Drowned in the apocalypse

Added 2020-03-07 in by Kamil Kusztal

Art as a rescue for human consciences.

,,Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Yahweh was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart. Yahweh said, "I will destroy man whom I have created from the surface of the ground; man, along with animals, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them." But Noah found favor in Yahweh's eyes.”

 Well, two months of the brand new decade is behind us. Fireworks, loud New Year's Eve parties and other egoistic ways of celebrating the new year have died down. People disbanded with regret and went apart. The dust of delight fell, and instead of it, uncertain silence arose from the ground and spread throughout the whole world. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Riders of the Apocalypse have chosen this moment of lethargy to visit the human fall. They brought with them a lot of gifts, such as the specter of war, climate change, air disasters, fires, an epidemic, and they still ensure that they still have a lot in store. It isn’t known how much time they will make fun here, but I have the impression that if it goes on like this, they will finally cover us with these expensive gifts to die!

 The ecological disaster isn’t longer the myth that eccentrically dressed individuals threatened innocent society. Today, scientists agree on the importance of changes in the ecosystem caused by the activities of "innocent" humans. The process of educating and making society aware of this subject in our culture is affected by a tragic disease, which is ignorance caused by the distance separating our everyday life from visible and tangible consequences. Fortunately, we have artists who help us with their works by showing us the scale of this tragic phenomenon. The art of photography plays an extremely significant role in this process, directly recording images of an ongoing disaster on film.

 Gideon Mendel, who lives in London, is such an artist. He was born in 1959 in Johannesburg. He studied psychology and African history at the University of Cape Town. His origin and education indicate a strong relationship with the Black Continent, which is one of the places in the world that experience the consequences of the ecological crisis in an extremely drastic way. For this reason, a series of photos  entitled "Drowning World" was created.

 Gideon began working on his project in 2007. The author describes it as: "my attempt to investigate the consequences of climate change in an intimate way, moving us beyond faceless statistics, and into the individual experiences of victims.". The photographs present the effects of floods and their impact on the lives of people living in areas affected by water disasters. Pictures were taken in countries such as: Haiti, Pakistan, Australia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany and the Philippines. The dominant role in the whole projection are playing "submerged portraits." The author uses former homes destroyed by floods and portrays his heroes, in the silence of a once bustling environment.

 Today I would like to bend over one of the first photos from the Mendel project. The photograph has been taken in August 2007 in the Honduran Plain in the Indian village of Salempur near the city of Muzaffarpur in the state of Bihar. This is a portrait of two related women - Chinta (left) and Samudri (right) Davi.

 The frame is characterized by exceptional static. It is reminiscent of ancient tablets commemorating the most important events for specific communities. The figures photographed by Gideon maintain a special calm, are frozen in time and space;  women without making any movement become an integral part of the flooded environment. Their combination with the background doesn’t  mean that they lose their identity. What makes the heroines stand out is their disturbing but also immersive looks. This creates a specific relationship between them and the recipient. It reminds me of a painting made by the brush of a romantic painter - Francisco Goya, titled: "Saturn devouring his own children". The piercing gaze of the colossus and both portrayed Indian women, causes the recipient a strange feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The viewer feels extremely awkward, even paralyzed by fear, as if he just saw something that his eyes should never register. Like Goya, the painter introduces us to a random cave, in which we face a terrifying titan, Mendel pulls us out of the comfort zone of civilization and throws us into a flooded small Indian village, where we have to face the eyes of China and Samudri. However, in the case of the said image, it leaves the viewer mainly with fear; while Gideon also managed to capture a certain amount of reproach and resentment. The heroines don’t pay attention to the water that absorbed their belongings.  They are staring at the lens and the recipient, telling him: "Look what have you done...”.

 Water is of course an extremely important element of photography (and the entire project). We are dealing with a frame divided almost perfectly in half. This is how two worlds are painting before us. The upper world is the present world, which is static, motionless and bathed in warm colors. The lower world is a reflection of the future in the murky surface of cold and dirty, but also unpredictable water. The future is uncertain, difficult to grasp. Reflecting on water and its role in this photograph, this is the right time to refer to the biblical quote with which I started the article. I think that the association with this symbolism is completely natural and opens a new look at this photo and the problem itself. The faith of man in continuous progress, in anthropocentrism and inviolability of civilization, put the whole human mass in the role of God. However, what distinguishes our actions from the biblical creator is the fact that we self-destruct. Photography of Gideon Mendel doesn’t focus, like the history of the Old Testament, on the only righteous Noah, floating on the surface of the water thanks to the ark (perhaps because finding the only righteous person in our reality is definitely not possible), but on what happens on ,,below” The author observes how people slowly die in the depths of water. Photography is not a herald of the arrival of the Flood, but it shows that it is already underway, forcing us in the eyes with its visible consequences. As I mentioned above, there are no righteous people who will be chosen by some higher instances and build a giant boat that will save the world. The water level is rising all the time, and every time I return to this photograph, I get the strong impression that it has risen by a millimeter invisible to human conscience.

 The frame and its elements are symmetrical, nothing disturbs its order. In the foreground we see the older Chinta and the younger Samudri. Both are dressed in traditional attire for the region and culture. On their foreheads they have painted "bindi", meaning "sacred dot" or "red dot". It symbolizes the protection of a woman by her husband or father and takes the form of a red dot of mineral pigment. For me, this is an important sign of the time that pierces photography. The era of patriarchal society in which the man held the hero's position in society has gone. Once he was able to protect the weak and oppressed, but now he is not even in this photograph. The order of life for these women was shattered. They stand alone, waist deep in ruthless waters. A tragic conclusion appears in the recipient's head. Faith in the old world order will not save us from being lost in the depths of upcoming changes.

 In the second and third plan we see devastated houses. Behind women is all their past life. A life that was not abandoned by their will. It was brutally taken from them. Interestingly enough there is no worry on women's faces. They are already part of the future. They are immersed in it. There is no way back to the past. A very apt, but at the same time sad reflection flowing from the interpretation of this portrait is the fact that we as viewers cannot see what is going on underwater - in the future. Still, the only thing we are aware of is the present that we cling to. We focus on a warm material layer when we should immerse ourselves in a cloudy future.

 This photography is paradoxical, especially in terms of the emotions it arouses in the recipient. Portrait would seem to be one of the most obvious and most depleted forms of photography. It is characterized by stability, calmness and focus on the most accurate representation of your characters. It is no different in the case of Gideon's photo, which appears superficially as a frozen image, bathed in warm, sunny rays. Despite this, it ignites extreme emotions in the recipient. With the help of the destroyed environment, it awakens fear, piercing the viewer with the eyes of the heroines, shames him. The accumulation of these emotions leaves the recipient with experience of uncertainty and helplessness. In my opinion, this is sufficient evidence to confirm Gideon's huge artistry and artistic intuition.

 With the help of art, Gideon Mendel not only offers us a moment of reflection, but suggests that we should question the existing order. Over the years, the situation of our planet doesn’t improve at all. Despite the fact that we experience so many extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change, at the same time we see more and more aggressive denial, not only from the unconscious society, but also from politicians who should have a high intellectual level. Global warming, from year to year, causes an increasing number of tragic disasters, which is why this message is still ringingand should resound to stimulate human consciences, deeply asleep. It is very difficult to wake up from this dream. May it not be too late.