IMPRESSIONS OF NEW ORLEANS, HER BIENNIAL AND THE RITUAL FEAST

By Daniel Rothbart

I’d been to New Orleans once before, two years prior to Katrina, and was delighted to return as an artist participant in KK Projects’ The Ritual Feast and to view Prospect 1, the New Orleans Biennial. More European than any American city I’ve experienced, the drama of life unfolding on the streets of New Orleans calls to mind Naples (both were Spanish colonies at one time) and the belle époque architecture and palm trees evoke Nice and the Promenade des Anglais. African and Creole music, rhythms, dialect and cuisine also shape this unique city which enchants, delights, stimulates and at times horrifies visitors. Like Naples, New Orleans suffers from a bad reputation with respect to crime, some of which is deserved.

Prospect 1

Curated by Dan Cameron, who now directs the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, this varied exhibition took place in numerous venues, both inside and out, around the city. After a delectable lunch with artist Francine Hunter McGivern, we encountered the work of Takashi Horisaki in a former warehouse in the Arts and Warehouse District.

Horisaki’s “Social Dress New Orleans – 730 days after” was created by coating a Katrina tossed home in the Lower Ninth Ward with liquid latex and cheesecloth. Once dry, this skin was pealed away, carrying with it surface debris and old paint. The result is flexible sheets of latex which appear to be rigid planks of timber. Suspended from the warehouse ceiling, these walls form a ghostly reflection of the house they had once enveloped. Demolished along with nearly every house in this neighborhood, Horisaki worked against the clock to finish his impression before the tractors rolled in. Now the latex film is all that remains of someone’s home, and the social fabric of a community laid to waste. The work is so realistic that only upon touching it, when the latex yields, can you understand its play on our perception of solidity and things that endure.

Among the works on view at the Contemporary Art Center, Skylar Fein’s “Remember the UpStairs Lounge” was particularly intriguing. The UpStairs Lounge had been a French Quarter gay bar which serviced clientele from the New Orleans docks and featured spirited transvestite burlesque shows. It also doubled as a community center that included members of the Metropolitan Community Church. On June 24, a fire broke out in lounge, ravaging the space and trapping many customers behind barred windows. Probably the work of arsonists, this deadliest fire in New Orleans history claimed the lives of thirty two people.

Skylar Fein offers an intimate, fanciful recreation of the Upstairs Lounge as it could only be imagined. On ascending the fourth floor of the CAC, visitors pass through a corridor lined with chintz wallpaper and black and white period photographs documenting the space, first as a lively gathering place and later as deathtrap for the fire. This hallway opens to a large room that contains wooden signage, aged to resemble ‘70s objects, depicting Burt Reynolds and Mark Spitz along with a reproduction of the Farnese Hercules that adorned the real Upstairs Lounge and survived the fire. The work combines real and imagined artifacts of the lounge to create a polished counterpart to the gritty nightclub. From a distance Fein guides us through this creative and social milieu of New Orleans some thirty five years ago and the city’s tragic legacy of intolerance.

KK Projects

Founded by Kirsha Kaechele two years ago, this venue consists of six derelict Creole cottages on Villere Street (between Arts and Music Streets) in the multiethnic, Bohemian neighborhood of Saint Roch. These cottages, located near the Ninth Ward, were flooded during Hurricane Katrina and bear traces of the water and cryptic acronyms, spray painted by rescue teams. KK’s neighbors are African American families who have lived in this neighborhood for generations.

Kaechele had originally bought a building in the fashionable Arts and Warehouse District with the intention of creating an exhibition space. Hurricane Katrina put an end to that project but, in retrospect, Kaechele wasn’t comfortable imposing a sense of minimal order by opening a conventional art space. She purchased derelict Creole cottages in the belief that they better embody her vision of art as grassroots, community-based and always embodying the principles of transformation and change. In the brief two years of KK Projects, these cottages have leant their bowed clapboards and ornate ironwork to installations by such artists as Mel Chin, Tony Oursler and Peter Nadin.

I was in New Orleans to participate in KK’s Ritual Feast and arrived on Villere Street during the late afternoon. From one end of the block to the other stood a magnificent wooden dinner table, sculpted by Dawn Dedeaux to seat three hundred people. Crafted with heavy timbers, a central trough containing water spanned its entire length. At irregular intervals along this waterway were gravel strewn patches that were seedbeds for marsh grass. This trough was also punctuated at points with the placement of circular wooden serving trays, cut from the trunk of a single tree. Atop each serving tray was salt, a purifying agent mined in red, black and white varieties, and placed by artist Adrina Adrina. Each place setting included a Japanesque raku teabowl from which to drink libations.

Guests began to arrive and the crepuscular light gave way to darkness. Braziers, placed at regular intervals, illuminated the street with hardwood fires and open oil lamps shed light from the table top. A walk around the table produced glimpses of actress Uma Thurman and art world personalities such as Robin Cembalest, Linda Yablonsky, Paul Kasmin, Philippe Vergne, Diego Cortez, Lisa Philips, and NYArts own John Perreault. Smoke from the fires created a diaphanous mist, partially obscuring the shotgun cottages with their porticos, ironwork and contemporary art.

At a certain point, artist Dawn Dedeux approached the center of the table where one of my large vessel sculptures had placed and sounded it with a metal striker.

“Let the feast begin!,” she declared and response drummers, as if from nowhere, launched into brilliant rhythms. It felt like one of those timeless moments in New Orleans, channeling the music of slave drummers who laid the groundwork for Jazz, rhythm and blues and ultimately rock’n’roll in Congo Square. Artist Heidi Domangue designed costumes out of a futuristic Midsummer Night’s Dream that were donned by wait staff who served delectable Cajun crawfish. Additional courses included oysters on the half shell and pork from pigs raised by artist Peter Nadin, whose documentary film on art and agriculture could be viewed in the bakery cottage. To my delight, spirit handler Alan Walter graced the table with absinthe, the anise wormwood liquor under ban since 1912, which has been newly legalized and is once again imbibed in the Paris of the South.

Artist John Perreault, in a gesture of purification and benediction, performed a circumambulation of the table. Considered a Hindu and Buddhist form of prayer, circumambulation is also practiced by Muslims who circle the Kaaba in Mecca. In an earlier counter-clockwise walkabout, Perreault quite possibly hastened the demise of P.S. 1 (much like Joshua’s Old Testament circumambulation of Jericho brought its walls tumbling down). The artist’s ritual was benevolent this evening, sealing the magic around Villere Street, which only diffused in the wee hours of the morning.

To view Dawn Dedeaux sounding vessel, click here.

To view images of The Ritual Feast, click here.

© 2009 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved.