When I first saw Ralph Lemon’s installation at the Walker in 2006 (as part of the exhibition Open Ended), I was immediately transfixed by a video of a strange old man smashing records and burying them in his yard. I thought “Who is this amazing person? How is this happening? Where is this?” Less than two years later I found myself standing in the exact spot I had been admiring in the video—Walter Carter’s house in Yazoo City, Mississippi—working as a part of a small production crew that Ralph had assembled for his latest project.
Yazoo sits on the edge of what is known as the Mississippi Delta, an oval region of northwestern Mississippi divided by the Yazoo River and the Mississippi, crowned to the north by Memphis, Tennessee. The “Delta” is technically not a delta, but part of an alluvial plain (and is not to be confused with the Mississippi River Delta, at the mouth of the river in New Orleans, which is some 300 miles further south). A region rich in fertile farmland, the Delta is famous for being the birthplace of the Blues.
Walter is the central character in Lemon’s new multimedia performance How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, coming to the Walker in September. He was 101 years old. A former sharecropper, gardener, odd-jobber and devoted husband, he was a life-long resident of Little Yazoo—basically a dirt road between Yazoo City and Bentonia—which is classified by the State of Mississippi as a Class Code U6 community: “A populated place that is not a census designated or incorporated place having an official federally recognized name.” Down the road—and our first stop after landing in Jackson—lies the Blue Front Cafe, a juke joint that is home to one of Ralph’s many amazing collaborators, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, possibly the last living practitioner of a slow-style blues known as Bentonia blues.
We photographed and filmed Walter over the course of two weeks, once in the fall (2008) and then again the following spring. The film and photographs both show Walter and his wife Edna “remaking” passages from two science fiction art films: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. Ralph reinterpreted movements from the films by casting the couple as accidental participants in a story constructed with multiple elements: dance, sculpture, film and photography. Each morning we created basic outlines for the day’s shoot, and after lunch we would suit Walter up in a silver spacesuit and helmet. Periodically we checked in on one of Ralph’s local collaborators who was assigned the task of building a spaceship out of found or recycled materials.
How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? is nearing completion, and I am excited to see the end results of a lengthy and fantastic process in working with both Ralph and Walter. You can experience it for yourself on September 23–25 here at the Walker. You’ll also want to see this “mind-map” sketch by Ralph, which explains more about the piece and how it fits into his creative life, past present, and future.
—Cameron Wittig, Walker photographer
All photos by Cameron Wittig and courtesy Ralph Lemon ©2008–2009 Ralph Lemon