Shifting: Photographs by Michel Varisco
Man is inexorably a part of the wetland world of south Louisiana, affecting the way rivers flow, being affected by tropical storms and sometimes causing cataclysmic ecological disasters all his own.
New Orleans photographer Michel Varisco emphasizes the wedding of man and environment in her fifth-floor Ogden exhibit by printing lush aerial photographs of the threatened Louisiana swampscape on a grid of gauzy fabric sheets suspended curtain-like from the gallery ceiling.
Walking amid the sheer silky layers, visitors are immersed and made a part of Varisco’s images.
“Metaphorically, it speaks to shifting our perspective,” she said of the installation. “You can move in and out of them (the suspended photos). They move with us. Walking through it affects the installation.”
Three major events have affected her artistic outlook, Varisco said. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the BP oil spill in 2010 and the unprecedented cresting of the Mississippi River in 2011 all contributed to the ecological imperative that guides her work. But her awareness of the hygroscopic nature of New Orleans life long precedes those events.
As a child, she said, her late father, who was a civil engineer, often marveled at the Bonnet Carre Spillway, designed to relieve Mississippi River pressure during crests. As Varisco photographed the coursing water in the rarely opened spillway in 2011, she thought of him. He always advised that she live on one of New Orleans natural ridges, presumably because it was always possible for man’s engineering to fail.
One of her goals with the Ogden show was to introduce fresh visual images of the saltwater intrusion. Her mural-scale photograph of the ragged edge of Lake Borgne is entirely natural, except for a tiny detail. Ghostly Fort Proctor, a 19th century outpost that stands near the border of the land and sea was once on solid ground, she said, but is now an island.
“It’s out on a tiny piece of land and everything else has eroded around it,” she said. “It’s sort of out on a limb.”
Varisco said her five-year photographic journey on display at the O has taken her from an idyllic houseboat floating quietly in the Atchafalaya Basin to the rear hatch of a roaring Coast Guard transport plane cruising over the horror of the BP oil spill.
“We’re at a tipping point in terms of our environment,” she said. “We’re looking at what decisions we’ve made and asking where we want to go from here.”
Artists Alexa Kleinbard, Mark Messersmith, Michel Varisco explore Louisiana ecology at the Ogden
Doug MacCash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3481. Read more art news at nola.com/arts. Follow him at twitter.com/DougMacCashTP.