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Ilse Bing, Eiffel Tower, 1934 © Estate of Ilse Bing, Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve AG.

by Deanna Sirlin
The Art Section

I am delighted to welcome back writers who have been reporting on their passions in art for some time now, as well as a new writer who I hope will continue her dialogue about visual art.

Robert Stalker gives us a wonderfully satisfying reading of Surrealist photography inspired by Twilight Visions, recently at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Arts and currently on view at the International Center of Photography in New York City. This show will then travel to the Telfair in Savannah, GA. Mr. Stalker has written many other wonderful articles for us: “Chantal Akerman at the Camden Arts Centre,”(November/December 2008); “Re-making the Readymade: American Artists Circa 1958” ( February 2009); “Screen Memories: The Cinema of Joseph Cornell” (April 2009); “Thresholds of Vision: Mel Bochner and the Space of Painting” (May 2009); 

and “Intersections: The Films of William S. Burroughs” (Summer 2009). If you missed these the first time around, I hope you will have the opportunity to return to them through our Archive.

Andrew Dietz interviews Michael Rooks, the new curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Mr. Rooks is formally of Haunch of Venison in New York City. Mr. Dietz previously wrote for us about his book, The Last Folk Hero: A True Story of Race and Art, Power and Profit (Ellis Lane Press, 2006). His essay "Paradox Lost: How I learned to stop worrying and embrace exploitation” (Summer issue 2008) displays his wonderful sense of humor. It is accompanied by a short reading from his book.

Meredith Sims, our plucky traveler originally from Australia but now based in Atlanta, leads us through DesCours, a seven day architecture and visual arts event in New Orleans.

Thank you, writers.

All my best,



André Kertész, Under the Eiffel Tower, 1929. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Surrealism, Photography,
and The Secret Life of the City

by Robert Stalker

Guest curated by Therese Lichtenstein, whose 2001 exhibition Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer at the International Center of Photography in New York won the AICA award for best photography show, the travelling exhibition Twilight Visions, recently on view at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Arts (Sept 10, 2009-January 3, 2010), presents over 150 items to explore the intersections among Surrealist documentary photography, manipulated photography, and film. With individual galleries devoted to such key themes as “Marvelous Encounters,” “Portraits After Hours,” and “Photography’s Transformation of the Monument,” the exhibit couples its ample selection of photographs with the presentation of important Surrealist journals and books, as well as a number of contemporary tabloids, postcards, pamphlets, and related artifacts from which many Surrealists took inspiration. Alongside this array of photographs, documents, and objects run screenings of pioneering surrealist and “poetic realist” films, such as Dalí and Buñuel’s landmark Un Chien andalou (1929), Man Ray’s Emak-Bakia (1926), Jean Renoir and Jean Tedesco’s The Little Match Girl (1928) and excerpts from Jean Vigo’s l’Atalante (1934). (The exhibit’s accompanying film series “Surreal to Real” screened a couple of these films and several others in their entirety.) What emerges from this diverse collection of art works and paraphernalia is a deeper appreciation for the Surrealists’ profound preoccupation with what the movement’s founder André Breton once called “a sort of secret life of the city” and the role that photography played in excavating it.

Challenging the popular understanding of Surrealism as preoccupied with the deep, inner recesses of the mind, Walter Benjamin proposed that the Surrealists “were less on the trail of the psyche than on the track of things.” Twilight Visions’ accumulation of Surrealist photographs in conjunction with various things—documents, knick-knacks, souvenirs, and other artifacts—suggests that Surrealism’s primary interest in photography devolved on the medium’s uncanny ability to disclose the obscurity and mystery secreted away inside the otherwise unremarkable commodities that began to flood Paris in the years following World War I. Seeking what Breton called in his “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924) “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality,” Surrealist photographers turned their lenses toward documenting a kind of material history of everyday, urban reality in an effort to unearth, as the movement’s early historian Maurice Nadeau put it, “the unconscious of a city.” 

