On the first day of the new year I received notice from curator Laurent de Verneuil that the activist-artist Nicola L. had passed away December 31 in Los Angeles at the age of 81. Years ago I had met and befriended her through the art critic Pierre Restany, and my mind immediately swirled back to a riveting performance about death and homage she did in Paris called “La Cape du Blues” (The Cape of Blues) (2007) at Place Saint-Sulpice as part of the exhibition Les artistes cassent la baraque. I thought it was brave and wonderful and now most relevant to her expiry.
Nicola was not extremely well known, though perhaps some may be familiar with her early-1970s group street performances, such as “Red Coat: Same Skin For Everybody” (1969) and the outstanding “Rug” (1975). “La Cape du Blues” was very much in the same vein, this time involving 12 performers, one saxophonist, and Nicola herself, who directed the event. I was part of a crowd of around 50 people who at first watched the setup, and then walked along behind or beside, as in a pageant. Each of the 12 cloaked performers wore a section of the beautiful blue cape she made where each hood represented a deceased individual (mostly artists and art-world luminaries) whom Nicola admired. The names I recognized that were being celebrated were Yves Klein, Sidney Bechet, Iris Clert, Cesar, Marcel Broodthaers, Raymond Hains and Restany.
The piece consisted of preparation for the procession and the procession itself, which was somewhat like a New Orleans style funeral march, particularly in the way the female saxophonist provided a continuous, bluesy musical riff. We paraded all around Place Saint-Sulpice and then, much to my great surprise and amazement, kept going into the Saint-Sulpice Church (famous for its paintings by Eugène Delacroix and its referencing in The Da Vinci Code) during a celebration of a Mass! The saxophonist went silent then, but we, the blue parade, kept on truckin’; snaking our way through the back of the vast church and out again the other side as the priest was delivering a homily. I had to bite my tongue to prevent from laughing out loud. It was then when “La Cape du Blues” became a truly dark festive nod to the departure of death — that incurable, distinctive disorder.
The jazzy exuberant mood was gone and I now saw this act of performance art as a meditation on the meanness of death in all its inarticulate magnificence, by which I mean it’s nasty comedy.
On exiting the church, a blustery wind blew hard, and the commemorative mood turned very heavy and sad for me, particularly when I focused on the hooded heads of the performers I associate with those intense hooded figures in Catholic religious’ processions I have seen in parts of Spain. But what I particularly admired about “La Cape du Blues” was its mixture of informal casualness with a formalized ritual: a poignant feeling that at times verged on some kind of secular sacred. Now may Nicola L. herself rest in respected peace.