It was, as they say, a night out not fit for man nor beast when the Powerhouse, a museum of sorts conjured into being by the previously nomadic arts entity Delta Axis, opened its doors for a sneak preview last Thursday. But unfavorable conditions notwithstanding the local cognoscenti braved near-arctic blasts to see the newest addition to the blossoming South Main Arts District -- an addition which had been compared in its early press to the Guggenheim's famous satellite in Bilbao, Spain. How could anyone resist?.
"That was out of my hands," says Powerhouse's star curator Peter Fleissig of the hyperbolically inclined advanced coverage. "They did it before we wanted to do anything." Dr. James Patterson, president of Delta Axis also back peddles from the grand comparison. "We didn't want them to make those comparisons. We're just Delta Axis," he says.
The Powerhouse's south gallery once housed a gigantic boiler. Its silvery dungeon-like walls are scorched in places and the effect is positively hellish. It feels like a torture chamber, and to his credit, Memphis' celebrity architect Coleman Coker has, in his interior design, done little to combat the building's inherent creepiness. If anything, the glowing frosted glass stalls defining The Powerhouse's offices and public facilities only add to the building's otherworldly appeal. In the center of all this fire-blasted emptiness William Eggleston sat hunched over a keyboard playing what sounded like the sound track to a 1930s horror film. Eggleston, the father of modern color photography, is Memphis' most obvious art star, and though he was on his best behavior, his ill-tempered reputation filled the cavernous south gallery even as his eerie music flooded the building.
Oddly enough, no photographs were on display anywhere in the Powerhouse. "We could [have shown Eggleston photos and] done a package show." Patterson says. "But we didn't want to. Everyone is doing photography right now." In the absence of photography the artist became the artifact and Eggleston's one-night-only concert will function as The Powerhouse's winter exhibit. When it opens to the public on Thursday, January 30th, visitors will, according to Fleissig, "see, perhaps a video of William Eggleston's performance here, or perhaps just hear the sound of it."
"It's the same [caliber of ] artists [that you will see at Bilbao]," says Fleissig, floating the possibility that not all comparisons to the Guggenheim are entirely without merit. "We've got [shows planned for photographers] Mitch Epstein, Paul Graham, and Bill Eggleston. But what we really want is for the artists to respond to the space. It's meant to be experimental. Like a musician making an album in the studio, Memphis will be like a laboratory. A place where an artist can make something before it goes out to the world. We're looking for new work. The artist might not be so sure about it. So perhaps showing in Memphis rather than at the Guggenheim, there's less pressure on them."
"We're a small arts organization," says Patterson. "But I truly do believe that we can do things here that, artistically speaking, are as internationally important as what they do [at the Guggenheim] in Bilbao. It doesn't take a big budget. Everything's not about money and budget. An idiot can do a great show for a million dollars. We can do things that [bigger museum systems] can't because of their huge beaurocracy and their huge overhead. They have built these big institutions that cost a lot to run and they have to meet those demands by doing shows that people in the arts community don't necessarily want." By providing an interesting space that operates on a shoestring budget with relatively little beaurocracy, and by attracting a curator as deeply connected into the international artworld as Fleissig, Patterson believes that Delta Axis can fill a much-needed niche and bring the artworld's top talent to Memphis.
"People in Memphis are very self-deprecating," Patterson continues, "and they don't believe that they have anything to offer culturally. As a person who has worked for Delta Axis for 10 years, let me tell you, Memphis is magical in the international art community. Artists don't necessarily want to move here, but they want to visit. They are fascinated with our culture. When we go to an artist in London and say, 'Hey, we have this Powerhouse in Memphis, across the street from the Civil Rights Museum, two blocks from the river, three blocks from Beale Street, and we want you to do a show ' they want to experience Memphis."
On the day after the Eggleston event Mitch Epstein is at the Powerhouse trying to figure out how his show, slated for the fall, will fit into the space. It's a photography exhibition documenting the failure of his father's businesses. In one photograph an American flag hangs on a coat hanger draped in plastic like it had just returned from the dry cleaners. Another shows a wall of keys, presumably to all of his father's rental properties. Epstein moves the photographs around to see how they look in the light. There is something decidedly less glamorous about Epstein's performance than what had occurred on the night before, though it is in many ways more exciting. Seeing Bill Eggleston in Memphis is no difficult task. But seeing Epstein, a photographer of note since the late '70s is rare indeed, and watching him work with and struggle against the space is inspiring. The Powerhouse may not turn Memphis into Bilbao over night, but one thing is certain. The artists are coming.