At the time of the 1985 landmark exhibition of Surrealist photography, Amour Fou, the exhibit’s curator, Rosalind Krauss, could still speak of Surrealist photography as “a virtually unexplored intellectual and historical terrain.” And while the years since that exhibit have seen increasing critical attention paid to the importance of photography to the Surrealist movement, the Surrealist exploration of the “straight” photograph has only rather recently begun to receive its due. The photograph as straightforward, documentary record of the real drew its inspiration from the work of Eugène Atget. A former actor who took up photography at the age of 35, Atget spent his life documenting the Parisian buildings, streets, parks, shops, and arcades that were quickly vanishing under the rapid transformation of the city under modernization. Hardly regarding himself an artist, Atget seems to have approached the photograph strictly as a repository of historical information, selling his enormous photographic archives to other artists, designers, cartooninsts, and, especially, antiquarians, architects, and librarians. That he was “discovered” at all by Man Ray, the American expatriate artist and “official” photographer of the Surrealist movement, came about through sheer chance—the two just happened to live on the same street. Championed by Man Ray, Atget’s photographs were quickly taken up by Man Ray’s fellow Surrealists, who found a kind of proto-surrealism in the suspense, melancholy, and uncanniness that emerged from Atget’s unadorned and enigmatic photographs of vacant, urban space, such as Corner Rue Montmorency (1908) and Rue du Figuier (1924), both on display in this exhibit. Significantly, when Man Ray offered to publish Atget’s Eclipse of the Sun on the cover of La revolution surréaliste, Atget replied: “Don’t put my name on it. These are simply documents I make,” emphasizing the matter-of-fact, documentary approach to photography that would fascinate Surrealists such as Brassaï, André Kertész, and Ilse Bing, to name a few.


From Left: 

Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (The Doll), 1934 © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris Ubu Gallery, New York & Galerie Berinson, Berlin.

Ilse Bing, Danseuse-Cancan, Moulin Rouge, Paris, 1931 © Ilse Bing Estate/Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York. Courtesy Zabriskie Gallery, NY.

Man Ray, Barbette Applying Makeup, 1926 © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

In the section of the exhibit devoted to “Looking at Atget,” we find more properly Surrealist photographers embracing a kind of Atgetian aesthetic, exploiting the spatial and epistemological ambiguities that emerge from what, in a brief article significantly entitled “The Photographic Data”(1929), Salvador Dalí isolates as “the mere photographic transposition” of even the most banal subject matter. Brassaï’s Avenue de l’Observatoire (1934) and Kertész’s Daisy Bar (1934), for example, while informed by the kind of attention to lighting, framing, and composition that rarely concerned Atget, capture a similar eeriness and expectancy in their depictions of empty, urban settings—an automobile’s headlights cutting through a murky and vacant city square; a poorly lit staircase descending to a car parked, door ajar, in front of a tavern. Both of these photos, and others like them, share Atget’s interest in depopulated urban settings, generating a sense anticipation and mystery from the narrative possibilities opened up by what look almost like establishing shots from a contemporary film noir.

In his now-famous photos of Paris from Notre Dame (1933), included in the exhibit under the rubric “Marvellous Encounters,” Brassaï very deliberately sought out an isolated and vacant location, bribing a concierge for admittance to the normally inaccessible top of the great medieval cathedral. His beautiful photos of the gargoyles set against the Parisian night sky demonstrate the Surrealists’ fascination with the photograph’s ability to transform material objects through straightforward, factual representation, as the stone sculptures appear uncannily both animate and inanimate, at once densely material and fantastically ethereal. Brassaï himself, a gifted writer who published important books of his photos, said that in these photos “Present and Past, history and legend, intermingle,” capturing precisely the Surrealist’s interest in photography’s ambiguous relation to the real. Taking us from the ancient and mythical to the utterly transitory and down-to-earth, Ilse Bing’s similarly matter-of-fact yet marvelous Puddle (1932) aims a street-level camera down at a puddle of water in the gutter of a Parisian avenue. The photo’s composition, framing, and cropping create an ambiguous and disorienting sense of space out of the dizzying reflection of buildings and skyline in the muddy pool. Equipped with little more than an incisive eye and what Dalí once identified as “the unconscious calculations of the machine,” Bing transforms perhaps the most banal of subject matter—a mucky little puddle—into a surprising meditation on representation. Dalí’s own collaboration with Brassaï, Sculptures Involuntaires, an article with accompanying photos that ran in the 1933 issue of the Surrealist journal Minotaure and is included in the exhibit, similarly demonstrates how even the most “positivist” of photographic documentation can, through radical decontextualization of its subject, transform utterly mundane and overly familiar objects and materials—a curled up metro ticket, a blob of toothpaste—into tokens of the marvelous and uncanny.

