There was no beauty in the oil rig’s explosion. Nor in the deaths of eleven men, and the torrent of crude oil that gushed into the Atlantic. But catastrophe often inspires culture. In the weeks and months that followed, an international cadre of artists (and pranksters) skewered BP in city streets and pristine white walls of gallery spaces. Some of their efforts were simplistic agitprop, but many qualify as genuine creative accomplishments.
Most infamously, for the August issue of Vogue Italia, Steven Meisel photographed models wrapped in darkened garments, overwrought with grief, lying across blackened beaches plagued with dead wildlife. The series, which seemed to invite controversy for the sake of controversy, caused more outrage and grief than it soothed. And it’s easy to see why.
Jane Fulton Alt’s “Crude Awakening” project — photographs of men, women, and children smeared in Hershey’s, attempting to enjoy a day at the beach — received a more positive initial response, and went viral across the Internet. Her goal was to highlight the “untold suffering as we exploit the earth’s resources,” but it’s hard not to view this project as exploitation of another kind — its hurried, lo-fi production values unintentionally mocked the Gulf Coast’s reality.
There are many other examples of hyper-charged protests, such as oil-soaked mermaids from the likes of Code Pink washing up at BP filling stations, and a makeshift fish cemetery erected in Grand Isle, Louisiana. More fun: subversive redesigns of BP’s corporate logo.
But there are subtle responses as well. Artist Adam Miller pursued a classical approach with his painting “Spill,” part of the “Oil Slick” exhibition at Bogart Street Studios in Brooklyn. A nude woman is painted in a Renaissance style, while the Deepwater Horizon burns in the background. This juxtaposition suggests the error and absurdity of our modern ways, as we pursue technology that sullies the environment, represented as a traditional beauty. Not the most original argument, perhaps, but an original and tactful presentation.
Another tasteful work is New Orleans artist Mitchell Gaudet’s “Deepwater Horizon Response,” an installation of 53 black oil drums — starkly lined along the back lawn of Longue Vue House and Gardens — intended to represent a multiplier percentage of the crude spilled. It’s too literal to qualify as concept art, but somber and refreshingly to the point.
Lance Cheung‘s photograph of a solitary, oil-soaked bird feather — stuck to a rubber boom in Bartaria Bay, Louisiana — is similarly understated. It’s creepy in an effective way, not an exploitive way, like a straightforward documentary instead of a mawkish staged production.
Some artists have literally turned the spill into art, or at least home furnishings. David Bergeron of Thibodaux, Louisiana, salvages wood and metal from what he refers to as the “waste stream” to build stylish handcrafted design pieces, such as tables, cabinets, trunks, and desks.
This kind of innovation can transform tragedy into beauty, but it’s a pain reliever, not a cure. As much as we’d like to think that art is capable of changing the world, a haunting sculpture from Bobby Pitre in Larose, Louisiana, says it best: “God Help Us All.”
Originally published by Esquire in September 2010. Photograph by Steven Meisel.