Visitors to a satellite exhibition that accompanied the Prospect.2 New Orleans International Biennial in 2011 were startled to discover a clawfoot bathtub filled with oversize night-blooming cereus flowers in the shadowy gloom of an old bathroom. Although the tub and its water were real, the flowers, which seemed to float in a luminous baroque profusion, consisted of sharply rendered light. Delicately spectral, they bloomed and receded at a near hypnotic, choreographed pace that compressed their circadian cycles into an otherworldly pageant of perpetual efflorescence. Sleepwalkers, created by mixed-media sculptor Courtney Egan, was part of an ongoing botany-based series inspired by the city’s pervasive tropical flora, as well as the possibilities and portents posed by new media and digital technologies.
Perhaps because it blossoms only for a single night, once a year, the otherworldly Selenicereus grandiflorus, or night-blooming cereus, has long been associated with myth and magic. Appearing in a dimly lit corner of The Pearl, a two-century-old residence that has also doubled as an after-hours music club, Sleepwalkers exuded an alchemical presence amid an extensive inventory of vintage curiosities, and to stumble upon it unexpectedly was like suddenly finding oneself within the frames of early Surrealist cinema. The house and its pervasive clutter provided an almost seamlessly integral setting for the exhibition’s wide array of artistic interventions, and for Egan, the long-neglected bathroom made for a serendipitously intimate space in which to view the flowers’ digitally revivified life cycle. She notes that, in the real world, “The blooming is a slow affair that happens over a period of eight or so hours, and sometimes people celebrate with last-minute parties since the flower deflates by morning and will never be enjoyed again. I wanted to see all the blooms at once, repeating, and experience what it feels like when something so unnatural happens.” Although digital technology can be a powerful creative tool, Egan is uneasy about its consequences: “I think that the things we do to see the world differently through technology is a perversity; it makes me think of time differently, and gives the illusion that time is somehow under my control. Overall, I am not optimistic about how this illusion affects humanity.”
As with so many products of “labor-saving” technologies, Egan’s digital video processes are time and labor intensive. Each of her works is like a puzzle requiring much trial and error to realize, even though the physical structures are often minimal in form. For instance, Sigils employs forged iron and metal mesh armatures reminiscent of tree limbs. The form is based on the Spanish moss native to this region. When activated, the work assumes an eerily luminous life of its own as the strands of virtual moss seem to flicker and gently sway as if impelled by an electrostatic breeze. Part spectacle, part metaphor, Sigils is fairly emblematic of how the works in Egan’s botany series represent what she regards as a new, “hybrid” nature arising from ever more pervasive interactions of recent electronic technologies and eons-old cycles of the natural world.
Interactions between earthly cycles and manmade technologies are, of course, nothing new. Previous advances in transportation technology contributed to the spread of exotic ornamentals, as well as invasives, which have now colonized places far from their lands of origin. For instance, angel’s trumpet, named for the horn-like shape of its large blossoms, is native to South America, where its leaves and flowers are often included in the hallucinatory Ayahuasca potions ceremonially consumed in native tribal rituals, but its strangely beautiful blooms now appear all over New Orleans as well. In Egan’s 2010 installation Repercussions, a large yellow trumpet flower seems to shiver and shimmy in a gentle breeze as a bee furtively buzzes around its bell-like mouth and beads of nectar drip into a receptacle below. The receptacle conceals an audio speaker, and the luminous droplets land with pinging and plopping sounds, lending a kinetic aural dimension that underscores the work’s near-tactile quality of presence. It is visually quite lovely, but there is something portentous about the rhythmic plopping of those droplets that seems to echo the angel’s trumpet’s jungle origins before it spread to other warm and humid places across the globe.
In the tropics, beauty and danger often go hand in hand. Soft Spots (2008), the first of Egan’s current botanical series, features the flower of the Japanese magnolia, a delicate-looking tree native to East Asia; in New Orleans, this same tree announces the end of winter with large, opalescent magenta blooms bursting forth in profuse clusters even before the first green leaves of spring. The fleshy texture of the delicate petals connotes vulnerability. Soft Spots was inspired by Helen Hill, a widely admired young filmmaker who was killed by a bullet in Hurricane Katrina’s chaotic aftermath and whose death informed the elegiac tone that Egan brought to the work: “Petals fall off of a continually dying and blossoming flower. As they float down the wall to the floor, projectiles whiz by, abruptly changing their path. These continual near-misses reference fleeting forces that can forever change lives.” Such works provide a marked contrast to Egan’s earlier efforts, which focused primarily on pop media. In Chaos Hags (2003), the bodies of female film stars were, as she puts it, “reorganized in the time and space of the digital video medium as unique reconstituted entities,” amounting to a video deconstruction of glamor and celebrity. But the widespread flooding that inundated New Orleans and the surrounding area as a result of Hurricane Katrina caused Egan, like many others, to re-evaluate her priorities. A native of the small Mississippi Gulf Coast town of Pearlington, a New Orleans exurb just across the state line, she was confronted with the devastation of both her childhood home and the city where she lives, and where generations of her ancestors had lived since emigrating from Ireland in the 1850s. Although one of her primary tools, digital video, embodies the radical ability of technology to virtually reshape the world around us, nothing could compare with the near-biblical ferocity of nature’s own sudden, sweeping destruction of the familiar. And yet, uncanny parallels to digital technology’s transformational aspects could be seen in the reaction of the city’s abundant flora, which put on a spectacular out-of-season show of blooms in the autumn after the storm, a phenomenon that came to be known as the “hurricane spring.” In Katrina’s aftermath, New Orleans’ relentless botanical landscape became the new focus of Egan’s lens.
Her most recent works include Dreamcatchers (2013), a wall-projected variation on the multiple cereus extravaganza that appeared in Sleepwalkers. This version is interactive, with a ceiling-mounted camera that senses the motion of approaching viewers, which, in turn, triggers the blooming of the cereus. According to Egan, “The more movement, the faster the flower blooms. Once the room is still again, the flower slowly begins to close. Small arm and hand movements can cause it to react as well, and you feel as if you are instigating the blooming and having a miracle-inducing kind of controlling experience.” Her partner and sometime collaborator, David Sullivan, wrote the program that activates the motion. Egan’s newest work, Crystal Gazers (2014), is based on the wisteria vine. Its cast glass medallions, supported on stylized metal branches, transform into luminously shimmering, violet-colored blossoms when activated. Reflecting our contemporary “new nature” as a mediated, hybrid experience, Crystal Gazers embodies what Egan considers one of the fundamental ironies of our time: “We get closer to and simultaneously farther away from the natural world when we experience it through a technological lens. This new kind of sublime, in which human experience is mediated through a digital device, is enjoyable, illuminating, and disturbing.”
D. Eric Bookhardt is a writer living in New Orleans.