The Raft of the Medusa – A Living Painting, a piece of community art, premiered this summer at SuomiAreena. The performance recreated a tragedy from some two hundred years ago where the mistakes of a French vessel’s captain resulted in the deaths of 150 people. The piece by Pia Bartsch, community artist at the Saari Residence, and the Rauhan tyttäret working group reflects on the culprits behind even present-day catastrophes.
On show at the Louvre, Paris is an enormous painting of 36 square metres by the French painter Théodore Géricault which, when it was completed in 1819, served as a reminder of a tremendous tragedy that had taken place a couple of years earlier.
The painting immortalised an accident that occurred in 1816 off the coast of today’s Mauritania where a French vessel on its way to Senegal ran aground due to the mistakes made by its arrogant and incompetent captain. There was not enough room for all passengers and crew on lifeboats, so parts of the ship were used to hastily build a raft on which 147 people were set adrift almost without food and water. Only ten of them were saved.
The accident which, during its time, caused a major political scandal in France and shocked Europe as a whole became the basis for the Saari Residence’s community artist Pia Bartsch’s principal work for this year: The Raft of the Medusa – A Living Painting. Collaboration with community pedagogy student Titta Brunou and the Rauhan tyttäret (translates both as ‘Daughters of Peace’ or ‘Rauha’s Daughters’) group produced a piece depicting an accident with ties to catastrophes that take place on a daily basis even today.
The method of the performance was a living painting, tableau vivant, which is an art form developed in France in the 19th century. The approach involves the performers examining the work of art they have selected and imitating it as a performance for the audience. The Raft of the Medusa – A Living Painting ends with poet Daniil Kozlov’s lyrical manifesto defending intrinsic values and threatened world views.
In community art, art is made on the community’s terms as well as with and for the members of the community. Pieces are usually created as projects, events or workshops. The role of the artist is to act as the producer or director of the event, piece or phenomenon.
“The Rauhan tyttäret group had an interesting group dynamic. The members are related to each other: they are daughters and granddaughters of Rauha who came to Finland as an evacuee. However, many of them had not been in contact with each other in years before this project”, Pia Bartsch says.
“I was particularly delighted by how enthusiastic the members of the group were about developing a living painting. Even among themselves, they often contemplated how they could convey the complex story behind the shocking event to the audience. Next, we are considering whether the performance could be developed further by exploring the history of the ship tragedy even more in-depth”, Bartsch says.
It seemed important for the working group to focus their attention on the culprits behind the lives lost.
“Behind the tragedy of the French vessel was Count Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys who had won the position of captain by playing political games despite not steering a ship for twenty years. Who are responsible for present-day tragedies?”, Bartsch asks.