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Prospect.2 New Orleans

BEATING HEART BIENNIAL

by Emily Nathan
 
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At last week’s preview of Prospect.2 New Orleans, Oct. 22, 2011-Jan. 29, 2012, art impresario Dan Cameron looked exhausted. As everybody knows by now, the founding director of the largest U.S. biennial, which debuted in 2008 to great critical acclaim, has had some difficulties.

Cameron calls himself a “survivor of the East Village,” and he has certainly demonstrated a survivor’s grit, weathering storms both literal and figurative in his fight to bring the New Orleans art scene to the international stage. “I have been waiting for something meaningful and profound to take place in the art world, and I don’t see it happening in New York or Los Angeles,” he explained, a bit smugly, to a group of press gathered at the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center, one of P.2’s hubs.

With him from the start and still along for the ride is his knight-in-shining-armor Toby Devan Lewis, the biennial’s founding benefactor, who one suspects may have had a hand, despite her loyalty, in Cameron’s decision to step down as artistic director for Prospect.3, which is slated for 2013. He has named LACMA contemporary art curator Franklin Sirmans as his successor, bequeathing him a project of great promise -- and a slew of financial woes.

In the meantime, though, the beating heart that is Prospect.2 New Orleans beats on, one year late and significantly reduced in size, bringing a formidable list of 27 local, national and international artists to roost in 16 venues spread throughout the Crescent City. Beyond its international stars and national heroes, Sophie Calle, Iván Navarro and Francesco Vezzoli among them, P.2 includes a host of local talent, whose work is spiced with the city’s Southern soul.

That soul came together on the morning of Oct. 22, 2011, as crowds gathered in the Marigny district’s Washington Square Park for the P.2 ribbon-cutting ceremony. Ms. Lewis presided, brandishing a pair of oversized blue scissors, and with a quick snip the fluffy pink bow designed for the event by local puppeteer Miss Pussycat burst open, spilling out its cotton and confetti stuffing, and ushering in the biennial’s inaugural performance, the Marigny Parade.

Inspired by the city’s long-standing tradition of marching bands, New Jersey-born new media artist R. Luke DuBois enlisted the help of 350 budding musicians from local high schools. Separated into groups, they began their musical march from five different points in the city; each group played the same music and kept time with synchronized metronomes, finally converging all at once in the Marigny triangle and overwhelming the crowds with an onslaught of surround sound. Or, that was the idea. As it turns out, in art -- as in life -- even the most genuine attempts at harmony often result in something more like cacophony.

After that pleasantly dissonant start, the festivities continued; New Orleans has never needed an excuse to celebrate, and the evening’s P.2 events intersected here and there with satellite performances, unscheduled (and early) Halloween parades and unaffiliated art projects. At sundown, a hotly anticipated mobile performance by celebrated interventionist William Pope.L set off from the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward. Titled Blink, it involved scores of volunteers taking turns at pushing an otherwise immobile black-painted ice-cream truck through the city until sunrise the next day. A screen installed on the truck’s back illuminated the dark with a slideshow of photographs sent in by New Orleans residents, all in response to the question, “When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream of?”

Pets, babies, dinner -- they dream of all kinds of things, apparently. At the press conference, a mysteriously concise Pope.L (who kept a low profile during much of the preview) explained that his black truck was a veteran of several earlier New Orleans events, and therefore was something of a repository of experiences.

“What’s compelling and difficult about this project,” Pope.L went on, “is asking people who have lost all their images to make new ones,” a sentiment that could sum up the task of rebuilding life in a city that has been destroyed. As night faded into morning, Blink moved slowly through the streets like so much collective baggage, drawing passersby and followers like the Pied-Piper of Hamelin. In its modest, quiet way, the spectacle seemed to suggest that despite immense weight, our shared history can be shouldered -- if we all pitch in to help.

