Prospect1. New Orleans
Erin Starr White
Adam Cvijanovic, The Bayou, 2008; Flashe and latex on Tyvek; installation view at Tekrema Center for Art and Culture as part of Prospect.1 New Orleans
Beatríz Milhazes, Gamboa, 2008; iron, mixed media; 72 x 100 x 148 inches; photos by John d’Addario
The potential of an international biennial anchored in an area of the country infamous for its misfortune at the hands of nature—and mistreatment by the media and government—is, perhaps, a long shot. Materialized as Prospect.1 New Orleans, this eleven-week-long exhibition is the vision of veteran curator Dan Cameron, former head of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. P.1, as it is commonly known, delivers an impressive spread that promises to sate the hunger of those interested in engaging with art as one would a dear friend: thoughtfully, and through the lens of the joie de vivre that is New Orleans.
This biennial, hopefully the first in a chain of great ones to come, successfully marries the motley character of its host city with artwork that is at once sympathetic and supportive of its rich history. P.1 is comprised of some eighty-one artists and spread across more than twenty sites, including traditional venues such as New Orleans Museum of Art and private residences turned public spaces, such as the charming plantation house that is now the New Orleans African American Museum. Cameron has assembled an impressive roster of artists, including well-established names such as Shirin Neshat and Janine Antoni, and lesser-known talents such as Zwelethu Mthethwa, Fred Tomaselli and Adam Cvijanovic. The work on display addresses an assortment of subjects, from loss and decay to revitalization and the healing power of aesthetics. Collectively, the work and the venues that host it manifest a refreshing cooperative spirit. A blend of art and life—including vibrantly painted shotgun houses and quirky sites made unwitting cultural icons—is P.1’s strongest virtue.
Hurricane Katrina caused the type of psychic trauma that many associate with the inexplicable fate of third world countries. Not surprisingly, themes of loss and remembrance are integral to the biennial. The Lower Ninth Ward is chock full of damaged houses, marked with the ubiquitous, morbid “X” hieroglyph of post-Katrina search-and-rescue teams. But fortuitously, art has taken residence in a place where everyday life paused. Nari Ward’s installation Diamond Gym inhabits the nineteenth-century Battleground Baptist Church located, ironically, on Flood Street. Filling the sanctuary of this dark-fuchsia brick building, Ward’s “gym” is comprised of a large diamond wrought from iron bars, stuffed with exercise equipment and enveloped by two mirrored, curving walls smattered with old posters. Flanking the scene are four empty church pews placed evenly around the spectacle to form a rhombus. Adding a potent element to this ominous configuration is a looped soundtrack of recorded speeches by civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Their spirited words palpably charge the deserted space.
Skylar Fein, Scenes from the UpStairs Lounge, Mardi Gras, 1973; courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery; photo by Mike Smith
Lee Bul, Untitled (After Bruno Taut series); crystal, glass and acrylic beads on stainless-steel armature, aluminum and copper mesh, PVC, steel and aluminum chains; photo by John d’Addario
Nearby, Wangechi Mutu’s Mrs. Sarah’s House, a sparse wooden frame of a house perched atop a hastily built plywood foundation, speaks to the often frustrating—and deeply unfair—realities of the rebuilding project. Strung with white lights and open to the elements (I was lucky enough to visit on a stormy afternoon, witnessing the piece under portentous dark clouds), Mutu’s site-specific work deals directly with the harsh reality of so-called disaster contractors who take the money of cash-strapped clients only to flee before any real rebuilding begins. Mrs. Sarah, a longtime Ninth Ward resident, fell prey to such deception, and her empty lot is used by Mutu to call attention to the victims of this sham.
Also inherent to P.1’s many artistic meditations on human loss is the dual sense of hopefulness and resignation in the face of natural forces. These contradictory realities are combined to stunning effect in Adam Cvijanovic’s The Bayou at the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture. This verdant scene of the Louisiana bayou covers the interior walls of the building’s second story—itself an old and partially waterlogged house. Cvijanovic’s panoramic scenes of unsullied nature recall the oft-suppressed fact that when human “progress” continues unchecked, nature may eventually consume the built environment.
Across town at the Contemporary Art Center, several pieces address the ever-pertinent theme of the struggle for personal and political agency. The House That Herman Built, a collaboration between artist Jackie Sumell and Angola State Prison inmate Herman Wallace, speaks directly and eloquently to the human capacity for optimism. And a hard-hitting piece by Skylar Fein titled Scenes from the UpStairs Lounge, Mardi Gras, 1973, pairs gruesome photographs of the fire that struck a popular New Orleans gay bar with popular music of the era and candid snapshots of bar patrons. Fein conjures nostalgia for lost milieu of early seventies gay New Orleans and issues a call for the examination of the city’s troubled past.
A salve for these appropriately somber reflections is a good measure of beauty, including Lee Bul’s ornate and seductively glamorous chandelier Untitled (After Bruno Taut series). And the large-scale canvases of Julie Mehretu, vigorously worked with complex line drawings punctuated by brilliant swatches of acrylic paint, offer retinal delight. Referencing the city grid—or aerial plans of a complex building scheme—her paintings afford the opportunity to enter a world of explosive line and exuberant color. Also germane to the topic of aesthetic pleasure is Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation at Colton Studios. Transforming the former elementary school’s auditorium, three large orbs resembling turgid Koosh balls are suspended in the center of the space. The rays of each sphere pulse with multicolored light, echoing the firework explosions for which the artist is well known. Further, the artist has placed a semicircular row of Chinese massage chairs at the far end of the room, inviting the viewer to receive an intense, full-body chair massage while enjoying the spectacle overhead.
In addition, fully immersive wall works by Anne Deleporte are a careful balance of whimsy and dedication to process, providing an opportunity for close looking. A quirky, nostalgic video installation by William Kentridge pulls the viewer into its intimate milieu, and Beatriz Milhazes’ room-sized mobile at The Old U.S. Mint is a gem. But perhaps the most valuable contribution to this biennial is the shared efforts of the people of New Orleans. As eager participants in this enormous undertaking, they imbue each site—and each piece—with life lived under special consequence.
This quality is what gives this particular biennial some soul. It was a singular delight to enter several locations to find the work of local artists hung amidst that of “official” biennial participants. With any luck, the next iteration can absorb the spirit of its predecessor, while growing beyond the subjects of loss and devastation. Though certainly valid and significant themes, P.1 owes it to New Orleans to move toward visions of rehabilitation and ultimate recovery. Success will require a sustained and meaningful dialogue with a recovering city that marches to the beat of her own drummer, and always sees the glass half full.
Erin Starr White is Curatorial Research Assistant at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.