Editor’s Note: Prospect 3 Plus offers more than 60 local art installations and events taking place alongside the international Bienennial Prospect 3. NolaVie and its cultural partner, WWNO public radio, are taking a look at some of them in a series to run during the exhibition, which continues through Jan. 25. Today Renee Peck talks to New Orleans artist Dan Tague about The Chapel of the Almighty Dollar.
For years, Dan Tague has been working on a series of artworks based on American dollar bills that are folded in Origami-like ways to spell out provocative phrases. The first bill he ever folded was done while sitting on a rooftop during Hurricane Katrina, contemplating 8 feet of water below.
“I sat there just thinking, where does all the money go?” Tague says. “We can deploy 20,000 troops somewhere in a day, but we can’t get someone off a roof for seven days. All I could think about, sitting there, was that we have all these resources and we can fund private wars but we couldn’t get people out of New Orleans.”
That first idly folded dollar bill (“I’ve always loved word play,” says Tague) spelled out “The Osama Wars.” He’s gone on to do many more. Now, the artistic culmination of Tague’s fascination with money is a 14-foot-tall golden pyramid that he has constructed in a front yard on St. Claude Avenue.
“I named it the Chapel of the Almighty Dollar because, in one way or the other, whether we like it or not, it’s the guiding force of how the world turns,” Tague explains. “We see what happens when banks fold, when countries go bankrupt, the economic impact of wars, you name it. Everything is based in money. You see a movie and it’s based on how much money it grossed, not how good it is. It just seems that everything is heading that way.”
The chapel is totally dark when you enter it. Once inside, a dim light and soft music slowly begin to swell.
“ It takes about a minute or so for your eyes to adjust and then the walls start having messages from folded dollar bills,” Tague says. “As you walk in, it says the almighty dollar, and to the right it says the pursuit of happiness, and to your left is appearing the root of all evil, and as you leave, the end is near. So it’s kind of something for the whole spectrum of money lovers.”
Everything about the chapel has relevance to Tague. The pyramid, of course, is taken directly from the U.S. dollar bill. To enter, visitors have to stoop to get through a small door painted with the image of the eye of the needle – the small gate in the wall of Jerusalem that required a camel to kneel to get through, and the basis of the verse in Matthew: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
“Everyone has to crawl in and face the same kind of humility, no matter where you are at on the spectrum of economics,” Tague elaborates.
Tague’s chapel also has an international aspect to it.
“I wanted the chapel to be non-denominational, so I have the dollar bill sign in the entrance way and as you walk around it there’s also the euro, the pound and the yen. So, the four major trading units.“
Tague put equal meaning into the 20-watt chandelier that gradually lights the chapel for visitors.
“The chandelier, I guess, is a lot of different concepts of Americana,” he says. “There’s M16 bullets, the kind of iconic World War II guns, there’s a baseball bat that I actually carved that’s the center stem. In the bottom of it, the chandelier actually doubles as a reliquary. The bottom ball of the chandelier has an actual bill folded that says The American Icon, so you can make a pilgrimage to see it.“
Tague’s friend Heathcliff Hailey, who is also the chef at Mimi’s in the Marigny, composed the 6-minute soundtrack for the installation.
“ He took the Gregorian chant of the end times and also dubbed in a beat for the spirits of prosperity, so kind of like nice bookends of the message of the chapel.”
Tague says that he likes to think that his chapel has the largest congregation in the world, at almost 7 billion.
“Everyone who uses money.,” he says with a laugh. “As long as you’re spending it, whether you like it or not you’re a practitioner.”
The religious symbolism of the piece is done a bit tongue-in-cheek, Tague says. But there is definitely a serious side to his work. The chapel is meant to be a contemplative space.
“I wanted people to really go in there and relax and meditate and take it all in for however they need to contemplate these issues. It’s art about the idea of what money means, what wealth is. To start the conversation I didn’t want to tiptoe around it, so I went straight for it.”
Tague allows three or four people in at a time, and keeps the door closed for three minutes or so. It’s the adjustment of the eyes to dark and then light that creates the effect of images literally emerging from the wall. A carpeted floor and three or four body pillows cushion the experience.
So far, Tague says, only a couple of people have refused to crawl into the dark, fearing bouts of claustrophobia. And a bit surprising to him, he says, is the fact that the vast majority of visitors have emerged with big smiles. That, he says, is gratifying.
“This isn’t so much about idolizing money, but just the constant preoccupation with it. I want an open dialogue.”
The Chapel of the Almighty Dollar is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Wednesday through Sunday at 3919 St. Claude Avenue. This series on Prospect 3 Plus artworks is made possible by a generous grant from the lawyers of the Lugenbuhl firm, with offices in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston, in support of art in the Gulf South.