In the name of collective history, local artist Dawn DeDeaux took over a square known as the oldest in the French Quarter, the Brulatour Mansion and Courtyard, which is reached from the street by passing through an old wooden door and down a cool, stone hallway. Titled The Goddess Fortuna and her Dunces, in an Attempt to Make Sense of it All, DeDeaux’s elaborate installation derives from the late John Kennedy Toole’s picaresque novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, set in early 1960s New Orleans, and re-imagines the dreamscape of the book’s perverted protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly.

Using video projections, a series of sculptures and light installations, DeDeaux recasts the object of Reilly’s desire, the Goddess Fortuna, as the city’s most famous Sissy Bouncer: the inimitable transsexual Katey Red. In a video projected in a dark room, images of Red dressed in traditional costumes and set to soaring operatic arias are interrupted by footage of her booty-shorted ass bumping like a machine gun to nasty bounce beats.  

In the more modest upper rooms of the New Orleans Mint, part one of a two-part video installation by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson was projected on the wall of a dark, carpeted chamber (the second part of his work is installed at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in the neighboring city of Lafayette, a P.2 satellite event). Titled The Man (2010), the video sets the late Mississippi bluesman Pinetop Perkins at a piano in a yellowing, empty field, a dilapidated wooden house in the background. The lonely scene recalls Andrew Wyeth's Christina’s World (1948), but Kjartansson has given that picture's silence the penetrating soul of Pinetop’s blue notes.

In a small room next door, a surprise from the celebrated photographer of the Southern quotidian, William Eggleston. Not the color photos he is known for, but rather a black-and-white video that zooms in and out on the leathery faces of reeling patrons in a dirty bar, illuminating their skin amidst curling feathers of smoke. Across the hall is even less color, via a stunning panorama of black-and-white photographic portraits, clear and cold as ice, that again pay homage to the denizens of the Deep South.

One of those residents is Bruce Davenport Jr., a New Orleans local who is rarely seen without sunglasses and whose painted aerial views of marching bands were featured recently in a Dan Cameron-curated show at Manhattan’s new C24 Gallery on West 24th Street. Hung in the lobby of the New Orleans Museum of Art like meticulous cartographical studies, each painting is annotated with small blocks of text -- like speech-bubbles -- containing witty quips from Davenport's interior monologue, as well as his signature, whose placement and form recalls an athlete’s autograph on a fan’s poster.

More local flavor was contributed to P.2 by folk-legend Ashton T. Ramsey at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Born into a tribe of traditional Mardi Gras parading Indians, Ramsey spent his childhood stitching together his family’s yearly costumes -- brightly colored headdresses, feathered bodysuits embellished with detailed folk embroidery -- but soon struck out in his own direction.

On Mardi Gras of 1989, he debuted his first iconic outfit: a suit covered in newspaper clippings, collaged images and text that illustrate his chosen theme, which is indicated by a hand-crafted cardboard word affixed to his glasses. The word has varied, from “Haiti” to “freedom” to “gambler,” but the unveiling of each new suit at every Mardi Gras parade is an anticipated local event. “If you’re a parade person,” he told us, “All you do is worry about where the parade started -- not where it’s going. You go wherever it’s going.” Sounds like life in The Big Easy.

Over at the CAC, the biennial’s largest venue, eight artists had works on the building’s two main floors. In the round, well-lit space carved out by a curving ramp that leads upstairs, local transplant Gina Phillips hung a folksy installation like a panorama, allowing it to overlap and extend across all walls. Swaths of fabric in various textures and colored threads make up a series of narrative quilts and tapestries, with imagery that includes the grinning faces of children, a series of pulled teeth and idyllic icons like white doves, sturdy oaks and crystalline teardrops. Phillips offers an immersive fantasy world that seems to occupy an ambiguous space, neither 2D nor 3D.  

Installed more traditionally in the foyer, a lush evolutionary tableau by the apocalyptic visionary painter Alexis Rockman asserts the unsustainable interaction between New Orleans’ indigenous populations from the past and present. In horrifying detail, the landscape depicts the impossible co-existence of various local species, who consume and destroy one another under the verdant green glow of Darwinian theory.

