Martha Colburn’s animation Don’t Kill the Weatherman! at the Rosenbach Museum and Library is a music video with medieval chops. Using scans of an apocalyptic 15th-century French manuscript mixed with gas-guzzling, eco-destroying 21st-century imagery, the artist blurs history. Her point is that apocalypse then (floods, famines, plagues, earthquakes, fires) is much like apocalypse now. The difference is then they thought God unleashed the plagues, while now we know we’re largely doing it ourselves.
The serio-comical Weatherman! shows devils pumping gas into an SUV driven by a monk, and nuns chainsawing both a tree and a sinner. Noah’s ark loses its cargo in storm-tossed waters and oil barrels are hurled at the Chrysler Building in a catapult siege right out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
In her 1987 book A Distant Mirror historian Barbara Tuchman vividly compares the disease- and war-plagued Middle Ages to the modern era. Colburn unites the two eras both visually and musically. Her soundtrack is a mournful Gregorian chant improvised by a reedy baritone (Greg Purnhagen) singing a fantasy weather report in French accompanied by a cellist (Martha Colby) riffing in a minor key.
Colburn, a Pennsylvania native who splits her time between New York and the Netherlands, is known for her video animations and her animated sequence in the documentary movie The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Here, with a compelling visual source (a medieval illuminated manuscript) driving the project, Colburn lets music take the back seat. Cello and singing play second fiddle to the tumultuous, action-packed animation which gallops along Canterbury Tales-like, one episode after another.
Weatherman!, projected large and high on the wall in the Rosenbach’s French room, feels somewhat out of place in the treasure-box mansion with its antiques and rare books. Yet something about Colburn’s parade of oddball characters is reminiscent of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, whose archive is also housed in the Rosenbach, not far from this piece. Maybe Colburn’s aesthetic is Rosenbachian after all.
Weatherman! came about when Colburn encountered the French manuscript of Guillaume de Deguileville. Both the manuscript and Colburn’s cutout figures are on display alongside the animation.
Rosenbach began commissioning artist projects in 1998 and has worked with local artists Candy Depew, Martha MacDonald, Teresa Jaynes, Aaron Levy, Ellen Rosenholtz, Gabe Martinez and others. The museum’s hands-off approach coupled with its truly inspirational collection make these art projects great revivers of old material. Look for upcoming projects by Philadelphia pianist David Burrell next spring, and Maryland visual artist Sue Johnson in 2009.
Don’t Kill the Weatherman!
Through Sept. 16. $5-$8. Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2008-2010 Delancey Pl. 215.732.1600.