A similar interest in foregrounding the terms of representation finds its way into several other Surrealist photographers’ reflections on the everyday, particularly in their depictions of the everyday as lived in an era of capitalist consumption. Bing’s Greta Garbo Poster, Paris (1932) captures an oversized, ragged poster of the iconic movie star on the wall of a Paris building. The weather-beaten and fraying image of the actress seems to offer a melancholic reflection on not only the commodification of the “star” but also on the acceleration of obsolescence symptomatic of a culture committed to “the new.” In a similar vein, Kertész’s Broken Plate, Paris (1929), a close-up of a cracked souvenir plate with an image of city skyline emblazoned on it, appears, at first blush, to be a photo of cityscape as seen through a broken widow, the lines of what appear to be a cracked pane of glass suggesting fragmentation, perhaps even violence. Only after several seconds do we realize that Kertész has actually photographed a kitschy souvenir plate, his own photograph, a reproduction of a reproduction, subtly bringing the cheap fractured plate into an unexpected reflection on the centrality of photographic reproduction in the production of memory, nostalgia, and tourism.

Bing’s Greta Garbo Poster, Kertész’s Broken Plate, Brassaï’s photo of the scaffold-enshrouded Saint-Jacques Tower, Paris (1932-33) (included in Breton’s L’Amour fou (1937)), and Raoul Ubac’s Fossil of the Eiffel Tower (1938-39), a photograph which the artist submitted to a complicated processes of solarization and other manipulations to capture the Eiffel Tour as ossified sand, are all, significantly, variations on the important Surrealist theme of the ruin. Singled out by Breton in his “Surrealist Manifesto” as one of the key emblems of modernity, the modern ruin fascinated the Surrealists, for in it capitalism’s acceleration of obsolescence, its fetishization of new but increasingly short-lived objects, was laid bare. The other important sign of the modern that Breton called attention to in that first manifesto was the mannequin, an object whose “life” is inextricably tied to advertising, consumption, and the fetishization of the body under capital.

The mannequin pervades the shop windows of Atget and Brassaï, the dreams and fantasies of Renoir’s The Little Match Girl and the newlywed Juliet of Vigo’s L’Atalante, photographic portraits such as Denise Bellon’s Salvador Dalí Holding a Mannequin (1938), and Dalí’s own haunting installation, Rainy Taxi, exhibited at the Exposition international du surréalisme in 1938 and commemorated by Ubac’s photographs. As an emblem of the uncanny, the mannequin captivated the Surrealists, presenting them with an ideal object through which to explore issues of desire, fantasy, and the body. By far the most enigmatic and disquieting of all the Surrealists’ explorations of the mannequin must surely be Hans Bellmer’s Poupées, photographs of dolls assembled by the artist to resemble pubescent girls, whose interchangeable parts he manipulated into grotesque and extremely unsettling postures. Bellmer’s critics have interpreted the violence projected onto to these dolls as reflective of Bellmer’s fascination with sadistic, infantile fantasies of the “body-in-pieces” as well as a subversive challenge to the Nazi cult of the healthy, athletic body. That Bellmer’s dolls are invariably female and never relinquish their artificial, manufactured status, however, may suggest that Bellmer’s interest in these figures lay in challenging, too, precisely the kind of fetishizations of the body found in the storefront mannequins captured in the photos of Atget, Brassaï, and others. Either way, his photos remain one of the most truly disturbing examples, among many, of the many problematic treatments of the female body in the (primarily male) Surrealist canon. Lichtenstein's insightful inclusion of Disavowed Confessions, however, an autobiographical book written and illustrated by Claude Cahun (née Lucy Schwob), offers, especially through its self-portrait photo-collages of Cahun’s disarticulations and manipulations of her own body, a compelling alternative to Surrealism’s sometimes sexist, if not downright misogynistic, tendencies.

