Destroy This Memory

On a recent trip to San Francisco I had the pleasure of visiting the SFMOMA, and was astounded by the beautiful building, the numerous, inspiring exhibitions, and the welcoming atmosphere. I was also left breathless by the seemingly endless steps up to the rooftop cafe, confirming my suspicion that San Francisco likes to make its visitors earn their coffee.

From the David Claerbout Architecture of Narrative show to the extensive Selected Histories 20th-Century art retrospective, there is no shortage of subject matter to discuss. I would like to, however, review one particular artist’s work within the Face of Our Time exhibit, a show that presented the work of five photographers observing and capturing what the world looks like to them.

The show included works by Jim Goldberg, Daniel Schwartz, and Zanele Muholi, among others, but it is Richard Misrach whose work I was most affected by. Destroy This Memory, a collection of photographs depicting the graffiti left behind after Katrina, is not the kind of show that knocks you over as soon as you enter the room. It takes its time, and I was surprised to find that it was the exhibit at which I spent the most time in while at SFMOMA.

Destroy This Memory examines the graffiti left behind after Hurricane Katrina, acting as a reminder of the impact this disaster had on New Orleans residents. The messages run the gamut of emotions and expressions–gut wrenching, darkly humorous, clinical–capturing the humanity of the situation despite, or some may argue because of, the lack of human subjects.

Photographed from ground-level and close-up, these images show a side of disaster not typically explored in mainstream media, and from the sheer number of images, a narrative is created that carries the viewer through the loss, restoration, and endurance of the survivors. We become a part of the story, witnessing arguments and threats, jokes and hopeful messages, and longing for the unseen subjects to find what they are looking for and what they have lost.

The photographs are a departure from Misrach’s typical style of bright colours and structured composition; these images are presented as they are shot, on a 4MP digital camera, with subdued tones and basic framing. The result of this style is that the subjects (houses, cars, plywood boards) become a backdrop for the messages, and it is the messages that draw you in and showcase the resilience of the citizens in the face of destruction.

Misrach has gifted full sets of prints to five museums: the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery, the MFA Houston, SFMOMA, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. A book, Destroy This Memory, is also available, and Misrach is donating the royalties to the Make It Right Foundation, active in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

By Marcela Huerta


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