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Water on the Brain

Duval features prominently in Gideon Mendel’s photos of flooding

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Northeast Florida made national news last September, as images of flooding from Hurricane Irma were a fixture of every network, and those pictures will feature prominently in the local narrative for years to come. A new exhibit at Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville puts this damage in the broader context of climate change and decaying infrastructure, which is wreaking havoc across the planet. “Gideon Mendel: Drowning World” opens on Aug. 30 for members, and runs through Dec. 9.

Mendel began the project in 2007, with photos of floods that occurred in the United Kingdom and India that summer. According to the press release, “Deeply struck by the contrasting impacts of these floods and the vulnerability that united their victims, Mendel continued to visit and photograph flood zones throughout the world, including places such as Haiti, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Nigeria and the United Kingdom.” And now, add Jacksonville to that list.

“The works that Gideon has produced from that time are powerful reminders of the human tragedy of flooding,” says MOCA Director Caitlin Doherty, “and place our community right at the heart of not only a global contemporary art project but, more significantly, at the heart of a contemporary dialogue about our changing climate, rising floodwaters and the environmental challenges that we are all charged with solving.” Seeing the visual evidence of last year’s hurricane season while in the midst of this year’s hurricane season creates a juxtaposition that is uncomfortable, but necessary.

Hosting this exhibit locally was a priority for Doherty, who took over as director in 2017, shortly before the start of hurricane season. “I first saw some of Gideon’s work on display as part of a group exhibition many years ago,” she says. “I curated an exhibition of his work at the Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU, while I was serving as senior curator and deputy director of curatorial affairs there.”

Last year’s floods swamped the Downtown area, including some of the streets near MOCA itself. As the waters rolled in, and local leaders were falling into a reactive mode, Doherty went proactive. “When Hurricane Irma struck, and it became clear that Jacksonville and the surrounding areas were flooding, I immediately reached out to Gideon,” she says. “I knew that he was already in Houston, photographing in the terrible wake of Hurricane Harvey, and I asked him to consider coming to Jacksonville. He, too, had heard about what was happening to our community and so he flew in the following day.” What he saw was a city in unprecedented distress. We are extremely lucky that the human cost wasn’t truly catastrophic, as is often the case in these situations.

“The exhibition will cover the majority of the second floor of our museum,” says Doherty, “and will include works from the ‘Submerged Portraits’ series, the ‘Watermarks’ series, the ‘Floodlines’ series and ‘Deluge,’ a brand-new five-screen video installation, together with found objects from the Jacksonville area. Some of the works are being produced as wallpapers, up to 12 feet tall, while some of the found objects are tiny Polaroid images broken and damaged by the floodwaters.”

Ultimately, “Drowning World” speaks to the environmental uncertainty that, increasingly, seems to be a universal theme in modern life. “This exhibition connects Jacksonville to the broader global conversation about climate change,” says Doherty, “and it is a part of MOCA’s role in our city to bring the world to Jacksonville and Jacksonville to the world through art and culture.” By looking at these serious problems that we all share, it is hoped we can move toward sharing solutions, as well.

Member’s Preview: Gideon Mendel: Drowning World, 7-9 p.m. Aug. 30; opens to the public Aug. 31, MOCAJax, Downtown, mocajacksonville.unf.edu.

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