In a lecture presented in Brussels in 1934 entitled “What is Surrealism?,” Breton took aim at what he perceived as a “fundamental crisis of the ‘object.’” As Twilight Visions makes clear, photography emerged in the Paris of the thirties as a fundamental means for the Surrealists to scrutinize and dissect the object. Focusing especially on the commonplace, even banal, objects that increasingly began to inhabit the urban everyday, Surrealist photographers repeatedly attest to Louis Aragon’s declaration in his great “mythology of the modern,” Paris Peasant (1926), that “In everything base there is some quality of the marvelous.” 


Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer. 

Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris is currently on view at the International Center of Photography in New York City through May 9, 2010. Thereafter, it will be at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, GA from June 11 through October 10, 2010.

Left: Michael Rooks. Photo: High Museum of Art. Right: Andrew Dietz. Photo: A. Dietz.

Michael Rooks
An Interview

by Andrew Dietz

Michael Rooks is the recently appointed Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. Rooks previously held curator positions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, The Contemporary Museum Honolulu, and at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Most recently, Rooks served as Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions and Artist Relations at Haunch of Venison, a contemporary art gallery in New York. Rooks received both a Master of Arts degree in modern art history, theory and criticism (1995) and Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (1988) from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Dietz: Atlanta has never been known as much of a contemporary art town…or any kind of art town, for that matter. Why on earth are you coming to Atlanta?

Rooks: I was just departing my previous position at Haunch of Venison where I served as Director of Artist Relations and I realized that I missed playing a role in a mission driven organization rather than a commercial one. That’s where I really belong and the High Museum was at the top of the list of mission-driven arts organizations. Jeffrey Grove, who had been the High’s head of contemporary art, had just taken a job in Dallas. So, there was an opening and a search underway led by the recruiting firm, Phillips Oppenheim. I know Jeffrey very well and it seemed like a fit.

Dietz: Have you spent much time in the South?

Rooks: I visited Atlanta three years ago for a conference of art curators but prior I had not been to the city. I had spent some time, though, in Memphis and Nashville in 2007 when I was invited to be curator for the “Perspectives” exhibition at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The Brooks had me juror a group of artists from within a 300-mile radius of Memphis who had submitted their work online for consideration. Then I hopped in a car and drove around the South doing studio visits within a ten-day period to make the second round of cuts. So that was a brief but deep dip into the Southern art world.

Dietz: In 1917, H. L. Mencken called the South the “Sahara of the Bozart.” He said, “for all its size and all its wealth and all the ‘progress’ it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.” He called Georgia the “worst of the south.” While we’ve come a long way, there may still be particular nuances of the South which makes dealing in art matters different here than elsewhere. For one thing, it seems that many Atlantans – at least – carry something of an arts inferiority complex. What do you feel is unique about southern sensibilities which impacts how Atlanta and the South respond to contemporary art?

Rooks: How artists perceive themselves and their surroundings has an impact on how they approach their studio practices. Chicago is known as the “second city” and, it too, has always been trying to prove itself in the art world. So, sometimes in markets like that, you get a lot of art that looks like it’s trying too hard and a tendency to overreact to a feeling of being outside the “main” action. On the other hand, you can also see wonderful things that are specific to artists working outside the primary centers of art production and dissemination. Regionalism – I don’t mean that in a derogatory way - is a good thing because who we are and the earnestness about one’s background and community can provide a powerful influence. I’ve always been brought up to feel pride about where I come from, though it was just a small rural farm town outside of Chicago. [Interviewer’s note: Rooks is from Ottawa, IL, a town of about 18,000 located an hour and a half Southwest of Chicago. It is best known as the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debate held in Ottawa's historic Washington Square on August 21, 1858.]

Because of where I grew up, I think I bring something different to an art conversation or group dynamic that you otherwise wouldn’t have with a group of people born and bred in Manhattan or Berlin. So, I really encourage that with young artists: not to put blinders on towards the universal world of art making, but also to respect where you are from and who you are. When you do that, it starts to click for an artist. When an artist can shake insecurities and let go of the kinds of expectations you have of yourself as an artist, then you can make work that’s truly genuine. Once an artist is at peace with being outside of the art world’s centers, there is a lot of great art being made.

Dietz: Now, let’s move on to a simpler subject: What’s art, what isn’t and who has the right to say?

