N.O. billboard artwork shows polluted waters

From beneath the murky waters of the bayous, canals and the Mississippi River, French-Canadian artist Isabelle Hayeur spent the past month in the New Orleans area capturing images from a uniquely submerged perspective.

Hayeur’s artwork is displayed on four billboards across the city, part of her ongoing “Underworlds” project she began about five years ago that has taken her across the continent, particularly probing into polluted underwater environments.

“Leaving the crystal-clear waters to vacationers, I usually prefer to capture turbid waters … of dubious, uncertain origin,” Hayeur wrote in an email interview. “Underwater worlds are usually fascinating and spellbinding — seductive images of tropical seas come to mind. What I seek to show is something altogether different.”

Using a watertight tank for her camera, Hayeur waded into the waters of Bayou La Loutre, Bayou Terrebonne, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and the Mississippi River.

For most of her work, she says, she doesn’t dive in herself as the waters are too polluted, but rather wades in with rubber boots and presents images from a partially submerged shoulder-height viewpoint.

She described this angle as creating a “relation of closeness between the onlooker and the site being documented.”

Hayeur called her six-week residency at the Studio in the Woods, her first visit to the region, a perfect fit. The studio’s “Ebb & Flow” program aims to foster a dialogue between art and water, according to a news release, “based on the premise that Southern Louisiana can be seen as a microcosm of the global environment, manifesting both the challenges and possibilities inherent in human interaction with urban and natural ecosystems.”

Hayeur said the larger project stemmed from her own experience living next to a river that has become increasingly polluted and watching the ecosystem change over two decades.

Of the places she shot, Hayeur described Bayou Terrebonne as “probably the most terrible water I have ever seen,” while also observing sewage and car wash wastewater running directly into it.

“When nothing can be seen, then this is what my photos reflect on: no life, nothing left to see,” Hayeur wrote.

Hayeur seeks out landscapes that have been significantly altered, describing some as “deserts … dying landscapes where the shortage of dissolved oxygen is making life precarious.”

During her time in Louisiana, Hayeur, a native of Montreal, said she was particularly excited to meet people of Cajun heritage and speak with them in French.

Overall, she described her impression of the region’s relationship with water as “vital but also morbid. … Everything seems extreme here.”

As the human lifestyle affects the environment more and more, Hayeur stressed that it becomes increasingly important to assume responsibility.

“The declining state of bodies of water certainly counts among the most worrisome environmental issues,” Hayeur wrote. “I wished to create a body of work that would bear witness to these man-made upheavals.”

Hayeur’s work can be seen on billboards at 500 North Jefferson Davis Parkway, 500 South Rampart St., 4018 St. Claude Ave. and 2000 South Claiborne Ave.

The exhibition will be on display until April 28.