“I have no idea,” Andy Behrle says, laughing. Asked again, he leans on his shovel for a moment, thinks, and resumes scooping mulch into a pile. “I can’t tell you.” Pressed a third time, Behrle dodges the question, claims there’s something else he has to do, then disappears inside the tomb. Lesson learned: never believe an artist when he tells you he doesn’t know why he does what he does. Better yet: don’t even bother asking.
The tomb into which Behrle disappears is his own, created during his autumn residency at A Studio in the Woods and scarcely a month old by the time we meet on the grounds of the historic Longue Vue House in Old Metairie. Designed by Behrle but built with the help of Longue Vue curators, property managers, and volunteers, the tomb occupies a prominent position alongside the driveway into the grounds. Even during its construction, visitors were prone to mistake it for an actual tomb, peppering the artist with questions.
In conversation, Behrle doesn’t budge on my question of why, but a year and one day in many ways speaks for itself. Built as an empty mausoleum, which visitors are welcome to enter, the structure features a retaining wall filled with soil and mulch and a pitched roof whose interior skylight refracts the setting sun into a subtle rainbow—an elegant homage to local funerary architecture. Serving as an invitation to meditate on time and mortality, the work gestures towards the ancient and the modern, land and water, death and rebirth in a city most accustomed to this push and pull.
With family from the area, Behrle is no stranger to New Orleans, openly attesting to the influence of local designs on his work. Asked from where he draws his inspiration, he cites days spent exploring and sketching local cemeteries, such as the Metairie cemetery just minutes away from Longue Vue House, as well as the architectural elements found in Longue Vue itself—its classical columns, triangular plinth, and entry portico. “I think spatially,” he admits. “Before I ever put this work on paper, I had gone through it inside and out thousands of times in my mind. Other people think in terms of words or story, but this just comes naturally to me.”
Physical space is his preferred canvas. With previous installations filling gallery halls with various assemblages of earth, water, ceramic tile, and mud, Behrle’s instinct is to rearrange the base elements of the world in such a way as to provoke our individual reassessment of, and thereby reassembly around, them. Behrle is interested in the natural cycles of life, cycles that _a year and one day _seeks to explore in playful ways. The roof, for instance, is stocked with an herb garden from which anyone—be they tall enough—is welcome to pick. The mounds of soil inside the retaining wall are seeded with native Louisiana plants and shrubs, which will erode with the elements and change with the seasons to reflect the state’s precious biodiversity.
That said, a year and one day is nevertheless built around an iconic type of building, and Behrle is of no mind to shirk its reality. “From dust to dust” would be one way to articulate it. He sees these natural cycles of life as instructing and challenging us, allowing us to enter the monument and have the experience of death freed of fear, as he told one group of teenagers visiting from a Broadmoor high school. After explaining the construction of the site, he invited them to touch it, to run their hands along its plaster walls. The mud chips, already drying in the sun after a fresh new coat, were flaking off the side as one student took them in hand and asked if they were supposed to do that.
“No,” Behrle admitted, laughing. “But that’s what makes it so interesting.”
The installation, a year and one day, is on view until December 2013 at Longue Vue House and Gardens (7 Bamboo Road) in New Orleans.