"According to Stephen Hawking, We Have 100 Years Left.... Not to Save Earth, but to Leave"
AMERICAN THEATRE 14 Theatrical Plans to Change the World / by Mark Blankership
Dawn DeDeaux's MotherShip Prepares
for Planetary Evacuation
Conceptual artist Dawn DeDeaux has a deep-throated laugh and a wry sense of herself as someone who is 'working the cracks," as she puts it - a phrase that refers to the intersection of visual arts and what she identifies as "electronically driven" theatre. In that meeting place, she makes works that have serious narratives, but are realized as site-specific installations without live actors. Her large-scale, mixed-media MotherShip trilogy - a response to astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's assertion that humanity has 100 years left, not to save the Earth but to leave it - is an immersive, "future-tense" installation of sculpture, drawings and digital technology inspired by ancient myths, mathematical forecasts, symbols, visions of apocalyptic landscapes and utopian longings.
Dawn DeDeaux has been thinking a lot about the apocalypse, and she’d like to get you in the mood, too.
“MotherShip,” her installation for Prospect.3, this town’s international biennial (which, in typical New Orleans fashion, has rolled around not quite on schedule), proposes an exit strategy from planet Earth. Ms. DeDeaux, a mixed-media artist, said she has taken to heart Stephen Hawking’s prediction that earthlings have 100 years left before the planet gives out. Opening Oct. 25, and set in an abandoned, roofless warehouse with trees growing through it, the installation will have recorded music by George Clinton and Sun Ra, giant steel rings that suggest those made for the zeppelins of yore, ladders and stacked chairs as a galactic assist, and places to store your mementos and Ms. DeDeaux’s. These last items will be souvenirs of Earth, answers to the question “If the world is ending, and you get to leave, what might you bring with you?”
As a daughter of New Orleans, Ms. DeDeaux, 63, has, of course, confronted the apocalypse before. Her Victorian gingerbread Art Shack, planted on the edge of the Fairgrounds Triangle neighborhood here, tells its post-Katrina tale in fragile and lovely ways. Its lath skeleton is plaster-free and looks like a ghostly X-ray of a house. There are burned timber fragments placed here and there, as elegant as Giacometti sculptures or African figures. A voluptuous metal culvert with a jagged, torn edge sits in front of a window. The plaster-daubed drywall ceiling lacks a finish coat of paint: after the hurricane blew the roof off, and Ms. DeDeaux received her FEMA money to replace it and the ceiling below, she stopped midway because she found the primed transitional ceiling appealing.
“Doesn’t it remind you of African mudcloth?” she asked a visitor.
Ms. DeDeaux, who wore a black shirt, black jeans and her curtain of hair draped over one shoulder, had just served this reporter a bang-up breakfast of sausages, bacon and eggs ordered from a diner nearby and presented on her 16-foot-long dining table. Since the hurricane, Ms. DeDeaux is big on takeout. “The storm changed my love for cooking,” she said, “because there were so many dead fridges.”
Before we hear her Katrina story, and the work that resulted from it, some background. Like most New Orleans histories, Ms. DeDeaux’s is appropriately gothic. From the age of 11, Ms. DeDeaux, the eldest of six children, was raised by her grandmother, Hilda Warfield, on Esplanade Avenue next door to the Degas House. This was after two of her siblings died within a year, she said, and her mother suffered extreme depression and left the family.
“I went a little mute,” Ms. DeDeaux said.
Her best friend was her grandmother’s gardener, Martin Green, then in his 40s, and the two of them learned to paint from a young artist from New York who was staying in the house. “Martin also became a serious artist, and he was really into outer space, which he would paint in Day-Glo colors,” Ms. DeDeaux said. “So this ‘MotherShip’ is dedicated to him in a way.”
The circular piece at the back of the Art Shack’s dining room is a digital image of a felled oak tree trunk that Ms. DeDeaux embedded in glass.
