Missing Prospects: A Reflection on Prospect.1 New Orleans

Natalie Sciortino-Rinehart

Reviews / 19.01.2009

Natalie Sciortino-Rinehart
19th January 2009

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.

- Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia

It is impossible to ignore the catastrophic - to do so would discredit our humanity, or at least our perception of it. And when the largest international exhibition of contemporary art in the United States is located in one of its most catastrophe-stricken cities, its overarching theme quite naturally becomes tragedy. In Prospect.1 New Orleans, which ran from November 2008 through January 2009, more than 81 local and international artists chose to confront Hurricane Katrina's continued fallout. Their responses ranged from literal appropriations of boats and FEMA trailers to more subtle interpretations of the flood-ravaged setting.

"Prospect.1" was certainly not the first time that Katrina had been used as the launching pad for a high-profile exhibition. The notorious hurricane was the conceptual crux of two special exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006: Kara Walker's "After the Deluge" and photographer Robert Polidori's "New Orleans After the Flood." Even the most recent Whitney Biennial continued to address Katrina through Spike Lee's film, When the Levees Broke (2006). These exhibitions ensured that expectations for a large-scale international biennial set at the site of this particular public tragedy would be enormous, both for the curator and for each artist involved.

Here in New Orleans, our first major encounter with "Prospect.1" curator Dan Cameron was his controversial "Something from Nothing" exhibition in early 2008. Cameron, who had recently been appointed Director of Visual Arts of the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in New Orleans, invited fourteen non-local artists to make site-specific works without the availability of conventional art supplies or studio access - an inescapable reality for most artists living in post-flood New Orleans. Local critic Doug McCash lambasted the show for its "backwards" strategy of commissioning a cadre of non-local artists to address a local plight. McCash further questioned the exhibition's timeliness as Katrina commentary, writing, "Each [piece] might have been a stirring artistic reaction to the current Crescent City situation ... if it was 2006."1 Unsurprisingly, "Something from Nothing" foreshadowed "Prospect.1"'s ironic oversight of regional artists in its very attempt to address a regional vernacular. Nine months later, Cameron's biennial would descend upon the city in a similar fashion, this time on a grander scale and with a global audience.

To take on the complicated task of tackling such an intense tragedy for the city with so little input from the artists of New Orleans was, of course, a problematic move. While it is both valid and inevitable for outsiders to respond to Katrina, there is also a story to convey that can only be told by those who experienced it. Of the 81 artists in "Prospect.1," only 11 were from Louisiana. While one could rightly argue that an international art biennial should not include local artists simply for the sake of local representation, the inescapably altruistic undertone to "Prospect.1" left many wondering why the opportunity for substantial investment in the New Orleans art scene went largely unexplored.

Long before "Prospect.1," the prevalence of outside artists working and exhibiting in New Orleans left many in the local scene wary of what might be termed "neo-carpetbagging," fearful that some artists might use the region's tragedy to increase their own cultural capital. Of course, local artists might just as well capitalize on the catastrophe, and not every outside artist whose work features New Orleans is guilty of exploitation. Those artists producing the most resonant works have genuinely and effectively justified their endeavors in New Orleans, through direct community involvement or by calling attention to relevant local issues. Two excellent examples of artistic affirmation have been Paul Chan's Waiting for Godot in New Orleans (2007), and Mel Chin's Operation Paydirt (2008 - present).2 Both of these non-regionally-based artists received local acclaim for their community efforts and engaging aesthetics.

In the year preceding "Prospect.1," satellite exhibitions and galleries organized by local artists were pivotal forces in New Orleans' drive towards practical sustainability. Utilizing the international platform provided by "Prospect.1," dozens of local artists combined resources to guarantee parallel representation during the biennial's run. Artist-run collectives like Antenna, Good Children Gallery and The Front attested to the literally transformative potential of art: These groups turned dilapidated spaces (vacant since Katrina) into energetic centers for artistic practice. Other groups like the St. Claude Collective and the Studio at Colton staged large-scale grassroots exhibitions, becoming part of the burgeoning art scene along the St. Claude corridor.3 New, provocative galleries such as Bridge for Emerging Contemporary Art (BECA), GSL Art Projects and the Canary Collective have since emerged within the city's more traditional Julia Street gallery district. Overall, the influx of international artists addressing the city's story provoked many local artists to share their unique experiences in their own voices.

The phrase "Katrina fatigue" has long pervaded our national press. This assumed numbness of socio-collective consciousness around the hurricane and its effects challenged all involved with "Prospect.1" to respond meaningfully and innovatively to the tragedy. One curatorial decision that offered a fresh perspective to the biennial's audience was the selection of exhibition sites in different parts of the city. "Prospect.1" guided visitors into culturally important districts not typically frequented by tourists, thus broadening the global media's circumscribed depiction of New Orleans. As the exhibition spanned such a large part of the metropolis, the works within it formed inseparable relationships with specific urban habitats - abandoned churches, schools and private properties alike. Nari Ward's Diamond Gym (2008) was a case in point: Set in an historically charged neighborhood where much of the city's poorer African-American and immigrant populations were forced to live despite flood threats, Ward's installation graced the interior space of a church with a diamond-shaped frame containing a chaotic network of twisted and tangled exercise equipment. The overall effect of this crippling visual was nothing short of transcendental. No space is truly neutral, of course, and one must always consider the dynamic between art and setting, especially in the case of New Orleans. The works in "Prospect.1" that most successfully navigated the ideological minefield presented them blended the elements of social commentary, setting and aesthetic creation into a unified whole.

