Art in the Shadow of Katrina: Exploring Prospect New Orleansby Hrag Vartanian
When Mark Bradford built his ark, “Mithra” (2008), in the middle of New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth Ward, I don’t know if he envisioned it as a monument to futility or a symbolic cry for salvation but it reads as a little bit of both. Bradford’s ship sculpture is composed of large sheets of plywood and covered with advertisements that, even in New Orleans’s rather temperate climate, peeled and washed away.
Standing in the Lower Ninth Ward you have no choice but to confront the immensity of the havoc Katrina wreaked on the city, and Bradford seems to have understood that. Yet, there is an irony built into his ark docked at the corner of Caffin Avenue and North Miro Street. It visually dwarfs the half-built homes all around, even if it isn’t much larger. Its immensity is a tad absurd and reminds you that salvation has never arrived here.
I asked curator Dan Cameron if he thought “Mithra” was a successful work. “Aesthetically?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. He paused and hesitated before he answered yes. A local art historian I spoke to had the same response. “It grows on you,” he admitted.
I understood their reluctance, because in photos it can seem like an unrefined monstrosity named after a Zoroastrian deity. In person, its impact is very emotional, unremitting in its sense of loss, and its size and mass demanded your undivided attention.
Bradford threw a coming out party for his wooden mammoth in the form of a Crawfish Boil hosted by the artist himself. I’m told it was a perfect introduction to the community and cemented the sculpture’s role during the biennial as a landmark for the neighborhood.
Unlike other parts of the city, where spray paint markers, known as Katrina tattoos, were the only reminders of August 2006, here everything bore the scars of that fateful storm. My guide, who has since become a friend, explained to me that this part of the city was once as densely packed with homes as other neighborhoods. Today, only high grass, telephone poles and the occasional house remain. I could only imagine what once was.
Many artists who chose to work in the Lower Ninth Ward focused on the concepts of home, promise and disaster. The place was dominated by an almost religious silence. One photographer, Keith Calhoun, has lived in the Lower Ninth for as long as anyone can remember. He greeted us by the door of the L9 Center for the Arts, where he had mounted his photographs alongside those of a fellow photographer, Chandra McCormick. He was friendly and open and seemed amused by the sight of art tourists roaming a place we would probably never have seen if it weren’t for Katrina.
Their photographs are stark and lively, capturing life in the Lower Ninth before the deluge—little girls in their Sunday best and young men in suits playing banjos. Next door, a small exhibition of Calhoun’s and McCormick’s hurricane-damaged images displays many of the same photographs but water damaged, with whole sections erased and warped. There is something beautiful about these post-Katrina images, even though I felt awkward finding them pretty in their decay. Their yellow-tinged, rippling borders and white streaks give them a contemporary feel. They appear, with their fading faces and hallucinatory distortions, like metaphors of memory. In a room adjacent to the disaster relics is a wall-size painting on newspaper by Prospect.1 artist Anne Deleporte. Her work involves a great deal of editing—painting away whole sections of newsprint so that words, lines, and photographic details seem to float on a field of pure color. Calhoun and Deleporte are friends, and their works complement each other in this small space. Together their work bespeaks the role of erasure as an act of beauty, even as it robs an object of its context.
Across the street, Wangechi Mutu’s “Mrs. Sarah’s House” (2008) stands on a platform. It is a simple wood frame, a surrogate monument for a house that was never built. From a distance, and even on closer inspection, it feels like a fantasy or an idea more than a thing, resembling Venturi Scott Brown & Associates’s “House of Benjamin Franklin” (1976) in Philadelphia. At night Wutu’s structure is lit up to reveal a more festive side, but all in all it feels contrived.
Elsewhere in the Lower Ninth Ward, Ghada Amer planted a garden that was designed to grow up trellises that read “Happily Ever After,” but after being relocated halfway through the biennial, the plants never had a chance to grow. Close by, Leandro Ehrlich’s “Too Late For Help” (2008) is far too literal. The sculpture depicts a ladder leaning against a floating window seemingly ripped from a local home. Its artistic language is surrealism but it fails to offer more than an obvious allusion to the actual emptiness all around.
The Danish trio Superflex devised a rather complicated project for the Lower Ninth Ward Village entitled, “When the Levees Broke, We Bought Our House” (2008). Friends of theirs had purchased a home in Denmark right after Katrina. At the time, Danish banks had forecast lower housing needs as a result of the Katrina catastrophe and the artists calculated that the average Danish homeowner would have saved $20,000 when financing a mortgage at the time. The scenario, even if true, sounds a little farfetched since the artists don’t offer proof of why any bank would predict lower housing needs due to a hurricane on the other side of the world. This project, however, continues the artists’ longtime goal of exposing the invisible global networks of money, commerce and power. Even if their story is fictitious, it exposes a greater truth, that fortunes are invariably reaped from the tragedy of others. The piece representing the project is a photograph of the house in question, which is on sale for $20,000, with all proceeds going to buy construction materials for Lower Ninth Ward residents. It’s unfortunate that Superflex’s extraordinary Robin Hood concept is invested in such a lackluster photograph.