While she sneaked beers for Mr. Green and learned formal painting, her grandmother held court at the racetrack, where she went every day for lunch, cutting a figure in her hat and gloves. “She was like Auntie Mame,” Ms. DeDeaux said, recalling boisterous dinners on Esplanade with jockeys and other local characters.
At 15, Ms. DeDeaux considered herself an old master; by her early 20s, she was making installations out of telephone booths hooked up to CB radio channels. She was also part of the group that founded the Contemporary Arts Center here in 1976, she said, a year after she won the demolition derby in the Superdome.
As Ms. DeDeaux tells it, James Glassman, the owner of Figaro, an alternative newspaper that is now defunct, wanted to promote his publication at the derby. When his editors and reporters demurred, he persuaded Ms. DeDeaux, who was selling ads, to volunteer as a driver. “Deadly Dawn” was the moniker given to her by Jumpin’ Joe, the one-legged derby employee; she survived the experience by hugging the stadium walls while most of the participants smashed one another up, after which she backed up fast and took out the last couple of cars.
Ms. DeDeaux has gained notoriety for her work, too. A series of portraits of a street thug named Paul Hardy came out of arts programming she was doing in the local prison in the late 1980s. In 1994, one of the images, of a shirtless Mr. Hardy sporting a necklace with a revolver hanging from it, made its way into the Whitney Museum as part of the infamous “Black Male” show curated by Thelma Golden, which drew criticism for promoting, rather than upending, cultural stereotypes. The fallout for Ms. DeDeaux was an F.B.I. raid on her studio during the trial of Len Davis, a member of the New Orleans Police Department convicted of hiring Mr. Hardy to kill a young mother of three who had charged Mr. Davis with brutality. (Mr. Hardy is serving a life term in prison, and Mr. Davis is on death row.)
In 1997, Ms. DeDeaux was lucky enough to spend eight months in Rome, part of which was a three-month fellowship at the American Academy there. When she returned, she was determined, she said, to own a piece of her hometown. She bought two tiny shotgun houses a block or so away from each other, one for about $35,000 and another, what would become the Art Shack, for about $38,000, both of which were owner-financed. “I had no credit rating, but with the sale of a piece I had some cash,” she said.
The first house was for sleeping, and the second was for her digital work. “This was the clean place, for all my computers,” she said, gesturing around the Art Shack. She also bought a studio nearby, a 7,000-square-foot former horse barn, in which she stored her artwork and materials: architectural salvage, bits of furniture, sheets of metal, old light fixtures and antique timbers.
Ms. DeDeaux left town the Sunday before Katrina hit, with a massive hangover (she had had a dinner party the night before), in a van loaded with her computers, three neighbors who were afraid to go to the Superdome, an out-of-towner who had been staying with her and working on her website, six finches, an aged dog and a cat.
When she returned a month later to “the stew,” after a harrowing getaway and exile, the roofs of both houses had been staved in by fallen trees and the back half of the studio had collapsed, destroying a third of her work. “Thank God I’m no longer a painter,” she said. “I’m just a smoke-and-mirrors conceptual artist.”
When she first bought the Art Shack, she had stripped the plaster from one wall and exposed the lath to let light into the main room. After Katrina, all the plaster had to go, along with a sizable amount of exterior cladding. Unfazed, Ms. DeDeaux pulled off a few more clapboards and bolstered the exterior with sheets of safety glass, happily noting how much brighter the place was.
Lately, she has been irritated by the fresh coat of bright blue paint on the house next door that glows through her porous walls. Tacked onto her window are various drawing papers in creams and browns, not quite satisfactory scrims to tone down the bright color leaking through. “I’m a monochromist,” she said. “I’ve got to figure this out.”
Perhaps a bigger blow came a year after Katrina, when her studio burned to the ground, destroying much of her work, her materials and treasures like paintings made by Mr. Green. It was accidental, she said, a fire made by exiles bused in to vote on a freezing cold night, who had no place to stay. When the fire department arrived, there was no water pressure.
“I was so disheartened,” she said, “because I can fully accept the outcomes of nature, but I had the hardest damn time accepting the folly of man, of politics.”
