ridden out the storm in its walls...but I’m not sure if that’s true. Those people did do those things, I just can’t remember if that little bit of text—the verifying physical footnote of the museum world—said anything about them.
Regardless of the title of the image, who shot it, or how a NOMA curator captioned it in a small, reputable serif font, I’ve never forgotten the experience of seeing that image, unlike whatever the featured exhibition at the time was. It was an artwork, in a museum, referencing a very recent event and an ongoing struggle to protect and reestablish the museum and its purpose. But it was also already, just eighteen months after the storm, beginning to look back and acknowledge the separation of time.
Now, here in 2015, we are a long way from those early days where debris and the sounds of construction surrounded us and affected the way we thought about ourselves, from when all art coming out of the city seemed primed to communicate anger and pain and immediacy. The spirit of reclamation ran wild then, and there was no broad critique lowering a lid to contain it all. But as the years have accumulated, the tendency to compare and contrast has displaced most other modes of analysis when it comes to work of any kind that addresses the storm, and for some reason we look to respected institutions to provide us with comprehensive displays, something more evolved than the “then and now” birdseye view images you can slide a cursor across, draining or re-flooding a fixed point.
We demand that all attempts to ascertain the state made by these institutions—whether museums, anthologies, major magazines, television specials, multimedia projects, or public ceremonies—be not just valid, but meaningful, even transportable: capable of being shown to outsiders for their education. We hope that reflections on this anniversary will be like anchors, catching on something deep and hidden that will finally slow the drift towards incomprehensible complexity.
But each year we progress further into an unsatisfactory recovery. So when outsiders’ commemorations fail us—or, worse, entomb an incorrect, false belief about ourselves that the wider world can access and consume endlessly—we feel irritable and misrepresented, like unconsulted experts in our pain, confusion, and anger.