I n New Orleans, what is vulgar to some is also elegant to others. It is the most gothic of American cities. In Truman Capote’s essay about New Orleans, he realizes for the first time that this place is a ghost story, even in daylight. He describes the “sad, gray sun” that hangs over the Quarter.
Andrei Codrescu finds that the cemeteries are reassuring, that they provide continuity – the dearly departed don’t require as much room as they used to, but they still have an address.
It is easy to forget the literary riches of New Orleans. Both Capote and Lillian Hellman lived there as children. This city also gave us Walker Percy, John Kennedy Toole, and James Lee Burke, as well as Anne Rice, who has set some of her vampire stories there. It’s a city of secrets and ghosts and stories.
In a lot of Burke’s marvelous novels set in New Orleans, his protagonist often laments that his city “was a poem.” This character also lives life with the fulsome knowledge that the past is always with us. I am sometimes confused, in making my body of work, between celebrating the bold and audacious place that I remember and chronicling the current New Orleans that is in part business as usual and in part furious loss. It is, of course, both of those places now, and I don’t know which place to give voice and picture to. The answer is probably both. I don’t want to romanticize all of this too much, but it is that kind of place.
Friends of mine in New Orleans appreciate small grace notes in their day now: A cafe au lait and a beignet at Cafe Du Monde. The presence of a mockingbird. The sight of an elder musician carrying his instrument into Preservation Hall. The sound of the recently repaired streetcars on St. Charles Avenue. The return of lives, once deferred.
My work for the New Orleans Biennial, Prospect I was partly installed in a room called a “Chapel of Moths.” I feel like moths are an appropriate metaphor for this ratty, and at the same time regal, town. They are beautiful and destructive and fly too close to the fire.