The Water Markers
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.
In the Grand Hall of NOMA, at the broad landing of the marble staircase, one of these wide water markers has displaced the bronze figure usually housed in the focal point of the large, balconied lobby. That sculpture, Rodin’s The Age of Bronze, has doppelgangers around the world, a result of Rodin casting several statues from the same mold. They, too, scattered to new homes over the decades.
To me, the figure is a life-sized expression of both weariness and defiance, a physical expression of being on the edge of acceptance with one’s situation. I’ve stood close to it several times on my way upstairs, and I notice the statue when I see photos of parties posed on the grand staircase. Hundreds of couples have said their vows right in front of the statue; the museum is a popular setting for weddings. I also notice when it is replaced by an object that typifies a large exhibition, but it wasn’t until I saw the brick of water standing in the statue’s stead that I ever thought of it as missing.
I read up on the statue later, and found another example of shifting meanings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York explains the statue’s original reception:
Critics of the period were also dismayed by the subject, for Rodin not only abandoned all of the elaborate repertory of symbols with which academic sculptors habitually equipped their works, but also had stripped the figure of the spear originally carried in his left hand, relying on the expressiveness of the figure itself to convey its meaning. In addition, he changed the title from The Vanquished (Le Vaincu), possibly an allusion to the suffering and demoralization of his countrymen during the Franco-Prussian War, to the classical, but more ambiguous, The Age of Bronze (L'Âge d'Airain). Later the work acquired still other new titles. The Metropolitan Museum has retained the title by which the bronze was known at the time of its purchase from Rodin.
These calls for symbols, correct representation, and accurate names are familiar to me. Art, spectacle, and the portrayal of trauma elevated to transcendence have their place, but right now they offer very little to exchange with those who have lived through ten years of aggregated dissatisfaction, told again and again that the homes and neighborhoods they lost don’t fit into the new reality of the city. For them, the best thing is accuracy and clear language. We want titles without allusion to other artists or ages. Spare us the warmest, most comfortable type of insult: collective inclusion with all other kinds of sufferers.
We want to be taken on our own terms, and those who muddle the paint and dilute the clay are traitors. Any storyteller from outside who comes to find enough evidence to confirm a pre-written story is the worst kind of tourist to tolerate: a karaoke dipshit, mangling someone else’s song.
I pondered the water markers in person and afterward. I tried to think about a story that I might tell that would set me apart, or maybe dust clean an undisclosed corner of the decade. I don’t have that kind of talent or willpower, honestly. And even if I did, would I be willing to revisit that story next year, the year all the world won’t be looking?
No, next year is the year the more disconnected people will begin to say, “I think we’ve covered all that ground before,” and the attention will recede, leaving behind the residue of this hard-edged year.
The thing about it is, so little of this has runs parallel to time. The recovery and rebuilding have never marched in a straightforward progression away from the moment the floodwaters reached their horrible stasis. Many wounds have healed, but not because there hasn’t been enough time. Because many wounds will never heal, even metaphorically. Each new hurricane season renews the intensity of our wariness about the possibilities of facing it all again.
Even if some of us have gotten to “a better place” or made our peace, there are daily stressors, opportunities to regress, and new types of ignorance to be opposed. There is always another skirmish coming in the never-ending battle to be treated with authenticity by outsiders and those who have the power to shape our lives.
What we want is the freedom to create our own water marker, and decide for ourselves how high and thick and imposing it should be. And if we find our memories encased in something heavier than we can carry, then we need others do more than just marvel at its weight.