In anticipation of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, environmental artist Elisa Marble da Silva replaced signs of the storm’s devastation with symbols of self-discovery.
The Gulfport, Mississippi artist used storm debris to transform the foundations of buildings destroyed by the 2005 hurricane into meditative pavement labyrinths. With the help of the local community, da Silva completed The Journey Within, the fifth labyrinth installed along the Mississippi gulf coast, at the historic Tullis-Toledano Manor at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi. Da Silva’s environmental installation was part of the museum’s Katrina +10 exhibition series. The past ten years has seen several artists appropriate the hurricane’s wreckage in an attempt to redefine the lasting scars of the violent tragedy. The most visible examples are Marlin Martin’s chainsaw sculptures carved from ancient oak trees whose root systems were destroyed by the storm surge. Martin’s sculptures dot the I-10 corridor from Biloxi to Bay St. Louis, offering all who pass by symbols of grace, hope, and perseverance.
In comparison, da Silva’s labyrinths are a more conceptual and collaborative approach to the community healing process. Each labyrinth begins with the identification of a physical space, directed by the artist and facilitated by the community. Da Silva requests donations of found or saved remnants from the storm to incorporate into each work. Da Silva then arranges the objects in winding, geometric paths. In the case of The Journey Within, da Silva’s labyrinth takes the form of a cyclonic spiral with five paths into the center and five paths back out, representing the ten years since Katrina’s landfall.
By allowing community members to contribute mementos, the empty foundations become totemic time capsules, representing and documenting the condition of the community.
Da Silva’s project was inspired by the pavement labyrinths of French gothic cathedrals. She equates the community growth in the decade since Hurricane Katrina with the medieval concept of imagined pilgrimage, a spiritual journey facilitated by ambulant meditation. It is da Silva’s intention that visitors use their journey through the labyrinth as an opportunity to reflect on themselves, their community and the changes of the past ten years.
While labyrinths in Western European cathedrals were used as symbolic forms of pilgrimage, outdoor labyrinths on the coasts of the British Isles and several Scandinavian countries were believed to control the winds, calm strong storms, and disorient evil spirits. According to Swedish folklore, evil spirits following the navigator of the labyrinth become lost and trapped in the maze. This notion of leaving metaphysical baggage in a physical space resonates with da Silva’s labyrinth project.
In an interview with Evelina Burnett of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, da Silva said that, “for people to come together, to walk [the labyrinth], to release that negative energy that built up over all this time from the storm and the things that happened since the storm. To bring anything that they found, little statues, pictures — all of the little things that we found that we saved after the storm — just bring it here. You can set it on the tiles, and on the 10 year anniversary, let it go.”
The museum’s Katrina +10 exhibition series is over, but you can still see The Journey Within is on the site of the historic Tullis-Toledano Manor at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Duncan Bass is an art critic and historian whose work focuses on contemporary Southern artists, digital and internet based art and contemporary art theory. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and is currently pursuing an advanced degree in Modern and Contemporary Art.