State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Here comes the flood

I can’t seem to get away from flooding. Does anyone else feel this way? In the last few years, a gallery due to exhibit my partners work flooded and his exhibition had to be rescheduled and an exhibition in a local theatre was closed due to flooding that rose up above the audience seating. In Minden, a town close to us with lots of good people and friends flooded and stayed that way for a month this spring. We recently drove through flooded areas of Ontario to teach at a gallery in the north and upon arrival in Toronto last week flooding waters rose up in our host’s basement as well as causing power outages throughout my circle of family and friends. My sister hitchhiked from Lawrence & Yonge to High Park when the waters rose up in the subway; she relied on her excellent ‘been-everywhere-in-India’ travel moxy.

Read her blog on the devastation caused by flooding in India in the very holy area of Uttarakhand. India’s relationship with water is deeply rooted in their faith and myths.

I got to thinking about flooding and how much a mythic role it plays in our culture. Obviously the flood in the Bible is perhaps the most famous flood in Western story telling. There are many theories to explain why the Noah story is so important to us; from scientific evidence seen in coastal cities throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East that show waterlines to be distinct from our modern era to whale bones found in the Sahara desert. Natural disaster, God made catastrophe, animal extinction, biological determination, overreaching righteous fatalism; Noah’s myth has it all. If you did not have to read the Bible as a child then perhaps you may not have the same familiarity with rapture and end of times thinking. But if you did then you are always thinking about it when you watch the news and see things like the Bow River destroy areas of Calgary.

We don’t like to think that nature doesn’t care about us; it doesn’t but we really want to believe that we play a role in its own determinism. Watching your life’s precious things drown in your basement without any recourse to stop it can make the “indifference of nature” (the glorious Hannah Arendt quote about the Holocaust’s concentration camps deep in the beautiful German forests) seem cruel and unfair. Art has played a pivotal role in how we come to terms with enormous disasters like flooding. Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci made wonderful work based on flooding disasters of history. Turner’s ‘Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis’ is one of my all time favourite works of art partially because of its abstract expressionistic composition a century before abstract expressionism but mostly because it seems to blur the line between heaven and earth, life and death. A flood can ruin our lives and definitely make things harder. Raging waters destroy landscapes and homes. The disruption can make the solid rock that we call planet Earth seem a little less friendly and safe. It is no wonder they are a subject artists relish.

Turner's painting of what life is after the deluge...
Turner’s painting of what life is after the deluge…

Contemporary artists are influenced by the ‘deluge’ as well. It may be because Katrina, Sandy and many other storms are now coming in quick succession and we no longer need to even reference the Bible. Have you seen the opening title sequence of the HBO show Treme? A very famous Banksy from a 2009 photo shows a waterline moving up a building with the sentence “I don’t believe in Global Warming” slowly disappearing from the rising tide. More people on Earth now have experienced flooding than any other recorded time in history. There are many reasons for this, a main one being that there are just way more people. What happened in Toronto last week was the worst flooding that city had seen since Hurricane Hazel; a storm my grandmother discussed at great length when I was young. In fact to this day I cross the Humber River and think about the beds and roofs of homes floating down toward Lake Ontario. It is beautifully documented with great poetic nuance in the wonderful book Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. Mopping up a basement storm drain hasn’t inspired any work that I want to make however I am certain some artists must have found themselves knee deep somewhere and will want to explore the experience on a canvas or with a camera.

Flooding is with us now. Where did everyone think the water from disappearing glaciers would go exactly? And let’s not forget that those of us in central and southern Ontario live in a basin. Yep, it is called a basin for a reason. Environmental disasters are not really about nature anyway, they’re about us.

Check out my pal Brigitte Gall’s short description of what it’s like to flee your home.

Pic from Wikipedia.

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