But like many local artists, she started making work out of the debris and, later, about the disasters, plural. (Five years after Katrina, you’ll recall, New Orleans entertained the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.) She used Elmer’s glue, mud and string on plywood to make poetic dirt abstracts. She embedded acrylic slabs with digital images of water. She salvaged 12 burned timbers from the barn and put them in a show. She harvested storm culverts from a debris pile, bracketed them to a gallery’s walls and embedded them with speakers that played an old Delta blues song, “Lord Help the Poor and Needy.”
Charred relics from the fire can be spotted throughout the Art Shack: those elegant black timbers; a limited-edition book made for the Percent for Art program that sponsored her prison programming, its crumbly singed pages bracketed in a metal grid made to look like prison bars; a metal case of singed postcards of European artworks that Ms. DeDeaux will set out in the “MotherShip” installation, as part of the souvenir section.
“Say we do have to leave,” Ms. DeDeaux said. “We can’t fit the Mona Lisas or the Davids on the ship, so these little postcards are stand-ins.”
She added sternly: “This is not just another generation’s apocalypse. We have some math here.”
Then she broke off. “It’s funny talking about this in the shack,” she said.
Ms. DeDeaux is still using her other house down the block, a.k.a. the Oyster Shack, as her bedroom, though the other day she had guests and was camped out in the Art Shack. She demonstrated how she sleeps there, laid out like a corpse in a coffin on a diminutive antique sofa, arms folded on her chest and her ankles neatly crossed. “I don’t move in the night,” she explained.
Ms. DeDeaux has a flair, said D. Eric Bookhardt, a New Orleans art critic, “a genetic French flair, for drama and a certain kind of flourish.” He likened the Art Shack to a “manic Louise Nevelson, with a texture like something a Creole Anselm Kiefer might have concocted. As a sculpture posing as a house, it’s pretty interesting.”
This will be Ms. DeDeaux’s second Prospect (the show has been held three and a half times, but that’s another story). Dan Cameron, the former New Museum curator who created Prospect.1 in 2008, invited Ms. DeDeaux to participate in P.2, as it was abbreviated, held in 2011. Her installation was inspired by John Kennedy Toole’s “Confederacy of Dunces” and involved many participants and co-conspirators. Held in the courtyard of the Brulatour House, an early-19th-century landmark here, there were drag queen Bounce dancers — think twerking, and then some (Bounce is a New Orleans version of hip-hop, and so-called Sissy Bounce is a wildly popular splinter movement) — 77 mannequins in dunce caps and an iron bed fitted with carnival-float wheels set over a fountain that erupted from its midsection.
“It really was the talk of the town for some time,” said Mr. Cameron, who is now chief curator of the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, Calif. “Whatever you’re up for, Dawn will meet you halfway, and before you know it, the two of you are up and running to take over the world together. She’s a restless spirit, so if you drop her down somewhere like a shotgun house, she’s going to transform it. She doesn’t accept the given structure of most anything.”
He added: “That house has become a piece about fragility and the tenuous hold we have on this earth.”
Which brings us back to the apocalypse. Last summer, pieces of the “MotherShip” extravaganza were on view at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, in Lafayette, La. When Ms. DeDeaux asked Mary Beyt, the curator there, what souvenir Ms. Beyt might bring on a galactic ark, she answered promptly. “Definitely Tylenol,” Ms. Beyt said.
ACA BROCHURE INTERVIEW / Dawn DeDeaux
BETWEEN APOCALYPSES / Penelope Green
ACA: What is the history behind MotherShip, the body of work you are currently exploring?
