Almost a year ago I took some pictures of this turtle sculpture at the Dauphin Island Estuarium. It’s made of around twelve-hundred cigarette butts picked up off the beach by volunteers. I’ve thought a lot about how this sculpture turned art into trash, how it’s a form of recycling. A lot of works of art break down over time. Some are meant to, but others are meant to last. Preservation and renovation are important jobs in the art world.
Fortunately the damage wasn’t as bad as it was first feared, but it’s not good either. The fire devastated a building that is itself a work of art and that was being renovated, and that was originally built to last. It’s undergone some changes over time. Figures representing the twelve apostles and symbols of the four evangelists around the spire had been removed just days before the fire. They, and the current spire which collapsed in the fire, were added by the architect Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century. The original spire, neglected and damaged by wind, was removed some time between 1786 and 1791. Whether, after all the changes it’s been through, it’s still the same Notre Dame it was when it started gets into the territory of the ship of Theseus, and for now let’s just say that ship has sailed.
Both the turtle sculpture and Notre Dame came together in my mind when I realized that the sculpture represents something living and breathing that must be preserved, and Notre Dame, having been built, changed, added to, passed through, or simply seen for more than eight hundred years, is a living, breathing work of art. One represents the nature that sustains us, the other represents how we are sustained.
I don’t know if the turtle sculpture is still there, but, in spite of the damage, I want to see Notre Dame restored and preserved. The future may be uncertain but it’s shaped by the past.