by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
Author’s note: Please see the earlier post “Prospect New Orleans 2: Digging for Gold in the Crescent City (Part 1) and (Part 2)” on this site for the beginning and middle of this story
I woke up on Sunday morning around 8:30 AM with a pounding headache. It was brutal, and all I really wanted to do was go back to sleep. However, we had to get packing and ready ourselves for the 11AM checkout at the St. Vincent Guest House. I made my way to our hostel bathroom, brushed my teeth, took some ibuprofen, showered and dressed. I watched my wife continue sleeping and felt sorry about having to wake her up. She was such a trooper yesterday, and she deserved more sleep. I left the room to have a cigarette.
While I was out front at a cafe table by a gurgling fountain, I smoked and called Emee Morgan. I figured that she’d be up way earlier than us since she left St. Claude early the night before. She answered in a groggy voice and said that she was still in bed. I told her that we’d give her a call back. I looked at the coffee shop across the street. People were steaming out the front door like some kind of coffee train. I wanted to be aboard. I returned to our room.
Kirstie had awakened and was already dressed. She had decided to forgo her primping ritual that typically lasts at least an hour and a half. I was grateful. We packed, and checked out of the hostel early. All our luggage was put in our truck in the parking lot of the St. Vincent, and we crossed Magazine St. for coffee. Cafe Mojo was still going full-steam-ahead, and we couldn’t find a seat there to drink our large dark roasts and eat our pastry. We went back to the hostel, and asked if we could settle into the courtyard out back. The clerk shrugged a whatever. We parked ourselves at a picnic table and began our morning ritual of coffee and cigarettes, with the added bonus of pastry.
I called Emee again. She had left her bed and was in the middle of assisting her friend with some necessary grocery shopping (her friend’s vehicle was dead and needed repairs). She promised to make it over to meet us as soon as possible.
While we waited and worked on our coffee and pastry, an unkempt woman kept darting around the courtyard and muttering to herself. At times, it seemed like she was traveling through secret wormholes around the place, considering the speed at which she would appear, disappear and reappear in different locations about us. We guessed that she was mentally ill, but she was also carrying cleaning equipment around. The whole spectacle was a little unsettling, but at the same time, I liked the fact the St. Vincent would be willing to employ someone like this. While I spent time working in two separate mental hospitals earlier in my life, I learned that the mentally ill, aren’t so “ill” all the time. Sometimes, they’re more in touch with reality than we are. One can learn a lot from them. I’m not trying to down-play the dark side of mental illness, but it’s a lot more complex and nuanced than most people think. At one point, the magic cleaning lady darted toward us, and asked us for a cigarette. I obliged, and she abruptly darted in the other direction to smoke on the other side of the courtyard on the lip of an old laundry shoot slide that descended from the second-story balcony.
Shortly after, Emee showed up. We talked about her week spent assisting Joy Glidden of Dumbo Art Fair and Louisiana Artworks fame with her new project, “Art Index TV” which specializes in interviews with art world insiders and airs on PBS. Emee said that they had a rough start for the first two days of taping, but the last few days presented an endless river of interviewees. We also talked about the upcoming Creative Economy Summit taking place at the LITE Center on November 9, 2011 in Lafayette, LA. Emee is one of it’s creators, and I couldn’t be more impressed with her for this, especially since she is so young. There was a bit of small talk smattered amongst these subjects as well.
Morning was turning into early afternoon, and we said our goodbyes to Morgan. We got in our truck, and we had a decision to make. Once again, time was not our friend, and we had to decide between returning to St. Claude to see the sites we missed the night before, going to visit the New Orleans Museum of Art, or visiting some sites in the French Quarter. We made the decision to return to St. Claude based on the fact that I have some personal connections to some artists in St. Claude, and I didn’t get to visit their exhibitions the night before. T-Lot and Staple Goods Gallery were calling my name.
We arrived at P.2 satellite T-Lot, which is exactly what its name purports: a small co-op gallery/ studio with a sizable backyard in the shape of a “T.” The lot was packed full of art by co-op members for the exhibition “Parallel Play,” and we were greeted by artists Natalie McLaurin and Stephen Kwok who were gallery sitting that day. They took turns assisting us through the lot and were extremely attentive and helpful. Unfortunately, a couple of works were dependent on night viewings because they involved video projections and lights. However, on the whole, we had a fantastic time exploring the art there which encompassed a scrappy array of thought provoking and engaging works that warmed my heart in the Sunday sun and set my mind turning. I’m still thinking seriously about quite a few of the works a week later.
A collaboration between Dave Greber and Stephen Kwok involving a series of concentric platforms topped with white sand ascending in the shape of a waist high ziggurat was extremely satisfying. The funny thing is that we saw the piece in an incomplete state. Greber’s video projection was missing. However, the piece was interactive: the artists instructed viewers to leave behind objects they felt they could part with in the sand. It was fascinating to see what viewers were willing to part with for the sake of art, and my wife and I wear inspired to leave behind a half-used bottle of Nasonex. God knows this sort of trope has been “done” before, but their piece was still thought provoking and fun. I just wish I would have been able to see it complete with Greber’s video. Amanda Cassingham created an interactive piece that starts with a pamphlet announcing a program that allows viewers to send the artist their information and a small amount of money in exchange for a “delicious” cookie because, according to the Cassingham, in today’s world, if you do something good, you deserve a cookie. My wife and I took one of the pamphlets, and will be sending Cassingham our money and info shortly. The project was ridiculous enough to pique or interest; yet, it is an interesting and thoughtful exploration of the intersection of performance art and capitalism. Jason Childers presented a sizable sculpture of two intersecting vertical and horizontal squares made of wooden molding. The sculpture is unimpressive at first sight and recalls the current vogue for slapdash, DIY aesthetics involving unfinished lumber. However, McLaurin and Kwok clued us in to something important: the sculpture was made without the use of nails, glue or any sort of traditional fasteners to hold the squares together. Ropes connected to the individual pieces of molding hold the sculpture together with tension supplied by cranking them around a central pole in the center of the sculpture. It’s brilliant! Elizabeth McLellan’s large-scale drawings concerning themes of urban blight and apocalypse were riveting and beautiful. I was enchanted by artist Z Bhel’s small, painted wooden army which included a depiction of what I read as a pothead. Hannah Chalew’s work which revolves around themes of nature re-establishing its control over urban sites after they have been abandoned by humans was sublime, and Stephen Kwok supplied some witty, conceptual work that both Kirstie and I loved inside the studio space at the far end of the lot, including a video of various Chat Roulette sessions between the artist and others that had been edited to exclude dialogue. All that was left was instances of participants chuckling, and from afar, the audio sounded like the kind of laughter one hears during sexual foreplay. We almost missed the final piece of the exhibition, a prismatic and precarious walk around the side and back of the studio attributed to WNFG. Once viewers are behind the studio, they are treated to a private alleyway that is an abstract and colorful, hard-hard edged world unto itself.
