Guest post by Jessica Cochran
Since it opened nearly two weeks ago, many of the nation’s foremost critics have weighed in on the successes and failures of Prospect 3: Notes for Now, New Orleans’ third international biennial of contemporary art, curated by Franklin Sirmans. But, as these things go, the jury is always out. Beaten to death in assessments of the most recent “love to hate” Whitney Biennial, were the assertions that the biennial itself is kind of a “tired situation.”[i] As Helen Molesworth pointed out in Artforum, “in today’s hyper-mediated art scene, no one actually expects to be bowled over by anything new.” A successful biennial is something of an oxymoron.
This year’s modest Prospect Biennial slogan, Notes for Now, is meant to imply, as Sirmans told Flash Art this summer, “transition” and “translation,” and “the idea that I was merely taking notes.” And so P3, one of the only stateside international biennials to operate on a citywide scale, diverges curatorially from the more overtly dramatic thematic tendencies in global biennials, which often operate under the banner of slogans like “All the World’s Futures” or “Burning Down the House.” Some projects in this biennial, which was inspired by the meandering existentialist novel The Moviegoer, do feel akin to a sort of information gathering: Sophie T. Lvoff’s color photographs of street corners, cars, doorways and urban flora mine an idiosyncratic visual language native only to New Orleans neighborhoods. Improbable, harmonious color combinations emerge from humdrum corners of this world amplifying something about the sociology and history of these as purposeful spaces put together with love and care.
And perhaps this “modesty” is a first move forward in what will be Prospect’s long evolution from its post-Hurricane Katrina origins. As it approaches its first decade, the biennial has traded the specific urgency of Katrina, as Sirmans suggests, for a broader sense of “celebration” considered in relation to complex themes of geography, cultural diversity, “crime and punishment,” the aftermath of slavery and the “brutal legacy” of the South.[ii] Laced throughout the biennial, projects about the New Orleans experience situate a “flagrantly visible”[iii] city within a global patchwork of ideas, traditions and aesthetics. On view at the UNO St. Claude Gallery, The Propeller Group’s film The Living Need Light and the Dead Need Music connects funeral ceremonies of Saigon and New Orleans, both cities of the Global South, through a visually rich narrative following several ambiguous, charismatic protagonists through markets, swamps, rituals and processions. The film is complemented with body of photographs and drawings of brass band musicians shown alongside costumes, and sculptures (film props) of drums and trombones by Christopher Meyers. The entire project, based on the idea of the “butterfly effect” theory of “non-locality whereby two distinct phenomena affect one another across a vast expanse of space and time,”[iv] is ambitious, memorable and deeply affecting.
Within the biennial’s context of “the global” other works move from the syncretic to the poly-cultural and diasporic in modes that range from wrenching to optimistic: Yun Fei Ji’s meticulous water color scroll paintings at the Contemporary Art Center depict Chinese migration and displacement unfolding horizontally in scenes emerging from drawn folds and valleys; David Zink Yi’s two channel video Horror Vacui documents, through vignettes, his Afro-Cuban band’s rehearsal and ritual engagement. Shot from myriad odd spatial perspectives in Havana, the music is presented as the tangible, historically loaded manifestation of particular human relations in a specific time and place; and, elegantly, at the Newcomb Art Gallery, Monir Farmanfarmanaian’s glass and mirror sculptural mosaics “marry traditional Persian design motifs with elements of Western modernism.”[v]
As I moved through New Orleans on foot, bike, van, and trolley, I observed inimitable Green Bay Packers super-fans infiltrate the city in advance of a Sunday night football game that coincided with the biennial’s opening weekend. As a tourist moving through crowds of green and gold garb (an experience that recalled my own freezing youth as a “cheesehead” growing up in the shadows of Lambeau Field and Vince Lombardi), I couldn’t help but consider how the impact of professional sports in this city’s post-Katrina climb relates to the efforts of the art world.
In an interview, Treme creator David Simon once said simply “New Orleans still makes something. It makes moments.” That this city of Mardis Gras is a generative place, hospitable to sports revelry and the creative chaos of the eponymous Jazz Fest is obvious. One of the biennial’s most essential works addressed the city’s history of festivalism directly. Andrea Fraser’s Not Just a Few of Us, performed in a packed auditorium at the New Orleans Museum of Art, was one-person re-enactment of a “marathon” 1991 New Orleans City Council meeting debating a “proposed ordinance requiring the integration of private clubs and carnival krewes.”[vi] Moving fluidly and subtly across the positions of 19 individuals, Fraser’s incredibly nuanced performance amplified the language of both nuts and bolts policy and familial banter, exposing deeply embedded bias, discomfort and aggression. It was a mesmerizing articulation of economic, social and racial divisions. I loved this as a nod to not only the city but to the biennial itself, which as is been dogged with infighting, politics, and budget woes as recently reported by the Art Newspaper. If in Prospect 1, Paul Chan’s production of Waiting for Godot “could be read at least partially as an allegory for the endless waiting of citizens in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhoods for federal government help in the aftermath of Katrina,”[vii] Fraser’s deep dive into history of Mardi Gras in relation to city politics provides a similar opportunity for allegorical reading and, in this case, institutional critique.
With over 50 artists, the biennial stretches out over 15 venues. Although I tried, I did not see everything, unfortunately missing both Terry Adkins’ lauded drum sculptures at Dillard University and Tavares Strachan floating neon sculpture You Belong Here, which was allegedly floating up and down the Mississippi River: it was nowhere in sight when I tried to see it during what I thought was a designated time. Do failed attempts make the biennial experience richer, I wondered existentially as I soaked in the warm pink and brown palette of sunset on the Mississippi. Nope.