Rockman’s painting is hung in dramatic opposition to three charcoal drawings of empty suits of armor by the meticulous draughtsman Karl Haendel, who first made a splash in Los Angeles with realistic drawings offered for the same price as the common things that they depict. With his precise, skillful touch, Haendel brings out the absurdity of the armor's true-to-life details -- pointed toes, claws for fingers -- and offers a compelling foil to the primal reality of evolution depicted in Rockman’s work. The juxtaposition places Haendel’s outmoded symbols of power and protection, which are here ineffective, empty shells, face to face with the indiscriminacy of nature’s wrath -- and begs a connection to the destruction wrought on New Orleans, city and culture, by Hurricane Katrina. 

Upstairs, a looping video by Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg continues to explore the interaction between nature and man. In it, the camera takes four slow, uninterrupted trips around a sparsely furnished interior, whose coldness is reminiscent of an Andrei Tarkovsky set. The walls are initially quiet and calm, bathed in cool moonlight; but with each turn, they are increasingly overtaken by shadows, as the leaves of trees outside are disturbed by a gathering storm. We watch the shadows quiver, then rustle, then shake as boughs are tossed violently about; finally, their frenetic activity climaxes and, echoed on the walls of the room, consigns the scene to darkness.

While some artists in P.2 explore the battle with nature that is so much a part of contemporary New Orleans, others have chosen to invest in its cultural history. At the Louisiana State Museum’s historic 1850 House, which sits across from a palm-studded plaza in a quaint section of the French Quarter, the signature autobiographical interventions of French art star Sophie Calle seem quite at home in the museum’s restaged, Antebellum-era period rooms.

Here is a white silk dress she shed the first night she slept with a lover, draped over the frame of an aged, creaking bed; there are her high heels, kicked off at the base of an old rocking chair. The stories of her trysts are detailed in captions that accord with numbered placards dotted around the room; displayed at the cordoned entrance to each, they seem to suggest the fluid overlaps between fiction and fact that are an inevitable part of the re-telling of history.

Over in Tremé, one of the oldest continuously settled African-American neighborhoods in the city, black artist and critic Lorraine O’Grady took over the walls of a historic double shotgun house at the African-American Museum, a cultural venue that has been leading an effort to redevelop the community since it suffered significant blight in the ‘80s. Her series of photographs documents a several-decade-old project she undertook after overhearing a woman declare that avant-garde art “has nothing to do with black people.” Setting out to prove the naysayer wrong, O’Grady tested the theory in 1983 Harlem during the infamous Carnival parade, transforming a float into a giant picture frame, writing the words “Art is. . .” across its base, and equipping her dancers on the ground with smaller, white frames.

“Carnival is a moment when those not allowed to speak can adopt a guise and speak the unspoken,” she told us. “I knew implicitly that these people at the parade would understand that as the frame moved, everything within it was art.”

Understand they did, screaming “Frame me! Make me art!” and clamoring for the attention of the dancers, who obediently held the frames to willing parade-goers’ faces so they could kiss, dance and smile behind them. O’Grady’s snapshots from this event, installed in the old house, reveal the regal range of the candid human spirit -- moments of quiet elegance are interspersed with explosions of unhindered joy. And, of course, she proved her point.

Despite its setbacks and compromises, Prospect.2, like Prospect.1, is a feat of human engineering, propelled in large part by Cameron’s unflinching commitment to open the colorful life of the Crescent City to the world. He has announced the development of a New Orleans-based Prospect office, with an exhibition and education program slated to run year-round, as well as plans to incorporate the model of Prospect1.5 into the Prospect system for good -- as a small “regional exhibition” punctuating the every-two-year biennial with a yearly display of local talent.

“New Orleans is a place of annual rituals,” Cameron explained. “The idea is to generate visual arts energy in the city during that very pregnant period between the first hurricanes, and the Sunday before Mardi Gras begins.”

So you see, Prospect, like New Orleans itself, must surrender to the powerful winds, waters and traditions that are its past, present and future -- and to all the storms that nature brings.

“Prospect.2: New Orleans Biennial, “Oct. 22, 2011-Jan 29, 2012, in New Orleans, Louisiana.


EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email