Dear World, From Joplin With Love at Spiva Center

by Kyle McKenzie, June 2012

Two separate exhibits of photography at the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts mark the one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado that tore through Joplin on May 22, 2011. While each exhibit is substantial in its own right, the way in which both are in dialogue with each other augments the total impression of this undertaking and provides a moving approach to reflect on the year since the storm.

In the smaller Regional Gallery, Photos from the Storm is an installation of photographs put together by Spiva’s exhibitions crew. Through an open call, professional and amateur photographers shared images captured in the minutes and months following the tornado. Photographs of all sizes collect in groups, pinned around the gallery at every angle. A looped soundtrack of collected communications from storm-chasers, first responders and reporters during and immediately following the storm fills the space. The overwhelming feeling is one of searching, trying to find or create a stable environment, a place to land. The aural and visual cacophony frustrates any attempt to focus on a single image or construct a cohesive narrative.

These photographs are not windows: there is no unified world they reveal. They do not tell a story: any thread a viewer tries to follow frays into a dozen new directions, each one secured only by a thin connection to the images surrounding it. This installation is a mirror: it fills whatever distance the viewer has from the depicted events with complex associations like guilt, concern and unease. It returns the viewer to that time when the human tragedy washed over everyone in uncontrollable waves, when reactions were real and involuntary, before the narrative of the storm had been written. It is surprising to experience the nuances of collective memory reanimated so fully one year after the storm. Buried among the distress, the viewer finds a complicated joy and relief in self-discovery.

In the Main Gallery, Dear World, From Joplin with Love by Robert X. Fogarty depicts Joplin residents, emergency workers and others affected by the storm. These portraits are direct and engaging, sometimes playful, sometimes intense. With handwritten text on their skin, the subjects address the viewer with statements of hope and defiance. The statements, ranging from “We can do it!” to “We forged love out of chaos” to “Tornado Badass,” impart a relentless spirit.

While Photos from the Storm leads the viewer chaotically around the space, each confident subject in Dear World demands a focused interaction. The comfortable stillness of these stoic individuals, many depicted in human scale, provides a powerful contrast to the disquiet of the companion exhibit.

Together, these two exhibitions provide a valuable opportunity to reflect on Joplin’s recovery over the past year and a way to look forward. Even to viewers not directly affected by the storm, these works offer visual meditations on people overwhelmed by sublime disaster, and their inexplicable capacity to carry on.

Dear World, From Joplin With Love
19 May–13 July, 2012
George A. Spiva Center for the Arts