NEW ORLEANS — Of all the stories about New Orleans, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the most universally beloved. So an artist who attempts to engage it in a different medium has their work cut out for them from the get-go: anyone who’s read Toole’s posthumously published comedic opus already has their own idea of how Ignatius J. Reilly and his world should be brought to life. (Which is one reason among several why there’s never been a successful film adaptation of Toole’s novel, but that’s a subject for another post.)
Artist Dawn DeDeaux‘s Prospect 2 installation in the historic Brulatour Courtyard in New Orleans’ French Quarter turns Toole’s tragicomedy into a frenzied fever dream filled with objects from and allusions to the novel. Centered around an unmade bed on a wheeled cart constructed around the courtyard’s fountain, DeDeaux’s “Goddess Fortuna and Her Dunces In An Effort To Make Sense Of It All” (2011) is dominated by of dozens of dunce-capped mannequins who look down upon the comically suggestive gush of water spurting from the center of tangled sheets with equal parts detachment and menace.
One room off the courtyard features a looping video of New Orleans bounce queens Big Freedia and Katey Red (almost unrecognizable in masks and elaborate carnival-like dress) as DeDeaux’s conception of the goddess Fortuna, who plays a central role in Ignatius’ musings in the novel; the video is reflected through windows back into the courtyard, where the dual Fortunas appear to be dancing at the foot of Ignatius’ bed.
Another room contains DeDeaux’s sketches for the costumes and set designs for a 1991 stage production of “Dunces,” along with three costumed mannequins arranged among a vintage jukebox, a giant stuffed bird and a Lucky Dog cart with a plaid-shirted decomposing corpse tucked inside.
In yet another corner of the courtyard, a procession of head- and torsoless legs descend a staircase to follow another mysterious figure through an open door. More video projections of pulsing, fiery portals can be glimpsed in rooms in the upper stories of the courtyard. Another room contains articles of clothing and artwork referencing the novel’s themes of race relations in the South and the Civil Rights movement. And the whole is blanketed by a lugubrious soundtrack of a spoken Latin text (Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy”, if you’re still paying attention) overlaid and interspersed with 1950s lounge standards, traditional spirituals, and snippets of New Orleans bounce music.
If it all sounds kind of confusing, especially if you haven’t read the book, that’s because it is: despite her intimacy with and evident fondness for the novel, DeDeaux obviously isn’t trying to construct a narrative that approaches the cohesiveness of her source material. The result, however, often feels like a jumble of symbols, ideas and imagery that falls somewhat short of the sum of its parts.
If you have read the novel, of course, many of the elements of DeDeaux’s installation become intelligible: the Lucky Dog cart, for example, refers to Ignatius’ ill-fated employment stint as a hot dog vendor, while that procession of headless mannequins represents the revolt of the workers in the pants factory where Ignatius later works.
Taken individually, each of the installation’s components maintain a certain intrigue and sense of humor (cf. that spewing fountain). Viewed together, though, the story becomes muddled, both conceptually and visually. The Fortuna video, so compelling on its own, almost gets lost in the shuffle, while those headless mannequins end up looking like nothing so much as an overambitious store display at the Gap.
(And while we’re on the subject of displays, can someone do something about the too-frequently amateurish wall labels which plague several of the Prospect installations? DeDeaux’s artist statement is printed on paper that seems to have been inexpertly wheatpasted on the rough stucco walls of the Brulatour courtyard and looks shoddy, barely a month into the exhibition. Surely the artist and her work deserve better.)
DeDeaux — whose work over the past several decades has encompassed installation, photography, sculpture, video, set design, soundscapes, performance and dozens of combinations thereof — has always been a challenging artist to get a handle on. But it’s precisely the peripatetic nature of her work and the varied nature of her practice that’s made her so engaging to watch over the years: one is never sure what she’s going to come up with next. Viewed in the wider context of her career, “Fortuna” is consistent with the artist’s unpredictable and distinctive sensibility.
But despite several intriguing parts, this isn’t an especially cohesive or satisfying installation as a whole: it’s difficult to hear the dialogue the components of “Fortuna” are having with each other amidst all the din, much less possible for most viewers to “make sense of it all.” If DeDeaux’s intent was to underscore the futility of such an effort, however, “Goddess Fortuna and Her Dunces In An Effort To Make Sense Of It All” succeeds admirably.
Prospect 2 runs through January 29, 2012, in various locations around New Orleans. Visit www.prospectneworleans.org for more information.