Energy Displacement: Remembering Dennis Oppenheim in New Orleans

In an excerpt from his forthcoming autobiography, New Orleans Museum of Art curator William Fagaly recalls the lost details of Dennis Oppenheim’s New Orleans earthworks.

Dennis Oppenheim, Guarded Land, 1970. Performance at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Editor's Note

As part of the recent exhibition “Visions of US,” the New Orleans Museum of Art re-created Guarded Land, a 1970 performance—originally titled Energy Displacement—orchestrated by Dennis Oppenheim on the museum’s lawn. As Nathan C. Martin explained in his essay for Pelican Bomb, little was recorded about this work and another piece that Oppenheim contributed to the “Moon Rock and Earthworks” exhibition. (Until last year, two empty envelopes sat in the museum’s collection records.) In an excerpt from his yet-to-be-published memoir, The Nightcrawler King, William Fagaly—the curator who brought Oppenheim to NOMA—looks back at the artist’s visit to New Orleans and fills in the gaps of the museum’s archive.

In 1970, the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, now the New Orleans Museum of Art, was beginning to embark on an ambitious building project. The plan called for three winged additions to the original Samuel Marx-designed box perched on a slight mound within a circular drive and positioned at the terminus of a grand but short road from the entrance to City Park at Beauregard Circle on Bayou St. John. These would be the first significant alterations to Marx’s building built 60 years earlier and “inspired by the Greek [but] sufficiently modified to give a subtropical appearance.”

Our visionary director, Jim Byrnes, wanted to make the groundbreaking ceremony a memorable event besides the usual dignitaries and politicians wearing hard hats, turning over a shovel of dirt for the cameras. We wanted it to be somehow an art event as well. We decided that it would be appropriate to invite an Earthworks artist whose work was an integral part of this movement that was the current rage in the art world. We located Dennis Oppenheim and he agreed to come to New Orleans and work with us. Upon his arrival in the city, we showed him where the groundbreaking would be taking place at one side of the Delgado building. He was not impressed or inspired. However, upon his plane’s landing at Moisant Field in Kenner, he was awed by the vast cypress marshland his plane had just flown over at low altitude. But that wasn’t where we were building additions to the museum! With this impasse we decided to think about it overnight and try to find a solution the next day.

The next morning we couldn’t locate Dennis and thought perhaps he had just gone out on a toot on Bourbon Street the night before and would show up later. But he didn’t appear all day and neither did our registrar John Geldersma, an artist himself. Our suspicions were confirmed when the two finally showed up triumphantly wet, exhausted, and covered in mud. Dennis and John had been up since dawn gathering tools and heading out into the marshes just across the chain-link fence into St. Charles Parish from the west runway at the airport. Sloshing through the water and mud all day, they had rearranged the existing environment without introducing other elements and constructed an earthwork that consisted of a large square arrangement of cypress logs piled up to define an enclosed space devoid of objects and create an open pool of water just off axis from the straight-line pavement of the airport runway. Dennis named this completed work Concentration Pit (Dedicated to Keith Sonnier).

Well, this wasn’t exactly what Jim Byrnes and I had in mind, but we happily accepted the artist’s creation. There it was for all those who flew into New Orleans and happened to look out the airplane window to see—this mysterious square pool amongst the natural environment of standing and fallen trees in seemingly endless water.

Still we wanted something a little more tangible to the museum building and on site. Since Dennis had some extra time before he was scheduled to depart the city, he agreed to do another piece. He asked one of the museum guards to go into the meadow across the street from the museum and simply walk the route he normally executed during his daily, routine surveillance of the museum’s galleries. It was titled Energy Displacement. At that point in Oppenheim’s career he informed me that he predicted the next art movement after Earth Art would be Body Art for which he was already doing pieces. He considered Energy Displacement one of those pieces.

Both of these conceptual pieces existed in the museum’s permanent accession records with empty folders labeled 70.32 and 70.33. The piece acted out in the meadow had been filmed by a filmmaker we hired to document the one-time performance. For the other commissioned work Oppenheim had made in the marsh, officials at the J. Ray McDermott Company in the city donated the services of one of their small planes and the same photographer to fly over the Concentration Pit site with me and the artist. It was a beautiful sight to behold. In retrospect I’m sure we broke many FAA regulations flying repeatedly over this site directly in the path of larger aircraft using the neighboring runway. But we had accomplished our intended goal of archiving these two important pieces for the future. Or so we thought. I cannot begin to report my frustration and anger when, after repeated requests for this footage, the photographer announced he had lost it all! There was nothing, and it was too late to attempt to reconstruct the whole operation that Oppenheim had dutifully executed for us.

However, Oppenheim’s pieces became an integral part of another exhibition I did, which also coincided with the museum’s expansion: “Moon Rock and Earthworks.”