We left T-Lot for P.2 satellite Staple Goods Gallery. There was a small two-room group exhibition going on there that presented us with a completely different vibe that was more traditional and controlled. Artist William Depauw was on hand to sit for the gallery. There, we viewed a restrained exhibition of work by Staple Goods members. For me Depauw’s work rose to the top. He presented a handful of ceramic works colored in his signature sage green glaze. Each work was composed of a few individual pieces that were in some sort of surrealistic and classically restrained communion with one another. They presented a visual opening into which viewers could insert their own ideas and meanings about why the objects belonged together. Depauw himself said that the arrangement of the objects together was entirely intuitive, and he’s still making sense of their placement amongst one another. Some may balk at an artist lacking any clear direction such as this, but if such an artist creates eloquent objects from the process such as these, something profound is occurring. Over the years, I’ve learned that one should never discount the power of intuition, and in this case, intuition has brought Depauw to a fertile place that is incredibly generous in allowing his viewers to bring themselves into his work. Other standouts at Staple Goods are a couple of couple of gorgeous abstract paintings from Aaron Collier and a hanging construction composed of found objects made of metal wire by Cynthia Scott. Scott manages to create a piece that is fully present, yet essentially and ideally Platonic in nature. It’s a perfect marriage of abstraction, conceptualism, appropriation and post-Katrina junkyard love and sorrow.
Post-Staple Goods, we headed to the Faubourg-Marigny for a very late lunch at a Greek/Lebanese restaurant called Mona’s. The meal was necessary and filling, but completely uninspiring. We made our way into the French Quarter for coffee at one of our favorite cafes, Envie. For anybody unfamiliar with the language of love, “envie” is French for desire or craving, and the name says everything about what it’s like to live without this place. Every time Kirstie and I return to NOLA, a visit to Envie is a must: great coffee and pastry, the perfect atmosphere and a great mix of patrons that range from gutterpunks and hipsters to business professionals. The art they display tends to be of a higher quality than most shops as well. We didn’t spend much time there. I wanted to go forward into the Quarter to view Sophie Calle and Dawn Dedeaux’s P.2 installations. However, by the time we finished with our coffee, it was already around 4:30PM. I realized that there wasn’t anymore time in the day for further exploration. We were exhausted, wall-eyed from art overload, and we had a long 2-and-a-half hour trek to endure in order to make it home to Lafayette that day. At that point, I surrendered reluctantly, and we made the way to our truck. We drove off into the sunset … literally.
On the way back home, Kirstie and I discussed our weekend in NOLA: the art that we saw, the people we came into contact with, the places new and old that we had been. It was an ongoing conversation that ebbed and flowed the whole way back to Lafayette. As with every trip to NOLA we have ever taken, there was a sense of loss and regret that accompanied leaving the city. New Orleans is one of those places that works its way into your heart and soul … into the very fabric of your being. Letting it go and saying goodbye to the city is difficult. Leaving NOLA in the midst of P.2 was even more difficult for me, if not impossible. My mind and heart are still there, a week later.
I never made it to Prospect 1. From all accounts, it was an achingly beautiful and moving display of post-Katrina grandeur that is supposedly unmatched by the smaller scale of Prospect 2. My guess is that such a thing will never be seen again. However, I experienced enough of P.2 to know that the biennial is still thriving, still pushing forward, and still evolving, despite its financial setbacks. The whole experience of this installment of the biennial left an indelible impression on me. The impression that despite it all, everything is going to be alright. That the world, Louisiana and the city are just how they should be. There’s no need to worry about disaster because disaster simply presents another opportunity for renewal, whether it is of a natural or a financial nature. I think we are all experiencing an “opportunity” as I write this. In the grand scheme of things, we are all integral and we are all expendable. It’s simply a matter of scale. I missed quite a bit of the biennial this past weekend. It’s no matter. I can return, or there’s a distinct possibility that this will never occur. Who knows? All that I know is that Prospect 2 and New Orleans taught me to let go and to surrender to something bigger than myself this past weekend- to trust in the beauty of failure because it’s inevitably the road to redemption. It’s a cliche in Louisiana, but somehow I feel it in my heart now, and I understand it on a deeper level than I ever have before: Laissez les bon temps roulez! This is the real gold I’ve been digging for all this time.
The St. Vincent Guest House is a hostel in the Lower Garden District on Magazine St. which rents private rooms by night. It used to be an orphanage, and it was owned by the paranormally-crazed writer Anne Rice at one time. It’s pretty old and ramshackle, but it’s got all the faded New Orleans grandeur and charm you can shake an oyster po-boy at.