DeDEAUX: MotherShip is Earth or a means to leave her. The MotherShip series is prompted by the Katrina - BP Oil Spill wake up call: one’s comprehension of future challenges is heightened when viewing the global battlefront from your own back yard - a yard soon to slip into the Gulf [of Mexico].Such biographical upheaval is combined with my longtime interest in mathematical equations that calculate the future. For example, by 2045 Earth will host 9 billion human inhabitants. Suddenly you realize that this planet of ours is rather small: Where are the resources to sustain 9 billion people? Historically, wars, viruses, natural disasters and now terrorism can deliver huge reductions in the population, but who among us is cheering for this as a solution? Instead we turn to our scientists who are busy trying to make the numbers add up by calculating land mass in relationship to rising seas; identifying zones viable for agricultural growth that will not be impacted by global warming; engineering massive aquaculture farming on epic scale to offset the ever-increasing ocean dead zones and wildlife specie extinctions occurring in record number; envisioning the divisions of fresh water, soon more valuable than gold, measured by the ounce and distributed by the drop to the masses…and so the future unfolds.To encapsulate these challenges I chose MotherShip as the series unifying title and core icon. MotherShip is both a metaphor for Earth in need of stewardship; and if we fail, MotherShip becomes our constructed lifeline vessel to transport us to new frontiers beyond. If you share the projections of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, we have 100 years left – not to save the Earth but to leave her. In either outcome, MotherShip is the link to our survival.
AcA: A reoccurring theme in your work is the concept of collective mythology that bridges cultures as well as time. How does this manifest itself within MotherShip?
DeDEAUX: Regarding mythology, I am very interested in looking at the mathematical forecasts for the future alongside historical, collective myths that foretell of the end of time.A centerpiece for the series is a life-size shimmering pale horse that gazes into his own reflected image. This emerged both from my own reoccurring Jungian-like dreams and my research of early-recorded mythological histories where such a white or pale horse appears. I was surprised to learn that such a horse is referenced in a sweeping diversity of cultures as a near-universal symbol for the ‘end of (Earthly) time’ - including Babylonian, Persian, Hindu, Saxon, Asian, Slavic, Native American and Biblical texts such as The Book of Revelations – and as a signifier of triumph over evil, even amidst our predicted annihilation.I also turn to the rich body of mythic literature that identifies the Ring as a symbol representing the union of people and time - the alpha and omega. The Ring seems mandated to embody the best and worst of mankind–forged not only of metal but also of desire that both creates and destroys in equal measure. For example the ‘desire’ for greater oil profits has led in part to the death of our wetlands.In my own MotherShip narrative my ring is not like the small gold ring that prompts the Hobbits to risk their lives to save the world, but instead it is an industrial-scaled Ring, modeled after those used to build the early Zeppelins – still the largest air ships built to date. This Zeppelin construction Ring represents for me the dysfunctional marrige of man and technology. We allowed our uncontrolled use of technology to bring us to this place of potential peril; but ironically we can no longer divorce ourselves from technology, as without it we are certainly doomed.
AcA: Is there a sliver of hope that we can collectively rewrite a strategic script to outwit both myth and math’s gloomy forecast of what the future holds?
DeDEAUX: The Odds of Hope: It is difficult for rational folk to dispute the mathematical equations of Steven Hawking that prompt his 100-year theory. But to abandon hope is equally unreasonable. There are David and Goliath stories and ‘to hope’ for good outcome is at the core of humanness and a go-to-script of myth.It is heartening to see the changing habits of younger generations in terms of energy consumption, alternative energy, organic foods, recycling and the ability to utilize social media to proactively stand up for important issues. There are worldwide efforts but I am specifically proud of the environmental leadership in south Louisiana and how individual groups such as Bucket Brigade, Gulf Restoration Network, Restore Louisiana Now and Levees.org are now working together behind the banner of The Green Army. It seems as though a line has been drawn in the sand, punctuated by the recent Louisiana Legislative effort to kill the lawsuit against oil and gas companies asking for the restoration of dredged canals that contributed to coastal erosion. The effort led by historian and writer John Barry was heroic and it has pushed hope across the threshold.Coastal Louisiana is Earth’s youngest land mass, and will be among the first lands to disappear. In spite of knowing this, I don’t find myself fraught with an all consuming fatalism - I would rather say I feel a sense of urgency.
Is there a sliver of hope? Every so often the small horse wins against all odds. If not I will ride out on the pale horse into the big ring and leave my losses behind. Of course I will first teach the horse to swim.