Further afield, another Prospect.1 artist took aim at the economic system that was already in meltdown as the biennial opened in early November. Srdjan Loncar’s “Value” (2008) was parked at the entrance of the Old U.S. Mint building between the city’s French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods. Loncar created a large pile of fake money, a phony banker’s office, and a stack of gold spray-painted metal briefcases, including one filled with faux currency under Plexiglas. For $500 you could purchase a case full of makeshift loot to take home with you.
When I confirmed with the security guard that the items were indeed for sale, she shot back, “Do you believe people are buying that? Look how many are already gone.” She pointed to the stack of gold cases.
“I think it’s rather nice; I’m thinking of buying one,” I said. She seemed stunned and our conversation ended abruptly. As it turned out, I didn’t end up buying a multiple, since it seemed absurd to walk out of the Old Mint with counterfeit currency.
Across town at the Contemporary Arts Center, one of the biennial’s main venues, Cao Fei + Map Office spoofed the role of cultural tourism in general and Prospect.1’s role in particular. In their “No Lab” (2008) installation, a platform is surrounded by billboard-like panels emblazoned with slogans like “Prospect.1 is Going to Blow the Art World’s Collective Mind,” “Tourist Buy Souvenirs. Collectors Buy Art,” and the more sobering “Fifty Percent of New Orleans’s [sic] Artists Lost Their Homes, and Dozens Lost Their Life’s Work.” Inside, guests could peruse the online world Second Life. Around the circumference you are confronted with the reality of New Orleans while inside you are offered an escape into another (virtual) world. When I arrived, a character identified as Barack Obama was wandering around the virtual world projected on the screen. It occurred to me that we will realize soon enough how well-placed our hope in him really is.
An American Biennial Like No Other
In his introductory essay to the Prospect New Orleans catalogue, Dan Cameron explains his reasons for creating the spectacle in Louisiana. Aside from his interest in revitalizing the city and boosting the local arts scene, he also suggests that for far too long the U.S. has treated contemporary art as a largely domestic commodity, and that the country’s perception of itself as a meeting place of the world is a distortion based on our immigration-induced diversity.
The cosmopolitanism of biennials doesn’t fit the American self-image and, as Cameron astutely points out, even the Whitney Biennial has a nationalistic agenda. But New Orleans as a site seems well suited to its role as biennial host. “Part of the reason New Orleans has never learned to be a modern [southern] city in the sense that we would refer to Houston or Miami in that it has not allowed its past to remain securely buried,” Cameron writes.
Each of Prospect.1’s twenty-two venues (there were formerly twenty-three) were scattered across the city like seeds to the wind and each rooted in its location to grow into something wondrous. New Orleans is a place that offers a myriad of diversions that often distracted me from my biennial path, losing hours as I strolled through swathes of the city dominated by what appears to be its signature architectural style, picturesque decay.
William Kentridge’s “What Will Come (has already come)” (2007) and Bradley McCallum & Jacqueline Tarry’s “The Evidence Of Things Not Seen” (2007-08) felt at ease in the New Orleans African American Museum, which is located in Treme—the oldest African-American neighborhood in America. Kentridge’s inclusion in this venue, as a white South African, suggested another dimension to our traditional notions of African culture that is more often focused on color rather than the realities of geography.
Kentridge creates a fantastic animation projected on a reflective round table with a metallic cylinder in the middle. The film morphs from palm trees into planes and birds. The experience of standing around his installation feels like a communal bonfire. You stare into it looking for something and end up mesmerized, lost in the images that warp and bend. His work exudes a healing quality even if the subject matter suggests war and the steel jaws of modernity.
McCallum & Tarry’s work is the most heroic in the biennial. Oil paintings based on mug shots of arrested Southern black civil rights activists fill the first floor of the museum, hanging on blood red walls. The paintings obscure the I.D. placards displaying arrest numbers through an overlay of toner on silken layers that hover an inch from the canvas, emitting a ghostly aura. The work restores a sense of dignity to the activists. Without the placards they appear free and no longer victimized. Most look as if their fists are cocked, ready for a fight. In one case, the illusion is of a gentleman fixing his tie.
There were also a number of smaller, quieter pieces that created moments of pause. Amy Sillman chose to show her “Orchard Portraits” (2008) and “After Chip (Abstracts)” (2008) in an unconventionally shaped office space at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. The former is a series of portraits of people involved in an alternative space on New York’s Lower East Side, while the latter is comprised of abstracted head shapes. The portraits were of people who aren’t ordinarily celebrated for their collective contribution, and Sillman’s placement of them in an arts school was poetic. They are works that reward your time with seductive shapes, playful compositions and lush colors.