Rooks: Ha! That’s simpler? Art is something that has relevance to living today and to our lives and is generally relevant to contemporaneity. Real art is generated from a train of thought that takes a different route than most of us do. It is a way of thinking outside of conventional wisdom and beyond typical ways of looking at things. Art making today comes in many forms and doesn’t necessarily need to be created by a lone individual; it can be created collectively. It could be an idea or a set of actions put in place by others even without their knowledge that they’re participating. Art is a broad area of philosophical inquiry and nearly all art is valid if it makes a contribution and expands our horizons and helps all of us grow- including the already well-informed.

Dietz: What will you do to transform the Atlanta audience’s interest in contemporary art?

Rooks: Audience is really important to me. That’s the point of being in a mission driven place; we’re there to expand the horizons of our audience and bring as many people along with us as possible. We were able to do that when I was in Hawaii and it was great to see how people responded to new things. People are generally hungry for knowledge but timid about the institutions which are perceived to be elitist – especially when they come packaged in big glittering gorgeous buildings. My background is … well, to put it plainly, we were poor. When you start to become a participant in this art world, which has its own hierarchy and is so enmeshed in social fabric of a city, you’ve got to come to terms with feeling comfortable as an outsider. What’s important is a hunger for learning and growing. I feel that audiences, regardless of socio economic situation, more often than not don’t think when they wake up that they’re going to look at art today. Our job is to reach as many people as possible and at same time we can’t diminish the quality and intellectual rigor of our work by doing that. The two goals aren’t mutually exclusive. To have a big platform allows you to bring to the stage all the things you know and want to ask the public. That lets you raise everyone’s boat. I’ve learned a lot by watching the audience and listening. I try not to come with the arrogance that I have the gospel and that I’ll hand it down to everyone and you’d better listen or you’ll be culturally destitute. Sharing knowledge is important, but it is also important to listen to audience response and recalibrate based on that. It is a great accomplishment if you can inspire one kid to go home and log in online to an art website or go buy an art book or take an art class or have their parents look at or think about something differently.

Dietz: The High Museum outsourced much of its art exhibitions over the past several years to the Louvre; now it seems to be doing the same with contemporary art by landing a deal with the Museum of Modern Art. How do you see this?

Rooks: The MOMA partnership will be a priority for the first six months I’m at the High and for a number of years to follow. I think that “outsourcing” is the wrong term. Partnership is a better word. This is an alliance with a sister institution to get works here that you can’t otherwise. The art that we will have access to … you can’t usually borrow these things from other institutions. This partnership is important because it lets us bring important works to Atlanta that our audience couldn’t get to see without visiting New York. It lets us whet their appetite for modern art and to see incredible masterworks that may never travel again.. Part of the reason I decided to join the High Museum was because of these alliances. I think they’re quite impressive and very generous. You could be cynical about it and see the arrangement as the museum trying to co-opt the brand of MOMA but I see it differently. I view it as a great offering for the larger regional community. It may make opening doors to new audiences easier and it lets us tell the story of modernism, which is important for people to have a sense of before they can appreciate contemporary art.

Dietz: How will your success be measured? After a year on the job, how will you know whether this has been a great move or a smoking hole in the ground?

Rooks: I want to get to know people in the Atlanta art world and reach out to friends nearby in Tennessee and Alabama and explore what’s possible in order to create a critical mass of support for Contemporary Art. This is an area where I’ll be especially judged: on building relationships that bring people along as modern and contemporary art participants, supporters, and enlarge the circle.

Dietz: What relationships do you most need to cultivate to succeed in your new role?

Rooks: Artists and collectors. The two go hand in hand. I know there are a great deal of very good artists in the city plus smart and important art collectors who have developed a clear collecting focus and are active and engaged. So many people I know have friends who live in Atlanta and there’s already been an outpouring of people offering contacts for me to meet in Atlanta, Savannah, Athens. I’ve already taken that list of people and “facebooked” as many as I could to get that network going.

Dietz: If you could add just one piece of art to the High Museum’s contemporary collection what would it be?

