Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Prospect.1 Biennial in New Orleans

“Emergency Response Studio” (2008) by Paul Villinski.

“Built for Crime” (2006) by Monica Bonvicini.
Photo: Courtesy of Emi Fontana Gallery, Milan

ARTmostfierce is still celebrating the 2008 Election results. Please enjoy this article by Roberta Smith of the NY Times about Prospect. 1 a new Biennial in New Orleans!

Published: November 3, 2008
NEW ORLEANS — Biennials are a virus that has spread across the globe. Embraced by cities as tourist magnets and branding tools, they often seem to be stocked by a standard jet set of curators, artists, collectors and advisers who touch down, in slightly different configurations, at nearly every stop.

In Katrina’s Wake, a New Biennial (September 7, 2008)
Times Topics: Hurricane KatrinaNew Orleans has joined the biennial rush with Prospect.1, the sprawling exhibition that opened across the city over the weekend. With a roster of nearly 80 artists, this show has an unsurprising mix of good, bad and phoned-in art. But it is also a testing ground with little in the way of way of superstars, big curatorial egos and elaborately produced works, and none of the vast, chilling art halls endemic in biennials.

It proves that biennials can be just as effective when pulled off without bells, whistles, big bucks and the usual suspects. Maybe even more effective, especially if the local cultural soil is spectacularly fertile, and if there’s a citywide need for uplift.

Under these conditions something magical can happen: a merging of art and city into a shifting, healing kaleidoscope. Sometimes this occurs in works that are unrelated to New Orleans, like the glittery wall hangings El Anatsui fashions from the foil of liquor bottles or Yasumasa Morimura’s ranting, riveting video performance as a series of 20th-century dictators.

Sometimes it occurs in site-specific works, like Nari Ward’s “Diamond Gym,” a sculpture of a giant gem filled with weight-lifting machines on view in the hulk of the historic Battle Ground Baptist Church, ruined but still standing in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Dan Cameron, a veteran curator and the founder of Prospect.1, came to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and didn’t want to leave. He seems to have sensed that in the city’s rawness a different kind of biennial was waiting to break free. Because New Orleans lacked an obvious site for the event or the means to build one, Mr. Cameron has distributed his selections in about 30 locations: several museums and alternative spaces, as well as public buildings, old houses and empty lots stripped bare by the hurricane.

As a result, you are rarely viewing artworks in isolation, but rather measuring them against their contexts. On one level the show is a lively competition between so-called site-specific art and portable art objects whose meanings are expanded by their settings. On another, it is a tour of the city’s rich past, recent trauma and often struggling arts organizations. And it didn’t hurt that Prospect.1 opened the weekend before the presidential election, with everybody on pins and needles.

Again and again, New Orleans more than meets the biennial halfway. Take the humbling, intoxicating beaded costumes of Victor Harris, called “suits,” on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art. One of several local artists who adds heft to Prospect.1, Mr. Harris is the Big Chief of the Fi-Yi-Yi, a group of Mardi Gras Indians, as well as a practicing shaman. Profuse with hallucinatory patterns and colors and evocations of African masks, his suits derail any closed definition of art or artist, as does seeing him in them, in action, on video and in photographs.

Made at the rate of one a year and unveiled during Mardi Gras, the suits are worn whenever the occasion demands that Mr. Harris call forth a spirit he has named Fi-Yi-Yi. The garments leave no doubt about the high levels of creativity in a city where French, French Canadian, African and American Indian cultures have mixed for centuries.

In one of the most haunting matchups of art and site, works by Rico Gatson, William Kentridge and the duo Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry have been installed at the New Orleans African American Museum, a beautiful Creole house on Governor Nicholls Street. Working in drawing, photography and animation, the artists explore often painful moments of racial violence, from World War I to the civil rights era to the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert.

Some site-specific efforts are simply based on received ideas. Takashi Horisaki’s latex cast of a house wrecked by the storm, on view at the Hefler Warehouse on Magazine Street, is inhabited less by the ghosts of Katrina than by Robert Overby and Rachel Whiteread’s casts of domestic architecture.

Sebastián Preece’s work is more effective, even if it borders on urban archaeology. He has taken the concrete slabs and footings from a house in the Lower Ninth Ward lost to the hurricane, sliced them up and displayed them, bottom side up, on the water-damaged lower floor of the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture. Some resemble topographical maps, others abstract sculptures. On the undamaged second floor the New York painter Adam Cvijanovic has painted the walls with lavish, slightly oppressive vistas of Louisiana swamps, exaggerating the traditions of wallpaper and mural painting to suggest that nature is ever invasive and always capable of eradicating any human effort.

Seeing Mark Bradford’s enormous “Noah’s Ark” provides a firsthand experience of the eradication in the Lower Ninth Ward, where nothing remains of many houses except lonely stoops and empty lots. Made of old pieces of poster-plastered plywood, the ark rises from one of these lots, forlorn yet indomitable. Its ancient hulk, with its cacophony of decaying advertisements, seems to ridicule the overwrought, seemingly marooned houses commissioned by the actor Brad Pitt that dot the neighborhood.

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