THE KATRINA EXPERIENCE / writings
ART IN AMERICA On the Death of New Orleans
by DAWN DEDEAUX
One month after my rapid exodus from New Orleans, I return to a city dead. Yet there are familiar sights in the maze of debris: I see the work of Leonardo Drew in the matted rolls of wet housing insulation, Cy Twombly scratches in the enamel of wind-tossed cars, Keith Sonnier configurations in the twisted neon signs knotted with plastic bags, a Richard Serra monument in the mammoth, rusted, severed barge at an intersection . . . and on and on the story goes.
Walking through the destruction of Katrina, I have no doubt that abstract art is the fruit of disaster, the offspring of world wars and holocausts. Minimalism is in there, too, naturalistic in the face of annihilation. In the past weeks, abstract art has become my companion, an unlikely choice for this otherwise conceptual/political/representational artist. Abstraction always seemed an academic luxury I could not afford, an indulgent parlor game I could not take back to the street. It lacked for me a needed authenticity.
But now abstraction is more representational than a portrait of my mother. It is the hyperrealism of everything I saw while traversing the coastline from Alabama to Louisiana. No longer a parlor game, abstraction is now the language of my reality.
Ghost town New Orleans is stranger than an episode of The Twilight Zone. I stop in front of the housing projects on Orleans Avenue, across the street from Dooky Chase Restaurant. Only a month ago, this was home to more than 2,000 people. Not a sound. Evidence of the sudden cessation of life can be seen through the scores of open windows. It brought to mind Kurdish towns after the gas, or Hiroshima following the blast.
If not a consequence of global warming, Katrina is the indifferent manifestation of a weather pattern to be measured in centuries, not seasons. Thinking in such meterological time, biblical scale and mythic proportion, contemporary art is the smallest speck of time, and I am wiped off the map. With much of my work lost, and with most of my days spent as a stranger on the Gulf Coast or a zombie in New Orleans, I am no longer securely reflected in my art or my sense of place. This fucking Zen clean slate of present tense is both terrifying and extraordinary. I have no children, with no regret, but I absorb the fact that there is less evidence of my existence. Who am I?
Near the end of the day, I drive through the Marigny section of town, greeted by the sound of heavy metal blasting from enormous speakers mounted on a musician's yellow balcony, A colorful banner flaps defiantly: "Radio Marigny." This is the first authentic offering of hope.
The only other sound of the day is old Communist-style propaganda. It comes from my car radio in the repetitive offerings of "feel good" messages: "Hey N'awlins, we'll be back in no time . . .soon we be eatin' red beans an' rice, goin' to da Mardi Gras, dancin' in da streets." Behind the words is generic, commercialized, upbeat music. But right now I am in no mood for a simulated jazz funeral. This is a wake. The real music will come back another day, when the Rebirth Brass Band can live up to its name.
Author: Dawn DeDeaux is a multimedia, digital and conceptual artist based in New Orleans.