Rooks: I don’t know the High’s collection that well yet beyond what’s on view. I will be digging into that as soon as I arrive in Atlanta. Generally, we would want to continue to make acquisitions of important works … whatever that means … serious works by mid-career and late-career artists. But that presents a financial burden because that kind of work is expensive so we need to be targeted. We will need a focused strategy to go after these things – through gifts or through a “hui” as we say in Hawaii. Hui means a group of people who we would gather together to buy a big art piece. We also need an aggressive strategy for seeking young artists who are serious and have a track record. We need to look into the crystal ball and get a sense for who is going to be important including artists from the region. I may do part two of the road trip I had done around Memphis to meet people. I was so impressed with what I saw during that trip and … I don’t want to sound like I didn’t expect this – but I was blown away by so many artists that I met during that trip. I just didn’t know them before and thought “these are artists I should know about.” I would like to see us include regional artists in our acquisition strategy and make them feel like they’re participants in the High just as we need to participate in their world outside the museum.

Dietz: Last question…What are your aspirations in the art world? What do you most want to see happen?

Rooks: I’m a supporter of the underdog. I like to look at artists who have not been given their due--those who haven’t been part of the fashionable set and who have fallen off the radar screen. I like to find them – working with those artists or their estates - and bring their work back to life or reintroduce an artist who has been out of the limelight. I go a little bit against the grain when it comes to the art market. When the art world is so market driven, it is not very enlightening for anyone. It is just hard to tell what it all means when you see museum shows by artists who were just yesterday in diapers and all of a sudden they are in the world’s biggest museums because the market says they’re the hottest thing, so get in line. While I may not make a lot of friends among art dealers because of it, I like to go against that conventional market driven wisdom.

Andrew Dietz is an entrepreneur as well as the author of The Last Folk Hero: A Story of Race and Art, Power and Profit.


Christophe Gauspohl + Scott Carter + Mario Schambon, Untitled, 2009. DesCours, New Orleans.
Photo: Meredith Sims.


by Meredith Sims

New Orleans showcases DesCours, a week-long, contemporary architecture and art event that explores the latest in design and technology through the presentation of innovative, large-scale architecture installations. Thirteen installations will nightly transform hidden spaces across the French Quarter and the Central Business District of New Orleans.… (from the press release for DesCours)

Thinking this will be a one evening event, I soon find out that the scope in number of installations and geography, not too mention the cold and drizzly weather, preclude it from being one. My one evening of seeing the work becomes three, requiring a postponed flight in order to cover more ground after record breaking rains keep us away.

Being predominately light based and in spaces that are hidden or otherwise inaccessible to the regular public, many of the installations can only be seen after 6:00 PM. We decide to venture first to the outlying installations, those that need a car to get around, and to save our walk through the French Quarter for the next evening.

It’s dark, deserted and for New Orleans, unseasonably cold as we disembark at our first stop, Chime, an installation by Jennifer Hiser hidden away in one of four deserted store fronts along a lonely section of South Rampart. If you weren’t looking carefully, you would miss it altogether. The buildings, which were jazz clubs in some distance past, are an appropriate setting for Chime, which is both musical and participatory. Glass pendants float in a sultry lit room where viewers direct the play of sound through movement of fans, or, if of sufficient height, simply by walking through the upside down glass bed, using the head as a percussive source. Although Hiser considers the nature of destruction through the way the elements of the work are displaced by currents of air wafted their way by the spectators, the piece feels gentle and warm, in strong contrast with the dull and lonely exterior of the building it occupies.

We move on to Carondelet and Photon Garden, situated inside of an old shipping container which, according to the host students, has traveled all the way from Tokyo. The piece is a collaborative project directed by Hiroyuki Futai, Associate Professor at Musashino University. I enjoy the way Photon Garden, a created forest of 400 translucent tubes and 1600 light emitting diodes, reveals itself within this enclosed space. The inner walls are mirrors which infinitely reflect the photons, viewers, and a back panel movie screen projection. On the night we are viewing, the mirrored projection is opaque – the doors of the container are open and the headlights of passing cars create their own interplay of light and interact with the internal environment. We were particularly tickled when our host whips away the front of the “garden” to reveal its mechanism: a laptop projects two-dimensional monochrome images through photo sensors to create the three dimensional play of light patterns that sweep through the forest. It’s clever and it creates a space that feels both intimate and expansive, a secret escape in which you want to linger.

