On the corner of Fletcher and South Thayer St. lies 202 South Thayer — a quaint building often overshadowed by the Modern Language Building and North Quad, with whom it shares the intersection. Inside is the Institute for the Humanities (among other offices) and the art gallery situated immediately to the left when one enters through the doors.
This semester alone, the Institute for the Humanities has backed two powerful exhibitions tackling contemporary social and political issues. In Sept. and Oct., the gallery hosted Esmaa Mohamoud’s “The Draft” — a series of staged photographs that comment on Black representation in public spaces. The Institute was also the driving force behind “Luzinterruptus: Literature and Traffic,” the one night instillation of 10,000 books on Liberty Street. Now, the Institute is hosting Gideon Mendel’s “Deluge,” a video installation contained within his “Drowning World” project — a photograph and video based work that confronts the consequences of climate change through floods.
Mendel got his start as a photographer in his home country of South Africa in the 1980s. Mendel was known as a “struggle photographer,” a term for a small group of South African photographers documenting the drastic changes and hardships the country was undergoing during the final years of apartheid. This dedication to chronicling adversity and sociopolitical issues can be seen throughout the rest of his career. Mendel has produced photo series on the HIV crisis, disabled children in Africa and the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, France. For the past 10 years, Mendel’s primary focus has been on his “Drowning World” project.
“Deluge” is a tactfully edited five-screen installation. When one sits in front of the screens and watches the 12 minute artwork from front to back, the extreme attention to detail is immediately recognizable.
“(‘Deluge’) puts together all the narrative concepts of the Drowning World Project,” Mendel said in an interview with The Daily. Indeed, within “Deluge” there are aspects of all three photo series in “Drowning World”: “Submerged Portraits,” “Floodlines” and “Watermarks.”
The video begins with all five screens displaying a “Floodline” against various buildings at equal height. We then are moved through the flooded cities and landscapes. People slowly start to appear in the frames, and we begin to comprehend the toll the water has taken on the communities. On each screen, several beautifully composed “Submerged Portraits” are shown one after another. A full day pases before we start to migrate into people’s homes with them.
In this moment, Mandel positions his camera in such a way that the viewer feels that they are physically entering the house with the homeowner for the first time since the flood. The work ends with a collage of “Watermark” pictures with the sound of water rushing in the background. Mandel describes “Deluge” as “a journey,” and I certainly agree. The journey grants a holistic view of the flood’s impact.
Adjacent to the gallery space is a multipurpose room, which Gideon described as: “is in conversation with the other room,” where some of his work is also on display. It is a space he has “been given the opportunity to do whatever he wants with.”
With this freedom, he has chosen to include images from the three photo series of the project, as well as display a looping video titled: “67 film clips of South Carolina.” The South Carolina footage serves as a window into Gideon’s process. We can hear him giving instruction to subjects, commenting on the nature of his shots and moving through the spaces.
The first thing I noticed about the “Submerged Portraits” displayed in the multipurpose room was the monotony of each subject’s gaze into the camera. Gideon describes it as, “a moment of connection” with the subject. It would be easy for each person’s face to illustrate pain or hope, but the poker-faced expression of every flood victim causes a conversation to take place between them and the viewer. What are they feeling? Where do they go from here?
All of these people throughout the world are experiencing the ramifications of global warming in tandem. They live thousands of miles apart and their suffering is separated by years, but they are all linked through the water’s seizure of their homes.
“(Gideon’s work) forces us to ask ourselves difficult questions,” gallery curator Amanda Krugliak said in an interview with The Daily.
A primary reason I find Gideon’s work alluring is the aesthetic quality that damage adds to the pictures and videos. On the back wall of the multipurpose room is a group of framed “Watermark” pictures. The “Watermarks” are old family photos that have been damaged by the flooding water. Although what originally took up the frame is mostly destroyed, the water has added color and texture to the photographs that otherwise would be absent. The distortion of the pictures lures the viewer in and raises the questions: What is our position as an audience if we’re enjoying Gideon capturing the plight of these people, and does the audience become morally corrupt?
Perhaps what Gideon provides is, as Krugliak put it, “a face” for the drowning world. Flooding in Europe and the United States alone has rapidly increased over the past 10 years due to climate change, and the curve is exponential. By 2040, it’s estimated that the total flood days in one year for 30 U.S. coastal cities will multiply by 18-fold.
It’s easy for us to dismiss flooding as a result of climate change, especially when, here in Michigan, we aren’t directly subjected to its effects. Part of the reason Krugliak chose to exhibit Gideon’s work was to “show us something that would connect us to what’s going on beyond here.” The aesthetic quality of Gideon’s work forces us to pay attention, to wash away our apathy and imagine if our own spaces underwent a wave of destruction.