Clinging to the raft….

Today I went to see ‘The Raft’, a video work by Bill Viola which is on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) until 20 February.

I’ve written about Viola’s work on this blog before, when I saw ‘Ocean without a shore’ at the National Gallery of Victoria. That was in February 2009, and Victoria had just experienced its worst ever bushfires, and watching an artwork which displayed the boundary between the living and the dead as a metaphorical wall of water seemed inexpressibly sad and melancholic.

Two years on, and Australia is experiencing floods. As many readers of this blog will be well aware, Queensland has been deluged with rain, with many parts of the state still under water after several weeks. Victoria too has been flooded in its northern, rural reaches; and on Friday night, the tail end of a tropical cyclone in Queensland meant that parts of Melbourne were awash with water. Suddenly, ‘so much water, so close to home’, as the Paul Kelly song would put it.

Some of the floods that occurred in the last few weeks were flash floods: sudden onslaughts of water that appear out of nowhere, sweeping cars, street signs, and even houses with them. In parts of Queensland, people lost their lives, washed away by flash floods.

Just as I couldn’t help but think about the bushfires when I saw Viola’s work ‘Ocean without a shore’ two years ago, today I was unable to watch ‘The Raft’ without thinking about those devastating floods.

‘The Raft’ (2004) echoes the famous work by Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819).

It depicts the after-effects of the sinking of a frigate, the Méduse, which ran aground in 1816. Over 140 people clung to an inexpertly constructed raft; only 15 were still alive when rescue arrived.

The image was later used by the Irish band The Pogues as the cover for their album, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, with band members superimposed upon the raft with the survivors:

Viola provides us with a metaphorical raft, rather than any kind of actual vessel adrift on the high seas. Instead, the work, which is a video/sound installation lasting 10.33minutes, begins with a group of people standing in an anonymous space. It is, no doubt, the artist’s studio, but the figures act as if they are waiting for a bus, or a train, and soon that is how we look at them – they are a group of strangers, on the whole, engaged in the business of waiting, going about their everyday lives. Some of the group know each other: a couple here and there, but on the whole these are disconnected strangers. There are around 14 individuals when the work begins; gradually others arrive, and weave their way through the throng, to take up their own position in which to wait. As with all Viola’s work, the film is slowed down considerably, so that movements are heightened and rendered anti-naturalistic. The soundtrack is an indistinct blur of everyday sounds.

Here is an abridged version of the work, which begins around this point, skipping the several minutes beforehand in which the individuals are simply passing time, waiting:

After a few minutes, to the left of the screen, water appears, flowing over the ground. The figures on the left look down and it and around, but suddenly a blast of water explodes forcefully over the figures, not only drenching them but actually bowling some of them over: it is as though a water cannon has been unleashed upon them. At the same time, a similar jet of water begins from the right hand side, so that the figures are buffeted from all sides.

People drop, in painfully slow motion, to their knees, attempting to brace themselves against the force of the water; some lie prone and motionless; others stagger around, blindly, trying to escape the jets. Splayed hands are raised in the vain effort to deflect the spray. On the soundtrack is a deafening roar, industrial, indecipherable. As with all of Viola’s work, the lighting is so cleverly done that each frame resembles a still painting; and in particular, of course, many parts of this work evokes Géricault’s own raft, and the possibilities of survival in the midst of devastation. I found myself sitting with open mouth, astonished at the images, unable to imagine (or perhaps only too able to imagine, thanks to the viscerality of the work) the suffering of the body in the face of so much liquid force.

After several minutes, the force of the water begins to subside, until it gradually ebbs away. Some of the figures seem frozen in shock, their faces contorted and agonised. One woman shakes out her hair, which scatters drops of water in jewelled arcs. Two strangers discover that they are holding each other up. One boy reaches down to assist an elderly woman who has been lying motionless face down on the ground. Their disparateness is gone forever; these disconnected individuals are utterly joined together: the trauma of the event has forged a community.

It’s all too easy to see this as a ready parable for the aftermath of disaster, and for the strength of community evidenced in flood-affected areas, and I’m slightly hesitant to give in to that reading. I would rather read the work as being about randomness. The individuals are simply going about their lives when the water arrives. (‘Water’ could be any disaster: fire, illness, crime, terrorism, bereavement…) There is no reason for it; it simply comes. There is no rationality to their reactions; once the water has arrived, they simply move about as they must. And once it has gone, there is no explanation for how or why they end up in the positions they do. They are just there. Such is the nature of disaster. It comes without warning; it has no reasons. Survival is random, as is death.

All of Viola’s individuals are still alive after the water recedes: the raft saves them. The shipwrecked crew of the Méduse were not so lucky: over 130 of them died on their raft. The mere presence of a raft is no guarantee; the mere fact of survivorship does not generate community. And if communities are to be built, I would like us not to have to depend on disaster as the foundation for them.

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