You won’t find Zarouhie Abdalian’s new art installation in the French Quarter by looking for it. Instead, you’ll have to listen carefully.
Titled “Recitations (...pour le triomphe de la liberté et de l’égalité...)”, Abdalian’s piece consists of five bells installed on balconies and rooftops in a section of the Quarter bounded by Chartres, St. Louis, Toulouse and Royal streets. The title of the work is derived from a 1791 letter written by Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the Haitian revolution, who Abdalian identified as one of the inspirations for the piece.
The bells are set to ring at 3 p.m. for about seven minutes every day through June 3. The piece is intended to be perceived differently depending on variables such as weather and traffic and where the listener is situated — making it practically a different work every time it is encountered.
While the bells themselves are ordinary — Abdalian explained that they are a common type of bell used on fishing boats — the auditory dialogue they create is intended to resonate with the longer history of how bells have been used in public spaces and the effect they have had on the various and overlapping populations that have occupied the city.
In her introduction to the work when it debuted at The Historic New Orleans Collection on Jan. 9, Abdalian discussed “Recitations … " in the context of her research into the acoustic environments of urban settings, and how sound has historically been used to control and regulate: to summon people to worship, for example, or to call factory workers back to their jobs.
But Abdalian said her work leaves room for listeners to make their own associations.
“I’m interested in the ambiguous character that bells have,” Abdalian said.
Abdalian said it was also important for her to consider what it means to create a public work of art in New Orleans in 2018 — not only the city’s tricentennial but a historical moment in which earlier public works in the form of Confederate monuments have recently been called into question and removed.
“As an artist, witnessing how people struggled to reclaim their own right to public space has been electrifying for me,” Abdalian said.
A New Orleans native and graduate of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Abdalian has used sound as a medium in several works before this one.
Her 2013 “Occasional Music” was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and installed in downtown Oakland, California. And in its use of sound as a powerful medium to evoke past experiences and histories, Abdalian’s current piece recalls her haunting “Chanson du Ricochet,” which was installed at the New Orleans African-American Museum for Prospect.3 in 2014 and later traveled to Mass MoCA and the Whitney Museum.
While Abdalian said listeners will need to move around the space to hear all of the bells while they are ringing, a good place to start is the relatively quiet block of St. Louis between Royal and Chartres, on the side of the court building across from the Omni Royal Orleans hotel. Listen how the rhythmic peal of one bell is gradually answered by the ringing of another, and then another further away. It’s hard to place exactly where the bells are coming from, and while the sounds are recognizably deliberate their actual “function” remains ambiguous — which contributes to the elusive beauty of the piece.
Abdalian’s installation also marks the inauguration of The Historic New Orleans Collection’s “Art of the City: Postmodern to Post-Katrina” exhibition. Curated by artist Jan Gilbert and presented by The Helis Foundation, the exhibition will survey the contemporary arts scene in New Orleans from the time of the 1984 World’s Fair to the current day. It will open at the THNOC’s newly built exhibition space at 520 Royal Street in fall 2018.
Zarouhie Abdalian’s “Recitations (...pour le triomphe de la liberté et de l’égalité...)”
WHERE: French Quarter between Chartres, St. Louis, Toulouse, and Royal streets
WHEN: Daily at 3 P.M. through June 3