|The Raft of the Medusa|
After the ship struck the reef off the coast of Africa and passengers clung to makeshift rafts. After ropes were cut leaving people adrift at sea eating bits of leather and one another. After 15 out of more than 140 were rescued only 10 survived. Their account of events shocked the world and was carried in the news as the public outrage grew. Fingers were pointed, accusations made against the captain, the crew and the government.
The story and its aftermath could well have been ripped from the headlines today. But the year was 1816 when the shipwreck Medusa grabbed the attention of a disgruntled post-Napoleonic France.
The Raft of the Medusa, a colossal painting completed in 1819 by Théodore Géricault captured the mutiny at sea that befell the ill-fated voyage. Based on personal survival accounts, the painting was a depiction/reaction to a national tragedy. Caught in raging winds, towering dark waves, sails unfurled, the pyramid of outstretched agonized figures on the make-shift raft depicted not only the struggle of a few but the sentiment of a nation. The shirtless black man atop the stacked bodies waves a flag in a plea for help, hope or resignation. The thrust of the arm is reminiscent of a call to “charge!” as much as it is a call of distress. That Géricault used healthy well-formed bodies as models rather than ravaged half-alive corpses is testament to the power of dramatic physical analogy as empathetic. Everyone was on that boat.
Disco, 2005, a 6 minute film by Muntean/Rosenblum draws directly (but not only) from the Raft and the social and political circumstances under which it was created. Filmed amidst the previous night garbage scattered around a disco two figures move about the cleaning up. The camera examines the cleaners, the dance floor, the mirrored disco ball and the viewer begins to see glimpses of a crowd of bodies in the background beyond the cleaning. The heap of stilled bodies approximates the Raft or more generally any dynamic physical outcry. Like the Raft these figures held in suspended drama are the result if some catastrophe – the catastrophe from the night before or another unseen event. They are the living remnants of a near death experience and certain disaster. Their robustness, their sheer physical vitality and strength act in defiance of whatever opposition they may rise against (seen or unseen). The fair blond girl with huge eyes wearing a loose fitting peasant dress (designer dress) is the un-still witness – the conscience of a long night out or a country. Like the paintings of Muntean/Rosenblum the film slips between pathos of anatomical theatre and the artists manipulate the lighting to painterly effect. That both the Raft and Disco use healthy bodied people under the implication of the most distressed circumstances imbues the work with a sense of Overcoming. Vacillating between active resistance and prideful yielding Handel’s voices build toward the climatic end with our fair witness holding flag aloft with a small red blinking light in the distance serving as a beacon in their night.
Julian Barnes asks “How do you turn catastrophe into art?” And he answers by writing about The Raft of the Medusa:
There is no formal response to the painting’s main surge, just as there is no response to most human feelings. Not merely hope, but any burdensome yearning: ambition, hatred, love (especially love) – how rarely do our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve? How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us. Catastrophe has become art; but this is no reducing process. It is freeing, enlarging, explaining. Catastrophe has become art, that is, after all what it is for.
Certainly it is one usage for art and Barnes argument is a poignant one. Muntean/Rosenblum carry it a step further by ambiguously presenting one scenario for catastrophe within another completely imaged context. Where after the undulating waves of the dance floor have dispersed who knows what remains to be recovered, under which circumstances and in what frozen aggravated state they may be found.
(Originally published in 2006 for an exhibition of Muntean/Rosenblum at Maureen Paley Gallery, London)