The conflicted protagonists in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, Amory Blaine of This Side of Paradise (literary inspiration for the title of No Longer Empty’s exhibition) and Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby, are inherently nostalgic characters. Imbued with an innate yearning for what was, what never will be, they are both perpetually dissatisfied by and disillusioned with the present. A life with Daisy Buchanan is paradise to Gatsby; a fantasy personified, she is unattainable. Amory seeks admiration and popularity at Princeton amidst constant rejection. Both characters want desperately to fit into the seemingly glamorous worlds they feel constantly on the outskirts of. Paradise exists only in their minds, in contrast to the lives they live and the realities they can never escape.
Like Fitzgerald, Manon Slome, Ph.D., President and Curator of No Longer Empty, the nomadic organization established to revive and facilitate creative exchange in once-abandoned spaces, has orchestrated an environment of nostalgia and lost paradise in the Andrew Freedman Home. Once a respite for the wealthy who had lost their fortunes in the early 20th century, the home was denied funding in the early 1980s and has been deserted ever since. Thus, Slome’s bold new exhibition implores artists to examine the notion of paradise in juxtaposition to the present-day realities of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, a place that, like the backdrop of Fitzgerald’s literary realm, was last alive during the Jazz Age.
Beginning with the Princess Ballroom on the first floor, Slome leads me through the 123-bedroom home a week before the show opens explaining that when the chosen artists first came into the space she told them they were free to scavenge for and use pieces of the house and various artifacts found in it wherever they may discover them. The first piece we examine exemplifies this creative repurposing of the past. In Nicky Enright’s audio sculpture The Ravages, the artist adorned an old piano found on the third floor of the house with antique typewriters also found scattered throughout the Andrew Freedman Home. About memory, decay and loss, evoking the fingers of the residents, this will be a sound piece – a precursor to what we call salsa music will be playing at the piano, the rhythm of the typewriters as percussion. This haunting son montuno speaks to both the building’s past and the Latin origin of many current Bronx residents.
“How did this project come about?” I ask Slome. She explains that No Longer Empty had been in operation for about three years when Holly Block, Director of the Bronx Museum, invited her team to come to the Bronx and collaborate with the museum. Holly initially envisioned the location of 900 Grand Concourse, which, in Slome’s words, was the diner of “a fabulous hotel where the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis performed when the Grand Concourse was in its hay-day.” However, as Manon explains, “the building manager of the Andrew Freedman Home met us there that day, too, and said ‘Guys, I have something so much better for you…’ He showed us this place and I immediately said ‘Done! I’ll take it!’ ”
The next piece we explore is a captivating installation by Cheryl Pope called Shove. A slew of Anniversary plates thrust into a wall, it begs the questions about what becomes of memory and how do we celebrate the passing of time. “Is it in your bones, or is it just something you observe by this kitsch?” Slome asks. The front side of the wall is a smooth façade, but the piece is multi-dimensional; when we walk around to the other side, it is apparent that it is all a set.
While the Princess Ballroom is about memory, the Bronx of the past, Slome explains that the next room we step into is very much concerned with the present realities of the Bronx. “One of the really big problems of the Bronx is getting around. It’s easier to get from the Bronx to Manhattan than from here in the South Bronx to Riverdale, so people rely a lot on gypsy cabs.” Thus, Hatuey Ramos-Fermín and Elisabeth Hamby’s work in the Executive Ballroom features an actual loudspeaker and top of a gypsy cab that will beconnected to a cab dispatcher in real time, with a video playing above it showing cabbies driving different routes around the Bronx that will be reflected in a nearby wall drawing of the Grand Concourse and various maps of the Bronx.
Walking up to the second floor, Slome explains that there will be a sound piece in the stairwell of all the artists reading sections from This Side of Paradise. In questioning Slome why she chose to appropriate this particular title, she replies by musing about the Jazz Age, thinking about when the Grand Concourse was in it’s hay-day in the 1920s when immigrants came from Europe, escaping up from the Lower East Side. “The idea of paradise came up right away because when you think of the Bronx and Manhattan and you say ‘paradise’, everyone would say it’s Manhattan. So the title is kind of ironic, but it’s also asking people to question what paradise is. Certainly for the early immigrants here and even for immigrants today, the Bronx is a Paradise.”
Upstairs, every bedroom utilized is devoted to a different artist’s installation; each one is completely different from the next, creating unexpected but welcome and thought-provoking juxtapositions. From an interpretation of a hip-hop recording studio, to a room of photographs from an old Village Voice photographer, to an immersive psychedelic environment, to a cheeky homage to Andrew Freeman complete with a note thanking him for enabling the residents to “live in denial just a little longer,” Slome’s Paradise is a fun-house for the wistful, the forward-thinking, and the provocative.
When I ask about her plans for the home and engagement with the public once the exhibition closes, she explains that the community definitely hopes they will retain a presence there in some way. “No Longer Empty is always going to be nomadic. I don’t want to ever have just one site where we operate, but I have suggested artist residencies for the building, which I think could really turn this place into a kind of cultural hub.” Entering the home on a rainy Saturday afternoon during installation, I expected to feel like I was walking into a haunted house; just the thought of a three-story dilapidated mansion in the middle of the Bronx was creepy. But with dozens of friendly artists and handymen working on getting the show ready to open, the home felt vibrant and very much alive. As youth culture in our generation, just as was the case in Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, seems relentlessly addicted to the past, this house just might have a future.
For more information on No Longer Empty and This Side of Paradise, visit http://www.nolongerempty.org.