Remembering the Upstairs Lounge: Artist Skylar Fein Resurrects a Tragic Event in New Orleans' Gay History
In June 1973, a fire broke out in a gay bar in New Orleans' French Quarter. The fire at the Upstairs Lounge took 32 lives — bodies burned beyond recognition. Approximately 20 people escaped the blaze, which was set by an arsonist. The likely suspect was a customer who had been thrown out of the bar the night of the fire.
Press coverage of the fire, which was the worst in New Orleans history, was brief, sensational. No city official would make a statement about it.
So artist Skylar Fein (pictured, below) has decided to make one.
In an exhibit curated by non-profit No Longer Empty and Dan Cameron, which recently opened in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, Fein has brought the bar's story back to life in a hybrid of art and history which is certainly worth seeing if you're interested in either, and definitely worth seeing if you want to learn about a piece of gay history (perhaps the most significant event in the gay history of New Orleans) that has faded away.
I paid a visit to the exhibit last weekend and have some more photos and words on it,
AFTER THE JUMP...
"Remember the Upstairs Lounge" features a gallery of newspaper and historical archives which tell the story of that fateful night displayed in a reconstruction meant to evoke the atmosphere of that cozy bar in the French Quarter.
The aftermath of the fire was gruesome. Charred bodies were left in plain view of onlookers from the street for hours. No witnesses would come forward to testify because of the hostility of the police force toward gays.
The city averted its gaze.
A service was held for those who had died in the fire at St. Mark's United Methodist Church, the only church, according to Fein, which would make itself available for a bunch of dead homosexuals.
Those who came to pay respects had to leave through a back entrance or be photographed by the media and exposed.
Fein has recreated much of the atmosphere and design of the era, complete with signs that might have hung around the neighborhood, portraits of the bar's patrons, and artifacts that resurrect the politics and pop culture of the early 70's.
He also created a replica of a statue, the Farnese Hercules, which was placed prominently behind the bar but disappeared after the fire (there's a photo of it in the exhibit, surrounded by ashes, wreckage, and rubble).
Fein attributed the statue to the collection of the Williams Research Center in New Orleans because when he went to them to do historical research on the tragedy at the Upstairs Lounge he was rebuffed, laughed at, and found the intent to keep this chapter out of New Orleans' history was still very much alive
At Prospect 1, the New Orleans biennial where Remember the Upstairs Lounge first debuted, representatives from the Williams Center were furious to discover the attribution of the statue to their collection and wrote a letter disassociating themselves from the exhibit. That letter has now become a part of the exhibit.
A few of Fein's outsized installations.
'Remember the Upstairs Lounge' is open to the public now through May 30. Information on hours can be found at the website.