NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans is a city of stories: think of all of the writers and artists who have used the Crescent City as a subject and source of inspiration, from Lafcadio Hearn to Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote to Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite. And Sophie Calle is an artist who has based her career on telling stories, from details gleaned from working as a hotel chambermaid to observing people sleeping in her bed to (over) analyzing love affairs gone sour. So you would expect her current installation in the very heart of New Orleans’s historical center to be richly layered and dense with meaning — or at least, you know, interesting. To some extent it manages to fulfill those expectations, but it still left me wanting more.
For her Prospect 2 installation, Calle has moved into — literally and figuratively — the 1850 House, itself an historical simulacra of a typical upper middle class residence located in one of the Pontalba Buildings on the city’s Jackson Square. According to some sources, the Pontalbas are the oldest apartment buildings in the United States and are named for the woman responsible for their design and construction: the Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba, a legendary figure in New Orleans history who survived a nightmarish marriage (which included a murder attempt by her father-in-law) to become one of the city’s most notable business figures of the 19th century.
Throughout the museum’s dozen or so rooms, Calle has placed 45 objects and collections of seemingly random items — a taxidermied cat, a wedding dress, piles of books and correspondence, a typewriter, etc. — amongst the period art and domestic accoutrements which continue to share the space. Each of Calle’s objects is marked by a numbered placard, which in turn is keyed to an explanatory wall text. The story behind that stuffed cat (#2), for example, reads:
I had three cats. Felix died after having been accidentally locked in the fridge. Zoë was taken from me when my younger brother was born; I hated him from that moment on. Nina was strangled by a jealous man who, some time before, had given me the following ultimatum: to sleep, either with the cat or with him. I opted for the cat.
Anyone familiar with Calle’s work wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of the stories involve love affairs that ended badly, or at least not-so-happily ever after. Fortunately, and also in keeping with Calle’s sensibility, it’s all leavened with a steady sense of the absurd and a sly sense of humor.
An introductory wall text attempts to link Calle’s story to that of the Baroness Pontalba, or at least the role the Baroness plays as the spiritual proprietor of the historcial reconstruction that the 1850 House represents:
“The effect is as if the artist had, in fact, moved in sometime last month, but had not quite finished tidying up before leaving the premises for our inspection. What seems to be at play is the artist’s intimate and contentious relationship to history — not precisely the art history of museums, but those actual ghosts of flesh-and-blood people who have come and gone in this very domain, each playing his or her part in a succession of semi-fictitious roles.”
And therein lies the problem: for the most part, the stories Calle tells throughout the installation bear little relationship to the unique and particular historical setting in which they are presented, much less with the Baroness Pontalba or any of the people who lived in the 1850 House before Calle came along and emptied her suitcases. (The fact that Calle’s numbers and wall labels differ so distractingly from the museum’s make this disconnect even more evident.)
While Calle’s objects and stories are compelling (and entertaining) enough on their own, they’re often missing a depth of significance that a closer reading of the Pontalba Buildings, or a more intimate engagement with the tumultuous story of Baroness Pontalba herself, might have engendered. I feel like that stuffed cat and that wedding dress would have had as much meaning in the period rooms at the New Orleans Museum of Art across town in City Park … or for that matter, in any of the period rooms in any historical museum anywhere. Considering how much Calle and her “hostess” have in common, both being fiercely intelligent women of French extraction with histories of problematic and sometimes violent emotional entanglements, the installation feels somewhat of a missed opportunity.
Still, Calle’s intervention in the fabric of the 1850 House underscores the fact that all historical narratives are essentially another type of storytelling. And I can think of worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon in New Orleans than learning about 19th century interior design and domestic science interspersed with a tale of Calle’s encounter with a pornographic dessert menu item called “Young Girl’s Dream.” Besides, if all that red velvet drapery and quasi-fictive meta-history leaves you cold, there’s always the very real attraction of hot beignets from Café du Monde just down the street.
Prospect 2 runs through January 29 in various locations around New Orleans. Visit www.prospectneworleans.org for more information.
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