Onwards to the gloomy and towering vaulted ceiling of a former bank, situated inside of a Gothic 1920’s skyscraper in New Orleans's Central Business District. A wind-swept and decidedly chill-blasted docent directs us inside to Saccade-based Display. It’s an interesting space, and at first we’re not quite sure what we are supposed to be looking at. Yes, there are some colored LED lights--shades of Dan Flavin--but are we missing something? The space itself is so imposing it’s kind of cool to hang out there, but then the docent pops in and gives us a clue – move your head from side to side while looking at the LEDs - and suddenly images light up the space. The effect as your eyes move across lights is Wow, Kazaam, Kaboom, like a fleeting pop art display, images and words revealed only by the residual afterimage on the retina. We’re surprised and pleased by this subtly clever creation, another Japanese installation from Hideyuki Ando, Tetsutoshi Tabata, Maria Adriana Verdaasdonk and Junji Watanabe. This and Photon Garden are the only installations to incorporate technology in unexpected ways. (Francis Bitonti and Brian Osborn’s openHouse is also technologically innovative, but it is mechanical in nature.)

Heading back uptown we stop at Lee Circle and, later, at Piazza d’Italia. Inside the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects New Orleans Center for Design at Lee Circle, we’re told by the docent that the performance element of the installation is not present. There was supposed to be a video projected on the wall behind the crazed yet eloquent structure of wood and light that reaches through the space. I heard later, on our second visit, that there was also to have been a performance of Maculele, an Afro-Brazilian dance and martial art, however it’s exam week at Tulane University, and the students who were to provide the performance are instead sweating it out academically. Nevertheless, the sculptural explosion of light and form through this contained space creates its own sense of revolt and is definitely high energy. The piece, whose jagged structure evokes the rhythm of the wooden sticks, or grimas, used in Maculele, engages viewers in their own dances as they attempt to move around, through and under it. This site provided one of the more successful explorations of the tensions among architecture, space, and the human form to be seen at DesCours.


From Left: Jimmy Stamp + Sergio Padilla + Frederick Stivers (NO/other) + Gumbo Labs, Orpheus Descending. Hiroyuki Futai + EP3, Musashino University, Photon Garden. Mary Hale, Itinerant Home. All from DesCours 2009. Photos: Meredith Sims.

At the Piazza d’Italia, Extra Terrestrial Carpet Obscura, which is supposed to be a cosmological landscape, appears instead as a watery extension of the Piazza’s pool, mini fountains spread across the pavement. The piece is not working, unfortunately, and so we return the next evening for a second try. The lone docent (I have to admire the volunteers – it was not fun to be outdoors, and foot traffic was minimal at these outlying sites) is hopeful that we are there to fix it but, alas, we can only view the unintended play of light and structure in the pink glow of the Piazza’s regular neon lights.

With my plane ticket rearranged so the circuit can be completed, we head off on the fourth evening to the French Quarter, this time to journey on foot to the remaining sites. Our first stop, DésirDesCours, hidden behind a hairdressing salon on Iberville, is a courtyard hosting a series of projections on the defining and neighboring walls, some less accessible than others and activated by a proximity sensor. Its creators hail from Paris, France, so perhaps it's not surprising this installation explores emotional responses to the urban environment against a backdrop of love in scenes from classic European films. With the courtyard empty, the original intentions don’t resonate, but ghostly images on nearby windows hurtle you back in time and you can almost imagine the commerce, illicit or otherwise, that may have been in progress there.

From Iberville we edge north and find ourselves outside the entrance to a warehouse that has been converted to lofts. A DesCours sign directs us in, but once inside there are no further clues. Fortunately, we run into Skip; he informs us that he is a loft resident and artist as he leads us up to the roof top. Itinerant Home, a wearable inflatable house, perches precariously between the pool and the edge of the building. Its creator, Boston Architect Mary Hale, tells me that artists participating in DesCours have no idea ahead of time of the installation space they will be given - the site for each installation is only revealed to the architects on their arrival. So instead of her wearable shelter walking around the quarter, as she had envisioned, it is pinned to a rooftop lest it cut loose and float away. I kind of liked it up there: it felt playful and evoked itinerancy more than the enclosed urban streets might have done. After testing it for ourselves, (fittings for 8 people were available), we wind back down to the street.

