Essays

Ghosts of Disaster in New Orleans

“Eggelston Double Take” (2010) Peering out a porthole onto the land or seascape below. (photo by author)

New Orleans — The captain’s flight-deck announcement that we were now making our final descent towards New Orleans jolted me from a very uneasy sleep. The three-hour flight was my first prolonged opportunity to get prolonged (i.e. 3-hours rest) after a late night train ride, to a later night Long Island Railroad Road ride, to a crack-of-dawn flight departure from the 24-hour nightmare microcity that is New York’s JFK airport.

Confused and groggy I peered out the window as we began our descent. With eyes as bleary as my thoughts, I decided that I was surveying Gulf waters from some 25,000 feet. What are those dark streaks? I thought. Is that oil? Oh my god, that’s oil. There’s still oil everywhere. Holy shit. Oh no. They ruined the Gulf.

The Gulf of Mexico oil slick from the sky, May 7, 2010. (image via flickr.com/markus941)

New Orleans is famously a city where the dead have to be buried above ground because, if interred, the watery mud will eventually exhume the corpses and deliver them back up to the surface. So New Orleans is a city where nothing can be buried, nothing hidden away. It all must be aired out, often in public, put on display. With social unrest, with history, with the dead, as with art. Be upfront with it: put it on display. This preference for the visible is reflected in the wrought-iron porches that characterize its iconic architecture. It’s reflected in your ability to drink in the street, or take a winking “peep” at a show. Even distaste or social grievance is put on display, although this occasionally seems to disappear beneath a layer of something called “Southern Charm” which Northerners like me often confuse for our own lack of comprehension.

A dilapidated house in New Orleans (image via flickr.com/karenapricot)

This was the first time in two years that I was descending into New Orleans. Every time that I had been to New Orleans previously was full of a strange mixture of love and horror. Love for a place that felt defiantly un-American and yet was thoroughly so. Horror at the extent of damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, mismanagement of the reconstruction effort, and the extent to which all of this was made painfully visible if you walked a little beyond the charm of the tourist districts.

Takashi Horisaki, “Social Dress New Orleans - 730 days after” (2007) during its installation at New York’s Socrates Sculpture Park. (image via takashihorisaki.com)

An image has been with me for years since I saw it is Takashi Horisaki’s latex sculpture “Social Dress” (2007). Installed in an enormous, dimly lit warehouse space during Prospect One, curator Dan Cameron’s biggest-of-its-kind-in-the-US international contemporary art biennial, “Social Dress” is a full-size latex cast of a Lower Ninth Ward shotgun-style home that, like many homes, was demolished in Katrina’s aftermath. Paint chips and splinters stuck in the thick strips of latex, bits of mold, too, I’d guess — lodged in saggy rubber sheets hung in roughly the shape of a house. The effect was haunting. Was the latex like a cast, suggesting that New Orleans, with help, was healing? Was the latex, with its spectral droop and tiny, colored and discolored fragments of a house that once was suggesting that New Orleans, like most other places, was now just a few bits of “local color” suspended in a gooey, sterile mix of nostalgia and science? Was the latex, with its reddish-white hue, one more ghost of many — here just to become one more haunt in a city filled with spooks? Or was the latex, in almost every sense a negative of a space once used to live, just like a photogram, bearing silent witness, an impression, and an outline. The latex panels rustled deadly in the cavernous darkness of the warehouse, the silence did not yield an answer.

Brian Borrello, “Dune Grass” (2010). Charcoal, ink, BP’s spilled Deepwater Horizon oil on marble dust impregnated linen, 72 x 48 in. (image via jonathanferraragallery.com)

Now, back in flight, what I was looking at through the porthole was not the Gulf. It was just a big, endless patch of southern Louisiana land, dotted with lakes and settlements rendered in a splotchy blue-black sheen by the time of day and the honey-thick air. Early morning half-asleep hallucinations.

Whether or not what I saw was real, it shook into my head — even after I woke up — the sense of how recently, how deeply, and how terribly the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the underwater hole in the Earth must have distended and traumatized the whole psyche of the Gulf Coast, again.

That early morning vision must have somehow insulated me, because when I came across Brian Borrello’s Jonathan Ferrara Gallery exhibition, Other Living Things, which consists of a series of black-on-white photogrammatic paintings, they did not surprise me as much as they made pitch-perfect sense.

Done large, these paintings have a quiet and beautiful presence on the wall. They seem so straightforward it’s downright puzzling. They’re precise and unassuming. Each reflects some natural facet, some flora from a nearby bayou or a field. Shadowy but precise outlines of black-on-white. They have a precision to them that could easily make them the work of a botanist, cataloguing natural encounters with the avidity of a bird-watcher.

And then you realize that they’re pulverized dust and BP’s lost profit, collected and re-purposed from a nearby beach or from a salt marsh suffocating beneath a layer of crude. That they are, in fact, silhouettes and records not of the wildlife that is out there — but what was out there. The wildlife that is slowly being fossilized by encasement in fossil fuel. The crude-soaked marsh-grass that may, under pressure and over time, become as blank as stone, as erased as the white marble nothingness that surrounds the oil outline.

Brian Borrello’s Other Living Things is on display at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, (400a Julia Street, New Orleans) through October 30, 2010.

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