By John D'Addario for The Advocate
In the two weeks since it was unveiled to the public on the Mississippi River during the opening weekend of the “Prospect New Orleans: Notes for Now” international art spectacular, Tavares Strachan’s “You belong here” has become as much of an iconic emblem of the city as the Superdome or a plate of beignets at Café du Monde.
OK, that may be an exaggeration. But only slightly.
Judging from the response on social media, though, “You belong here” is by far the runaway hit of the show, Instagrammed and Facebooked again and again by residents and visitors alike.
It’s something that took the 33-year-old artist a little by surprise.
“The reaction wasn’t something I planned,” said Strachan. “I like to make things, and hopefully the things I make will be thought-provoking and will spark conversation. But I love that people are embracing it.”
Born in the Bahamas, Strachan lives and works in New York City. His conceptual, often highly cerebral work, which has been exhibited worldwide, is tough to pigeonhole: some of his previous pieces involve themes like national identity and climate change.
A 2011 retrospective of his career remained closed to the public for its duration — though “exhibited” via a catalogue and website — to emphasize how Strachan explores notions of presence and absence throughout his art.
But “You belong here” is a very public and highly visible result of a nearly 10-year love affair with New Orleans.
“I visited (New Orleans) for the first time right after Katrina and fell in love with it,” he said. “I think that happens to a lot of people; I haven’t met one person who visited New Orleans and didn’t fall in love with it.”
Seeing the city still in the process of healing after the storm had a profound effect on Strachan.
“I had a very emotional connection to the city being here right after Katrina, and that connection has stayed with me,” he said.
“I’ve come back every year since to experience the music, the food, and the culture in general,” he said. “But my initial encounter had a lot to do with why I continue to feel so emotionally connected to the city.”
The artist’s understanding of the city’s relationship with the water around it formed the earliest conceptions of the work that would eventually turn out to be a giant barge supporting a 100-foot-long message spelled out in bright pink neon.
“For all of my visits here, I never became familiar with the Mississippi, and what a powerful force it was,” said Strachan. “So the piece was a way of getting closer to the river, of being able to understand it better.”
Along the way, the piece became something about notions of location and identity — but not always in an obvious way.
“It begs questions,” Strachan explained. “Who is ‘you’? What it means to belong? And what does it means it be ‘here’? These are serious questions for me, the kind of questions that keep me up at night.”
But not too serious: After all, as Strachan points out, “It’s a floating, playful work.” And he encourages people to have fun in their response to it: “The river is always in flux, and so are reactions to the piece.”
And Strachan is quick to emphasize that ‘You belong here’ came about as much from his own personal vision as from his connection with New Orleans and its people.
“The process of building and displaying the piece evolved from a great working relationship with companies like Canal Barge and Magnolia Fleet LLC and was helped along by having people in New Orleans really get behind and support the project,” he said. “Franklin Sirmans and the whole team at Prospect have been totally supportive of the project, too.”
A mobile app produced in conjunction with the piece, which features tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch taking users on a virtual tour of the city, is an integral part of the experience, he said.
“100 percent of proceeds go to community outreach projects based in New Orleans,” Strachan said. “It’s a great way to support the city.”
But for all of the virtual tours and Instagram pictures, Strachan still emphasizes that the best way to experience “You belong here” and ponder the questions it raises is to make your way to the river and see the piece in person before Prospect.3 closes on Jan. 25.
“New Orleans isn’t like anywhere else,” he said. “It’s a brilliant place to be.”