On the way to the next site, we pass the DesCours second line parade, en route from Orpheus Descending at the former residence of Tennessee Williams to the closing night party back at DésirDesCours on Iberville. I’m hopeful that we will make it back there; with five more sites to go, we keep moving, on to our next stop, Yellow Smoke. In a narrow passage off of Royal hidden, appropriately, behind a lighting store, three columns rise glowing from the fog, the color and setting reminiscent of old gas street lamps. The mist is artificial, but seems in this setting to be a natural extension of the local ambience.

Onwards through Jackson Square and the nicely positioned Lateral Loop, inside the exterior arches of the Cabildo Museum. Contemporary meets traditional, and it works, transforming the space while also mirroring the architectural motif in design and function. The purple glow wouldn’t be amiss on a Mardi Gras float and echoes both the color and gaudiness of many local festivals. Lateral Loop is one of the few publicly accessible works in DesCours; stationed on the busiest square in the Quarter, it definitely attracts attention.

Hoofing it along Decatur Street, past Café Du Monde and the Peter Street Market, we almost rush right by the small alleyway that leads to Night Garden. I actually love this piece. In a barren courtyard, if you could even call it that, almost a square of concrete behind an interleaved patio, it’s a gem, translucent, glowing, with an almost otherworldly feel. It could have landed in this obscure space from anywhere – it’s certainly not of this place, although its unabashed “look at me” persona is definitely familiar to this town.

Moving now to less busy and sometimes less friendly terrain, we pick a well-lit street to head up to the last of the installations. At 1014 Dumaine, the film of A Streetcar Named Desire is projected inside a redefined space created by the installation Orpheus Descending. The use of a giant inflatable structure over the pool in Tennessee Williams’s former courtyard intrigues, but ultimately disappoints, although as I enter for the last time, I overhear another viewer exclaiming, “this was the best,” so perhaps I am simply ready to be done. Around the corner in an adjacent courtyard, luminescent plastic topiary sheep gambol on what appears to be their own little rural pasture as part of Nocturnal Topi-Scapes, an interesting juxtaposition against the backdrop of the Quarter. Still, this is the residential section of the French Quarter, not Bourbon Street, so it’s not entirely out of place.

One block away at openHouse, the rooftop of 1031 St. Phillip is transformed into what appears to be an underwater universe, as a canopy of glowing blue winged skate-like amorphous jellyfish suck in and out with a robotic whirring. A submersed experience may not be the intention, but given the trials the unexpected rain has caused here and elsewhere, it seems appropriate. The kinetic, not actually amphibious devices are designed to interact with rooftop inhabitants, who inject new loops of movement by sitting or placing their glasses on interspersed platforms. Unfortunately, the cumulative days of dampness have taken a toll and this layer is not operational. It’s a common theme across many of the installations, and perhaps a fitting one, given the grand scale of the destruction the elements have wrought on this city and the failure of man-made remedies to alleviate it.

DesCours works well as a different kind of spotlight on New Orleans and as an exploration of the transformation and manipulation of space and perception, although the necessity of staging it at a time of year when it is already dark (and cold) by the opening hour of 6:00 PM means less exposure than would be otherwise. And although many of the installations take playful looks at the relationships among space, form, and human beings, one can’t help feeling that they could have been designed to better withstand the elements. Because of the nature of the spaces in which they are constructed, all of the installations are relatively small; it would have been interesting to have included something on a larger scale, perhaps even something accessible during daylight hours, to create contrast and tension within the structure of the series itself. Of course, this would be at odds with the title motif, DesCours, which refers to the hidden courtyards this event illuminates - and I do like the magic of discovery that entails. Technology and materials notwithstanding, the dark, damp, and cold take their toll on the effective revelation of complexity. Ultimately, it is the playfulness of Itinerant Home, the jagged passage of the installation at the AIA, and the luminescence of Night Garden that resonate.  


Meredith Sims, originally from Perth, Australia, now resides in Atlanta, GA. 

DesCours is an annual event presented by the American Institute of Architects New Orleans.