If you had to name a single thing that defined this city, you'd be out of luck. But if you could name two, the river and the people might get you within striking distance. Both profoundly influence each other in a place where nature is an inescapable presence. Photographer Jeff Whetstone explores that lingering wild world in his Batture series, on display as part of the Prospect.4 contemporary art triennial. The series is focused on that shape-shifting sliver along the river where land and water change places with the seasons. As an unlikely urban wilderness coexisting with massive industrial compounds and ships as big as the tallest skyscrapers, the batture provides a haven for the fishermen and solitary wanderers whose presence blends seamlessly with its swampy foliage.
Batture fishermen are as varied as the city's neighborhoods, and many of Whetstone's subjects are Vietnamese people who might look at home in the Mekong Delta. In Eastern Hope (pictured), a man waist deep in water clutches a net as a massive ship, the Eastern Hope, plies the twilight waters amid the eerie glow of a nearby industrial complex. Here a solitary human looks puny and fragile against the vast river and its mechanical behemoths. Fish Pile is a night scene of a fisherman from the waist down as he stands over his haul of freshly caught catfish. Bathed in electric light, his grimy camouflage shorts and serpentine leg tattoos mimic the baroque foliage of the forest in the surrounding shadows. In Catfish, the remnants of a gutted, filleted catfish appear on a driftwood plank used as an impromptu cutting board. Not long dead, its open eyes and dozens of iridescent green bottle flies lend the scene the bejeweled presence of a Dutch baroque vanitas painting. That portentous, allegorical sensibility is elaborated in Snake, in which a man clutches a snake by its head as its long, slender body coils around his lower arm. A Tennessee native trained in zoology, Whetstone illuminates the improbable mysteries of the batture as a kind of urban primeval forest.