Fortunately for the weary, time-poor traveler alone, this biennial isn’t as embedded into the neighborhoods as the inaugural version, which was emblematized by Mark Bradford’s monumental ark and Wangechi Mutu’s Miss Sarah’s House installation in the lower 9th ward. It does, however reach from large institutions to small cultural centers, and into public space. As Christine K. Kim asserts in her essay for the catalog, “Instead of two rigid possibilities of, on the one hand, an outsider object’s coming into a mainstream art institution or, on the other, an established artist’s going out into the landscape and creating a site-specific installation, a loosening, obscuring and mixing up of modes, strategies and media is integral to Prospect 3.”[viii] A distinctly less binary, though perhaps not totally hybrid curatorial strategy is felt mobilized in installations such as Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex (c. 1980–2014) at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Mary Ellen Caroll’s, Preparations for Public Utility 2.0 at AIA New Orleans (a long term project poised to bring Internet access to areas of New Orleans neglected by Internet providers) , Kerry James Marshall’s The Manifold Pleasures, and such… window installation of Plexiglas tables and gift boxes, bows and greeting cards at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, and, finally, Lisa Sigal’s Home Court Crawl which sited poetic text culled from a play by Suzan-Lori Parks onto vacant homes throughout New Orleans.
In a move that puzzled or annoyed some critics, Sirmans integrated into the biennial as touchstones the paintings Under the Pandanus (I Raro te Oviri) by Paul Gauguin and igura feminina e pássaros by Tarsila do Amaral. On view in permanent collection galleries at the New Orleans Museum of Art, they required a bit of a hunt—however the deep consideration of “the Other” from the perspective of the colonizer alongside the colonized provided provocative context and an important empathetic lens. Curatorial strategy, however, seemed to disappear elsewhere. For example, I made the journey (which required an epic walk along Greenwood Cemetery and humble jaunt around the periphery of the New Orleans Country Club with my goddamn suitcase in tow) to the impeccable Longue Vue Gardens expecting to find site-specific works that engaged or disrupted the lush, manicured environs. Instead I found fantastic projects shoved into small, almost makeshift galleries. Jose Antonio Vega Macotela’s Time Divisa, a selection of artworks realized by inmates in exchange for favors seemed over-stuffed into a small space, and Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue video, an exploration of the origin of the world by way of the Smithsonian, screensavers and spoken word, is too curious and wonderful to exist at such a distant margin.
The pulse of feminism reverberated throughout the biennial, which has been praised for its diversity—for example, it features 44 artists of color, out of 58 total. Performative still portraits by Pushpamela N. made visible “oppressive ideals” projected by representations of polytheistic deities, documentary photography and popular culture” exposing the “patriarchal” “colonial gaze.”[ix] At the George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art, Carrie Mae Weems’ video installation, Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 parts (commissioned for the Feminist and… exhibition at the Mattress Factory) featured holographic characters on a period stage performing difference against a hypnotic backdrop of jazz and sound. Moving through references to boxing, activism, the Playboy bunny and the Kennedy assassination, scenes reveal women briefly in ghostlike hologram, yet they emerge as immense, deeply drawn characters. Also memorable was a video at May Gallery & Residency by Tameka Norris. Meka Jean: How She Got Good, a four channel semi-fictional story of the young artist returning home to New Orleans was flanked in another gallery by documentation of the artist’s process of working with the community. The documentation was illuminating but nonessential—and definitely unnecessary if meant as a preemptive defense against an assertion of artistic parachuting, a common critique of biennialism.
Finally, some of the most wonderful works were those that slowed you down, that offered a space to reflect or think about histories in the face of potentials.
Lucia Koch’s installation in the Contemporary Art Center, Mood Disorder, featured gradient color printed on Plexiglas and glass placed in the firsts floor gallery along windows and corners. Zarouhie Abdalian intervened throughout the grounds of the New Orleans Museum of African American History and Culture, replacing fence posts and portions of siding with mirrors. Combined with spoken word sound, a man’s voice reciting language related to labor, emanating from deep within the historic plantation structures, the work felt present and directional, guiding the viewer across the property in a heightened state of awareness. Gary Simmons’ large stage, fabricated out of reclaimed wood and speakers, sits within the stark interior of the Treme Market Branch, a former bank in the early stages of renovation. A platform waiting for its party, the humble work is not wholly inert, but also not as compelling in situ as the fantastic structure in which it sits.
Sirmans wrote in his catalog essay that New Orleans has both a “brutal legacy” and a “glorious and celebratory flip side.” In finding works to embody the politics, history, and aesthetics of this contradiction, he was guided by intuition rather than strict methodology—and this is a curatorial strategy I appreciate as much for its moments of triumph as for its moments of failure. Because to expect perfection from a biennial forecloses its status as a site for experimentation, pedagogy, ferment and progress. Fortunately, most of works in this biennial occupy meaningful territory—getting yourself there is the hard part.
Jessica Cochran is a writer and curator in Chicago.
[ii] Franklin Sirmans, “Somewhere and not Anywhere,” in Prospect 3: Notes for Now, exh. cat. (New York: Delmonico Books, 2014), p. 28.
[iv] Excerpted from the wall text
[v] Elizabeth Sorenson, “Monir Farmanfarmaian,” in Prospect 3: Notes for Now, exh. cat. (New York: Delmonico Books, 2014), p. 72.
[vi] artist statement
[vii] Joshua Dector, “Preamble: a Flood of Questions,” Afterall, no. 22 (Autumn/Winter 2009) p. 34.
[viii] Christine Y. Kim, “Deposing Dualities in Prospect 3,” in Prospect 3: Notes for Now, exh. cat. (New York: Delmonico Books, 2014), p. 158.
[ix] Martabel Wasserman, “Pushpamala N. with Clare Arni, in Prospect 3: Notes for Now, exh. cat. (New York: Delmonico Books, 2014), 120.