If the majority of the art at P.1 was thrilling and rich in meaning, one work disturbed me deeply. Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Fireworks From Heaven” (2008) was installed in the assembly room of the Colton School in the Marigny district, with his characteristic electronic firework bursts filling the room while visitors enjoyed the spectacle in massage chairs. But recent events that have forever colored the work of Cai, who, as the mastermind of the firework footprints opening the Beijing Olympic games last summer, lost the critical dimension he once seemed to have possessed. His efforts at prettifying China’s PR spectacle with a combination of computer-generated animation and real explosions rendered his visual metaphors empty. Last year, Artnet’s Ben Davis had already spotted Cai’s shifty politics, writing that he “has only a superficial commitment to any ideology at all.” Davis wrote that Cai’s work gives you “a grandiose but slightly hollow feeling.” Maybe it was because New Orleans is a city that doesn’t forget and doesn’t allow history to disappear easily, but I felt the full evidence of Cai’s shallowness in that auditorium, and it left a bitter taste that I couldn’t wash away.
After four days I left New Orleans still wondering about this place that Cameron describes in his essay as “a template for the contemporary multicultural or ‘melting-pot’ America.” He evidently didn’t realize he was caught in a contradiction between the two forms of cultural integration he assigned to New Orleans, since multiculturalism tends to be about acculturation while the American “melting pot” has always championed assimilation. I thought New Orleans was more of the latter than the former but four days didn’t make me confident about my assessment; the city was far too mercurial to be pegged by a tourist.
One Friday afternoon I arrived at the Edgar Degas Foundation with some people to see a video by Aernout Mik. It was 4:45 pm and the building was scheduled to close at 5:00. I walked in relieved that we had made it to this far-flung destination in time for this one work. The caretaker of the space looked at us and said that he had just turned off the piece because he figured no one was coming. I mentioned I had arrived from New York for the biennial and wanted to see the work. He suggested I come back tomorrow and wouldn’t budge. The next day, as I returned in a cab with my husband, I recounted the story to my cabbie. “God forbid you interfere with a New Orleanian’s Friday night plans,” he said. “There is no way he was going to turn that back on for you.” When we got out he wished us luck. It was 4:20 pm but the caretaker was nowhere to be seen. The video played and we left at 4:55 with still no attendant in sight.
Back in New York, on January 17th, a special panel at the Winkleman Gallery coinciding with the exhibition Things Fall Apart included members of a New Orleans art collective, The Front. Two of them, Natalie Sciortino and Rachel Jones, offered their perspective on Prospect. 1.
Knowing that the spotlight would not remain forever, the city was already preparing for the aftermath. As Sciortino explained, “We had a lecture...about what we could do after this UFO of Prospect.1 had come and gone. It was about being sustainable there, about organizing ourselves and doing it ourselves.”
Jones offered her own assessment, “In New Orleans tourism is king, so if you can prove that you can get people to come into the city and spend some time and spend money, then the general public can get excited about it. It was good in a way that people take the visual arts more seriously because they can see it as a draw in a way that the music culture has always been... they at least respect the fact that it can be an economic force in the city.”
In January, Time Magazine reported that New Orleans was one of the only boomtowns in the country during the current economic recession. Because of Katrina reconstruction efforts, the city continues to grow while the rest of the country is hemorrhaging jobs. It is a city that defies the odds and thrives on new identities derived from experimentation, luck and openness, which are all characteristics of local Creole culture—a racial, linguistic, and cultural gumbo.
A video work in the French Quarter by the Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó tried to present a racialized concept of Creole and Cajun cultures, in which white Cajuns and black Creoles discuss how their cultures are appropriated and changed for the sake of tourism or convenience. I found the piece intriguing but after talking to others and reading up on the region’s cultural layers, I decided that Rennó had missed the point. She neglected whole swathes of Creole culture for the sake of her artistic reductionism. Creole was as much a creation of Franco-European and Native American cultures as African ones, and her video robbed it of that richness.
Artists Navin Rawanchaikul and Tyler Russell were more successful at celebrating the opulent texture of New Orleans. A newspaper obituary typo inspired Navin to feel a kinship with deceased local jazz legend Narvin Kimball, and the artists’ contribution to the biennial was a jazz funeral for the musician who died in 2006, complete with music and banners—uncommon for such a celebration—painted Bollywood-style. The multicultural funerary march took place during the biennial’s opening weekend and, according to Dan Cameron, it was warmly welcomed by the community of musicians, family, friends and fans, all of whom appreciated the artists’ fresh and sincere approach.
I still keep that image of New Orleans in my mind, a jazz funeral for an African American replete with Indian pop imagery created by an Indian-Thai artist who occasionally lives in Japan and his Canadian accomplice for an international audience. This is a city where cultures easily collide and no one bats an eye and the only constant seems to be change, for better or worse.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.