Just as Hurricane Katrina affected many threads of life in New Orleans, the city’s artists responded to the disaster in different ways. Several of those artistic responses are included in the exhibition “Tank Drama: Deliberations from the Wet Grave” at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans this summer.
Curated by former CAC Interim Director of Visual Arts Jan Gilbert, “Tank Drama” brings more than a dozen visual and performing artists together in an exhibition that explores a collective vision of post-Katrina New Orleans as well as glimpses into the real and imagined future of the city.
Gilbert found the title for the exhibit in a 1906 dictionary, which describes a “tank drama” as “a sensational or cheap melodrama in which water is employed in the scenic effects, as in representing a rescue from drowning” -— an ironic description for an exhibition that focuses on the extended aftermath of the worst disaster in New Orleans history.
For Gilbert, this also related to the historical concept of New Orleans as “The Wet Grave”: a common 19th century nickname for the Crescent City, when alligators and yellow fever were a constant threat.
The works in “Tank Drama,” however, are not literal representations of death and destruction. Instead, they describe a metaphorical process of losing things, finding them again and reshuffling them to create something greater.
According to Gilbert, the exhibition came about as a result of an artistic collaboration between several New Orleans-based artists and writers, including herself, over a nearly 30-year period. Working together and separately as “the VESTIGES project,” these artists produced a wide variety of works in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina dealing with themes ranging from racism and economic inequities to healing and rebuilding.
Rondell Crier’s “After Disaster” uses more than 1,000 photos taken during the rebuilding of his mother’s home to tell a story of “instability, sorrow, doubt, and courage” in the aftermath of the storm.
Other works in “Tank Drama” use objects salvaged from the wreckage. Lisette de Boisblanc took X-rays of dolls from her grandmother’s collection that were ruined after being submerged for two weeks. The resulting photographs — ghostly images of hollow forms filled with objects such as nails, safety pins and jewelry — helped the artist come to terms with the loss she experienced, and serve as reminders of the process of loss and rediscovery.
Meanwhile, Babette Beaulieu’s “Sacred Trails” uses doors and windows from flood-ravaged homes to create a series of boxes that will be the centerpiece of a performance event at White Linen Night.
Extending the multimedia focus of the exhibition, New Orleans-based performance ensemble Goat in the Road will debut the first in a series of 12 performances and podcasts, “This Sweaty City.”
“I’m enthralled with media like film and performance,” said Gilbert. “And I welcomed the challenge to bring them together with work by visual artists in this exhibition.”