Mark Bradford, Mithra, 2008. Mixed media. 21 x 6 x 7.5m. Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

One particularly unified work was Mark Bradford's Mithra (2008), which became a key symbol for the whole of the biennial. Bradford's monumental sculpture explored problematic human dichotomies that extend far beyond the scope of Katrina - life amidst death, creation within destruction. The ark-shaped Mithra stood three stories high and extended 65 feet long in the Lower Ninth Ward, on a barren corner lot once occupied by a funeral home. The exterior of the boat form, which was refashioned from found plywood and resembled a refuge vessel, housed an interior base of stacked shipping containers. The boat's shell was plastered with weathered signs and advertisements. These modern, commercial signifiers appeared anachronistic against the backdrop of the historically emblematic ark, whose biblical function as a seedpod for a civilization weathering a cataclysmic flood was immediately evoked. And though Bradford's piece clearly nodded to Noahic flood stories, its symbolic and mystic qualities also extended beyond the Judeo-Christian theme of sanctuary from deluge.4

The dialectics of salvation and damnation, rescue and ruin, were certainly at play in disaster-stricken New Orleans. Set in one of the worst flood-ravaged neighborhoods in the city, Bradford's enormous piece functioned as a bulwark reflecting such paradoxes - the boat's inherent promise of survival brought with it the corollary of dire loss. In another dismal yet equally appropriate interpretation of the piece, Mithra's construction suggested divine assistance arriving too late. The piece referenced failed protective measures against local flooding while also speaking to the broader themes of humanization and civilization - development, destruction and survival.

New Orleans artist Luis Cruz Azaceta approached the memorial motif in a personal way, combining found objects with painting and sculpture in his installation Swept Away (2008) at the Contemporary Art Center. A graveyard of ephemera was placed on plywood squares arranged on the ground. Bottles and containers of various shapes and sizes, photographs, wheels, piping and boards were erected like crude headstones, remedially held together with duct tape. In the weeks and months following Katrina, consumer goods and personal items such as these littered the streets, devoid of their former purpose. Azaceta's collection and resurrection of these new fossils served to memorialize the fractured upheaval of the city and its residents. Two wheelchairs holding cocoon-like, embryonic forms composed of duct tape and bottles spoke to the irreconcilable societal breakdown and regrowth continuously recurring in New Orleans. The dialectics of the artist's habitat and personal experience are concretely and masterfully illustrated by this installation of ready-made junctions.

As various metaphors for Katrina continued to emerge throughout the exhibition, the curatorial and artistic strengths of "Prospect.1" were revealed in those works that truly addressed the concept of redemption. Those that chose to confront the catastrophe in such a way provisionally answered the lingering question of the relevance of staging a New Orleans biennial. In future incarnations of the biennial, will the city serve as the formal backdrop for curatorial ambitions or will Cameron make a convincing argument for the selection of such a troubled locale? Will the whole production form a temporally isolated interjection or will it be integrated into the city's cultural framework? New Orleans nourishes a small, overlooked art scene and its top priority must be sustainability. While there was a noticeable dearth of firsthand perspectives on the city in this inaugural and even historic biennial, the dispersal of exhibition sites throughout New Orleans did provide visitors with a more extensive and accurate context for the art itself - an accomplishment invaluable to the entire premise of "Prospect.1." Most importantly, the biennial served to unify New Orleans' local arts community, providing an important catalyst for self-reliance and sustainability initiatives that continue to grow even in these despairing times.

- Natalie Sciortino-Rinehart

  1. 'The Crescent City' is a nickname for New Orleans, and refers to the crescent-shaped course of the Mississippi River through the city. The full article from Doug McCash's Times Picayune blog can be found athttp://blog.nola.com/dougmaccash/2008/02/backward_concept_leads_to_date.html#more (last accessed on 26th March 2009).

  2. In addition to staging free performances of Beckett's classic play, Chin also initiated free public seminars, workshops with local youth organizations and community forums. Likewise, Chin addressed local concerns by researching a feasible bio-remediation practice to rid the city's soil of dangerous lead contaminants, increasing awareness in the process.

  3. The St. Claude Collective was organized by Barrister's gallerist Andy Antippas.The Studio at Colton is organized by the Creative Alliance of New Orleans. Both venues doubled as satellite and primary venues for "Prospect.1." More information on this growing arts district can be found at http://www.scadnola.com/

  4. The work's title denoted a broader and more complex tradition; "Mithra" refers to an ancient solar mythology centered on a sun deity who portends rebirth and replenishment, and who presides over human oaths and actions. Mithraic studies find commonalities between Persian, Zoroastrian and Greco-Roman variations on this mythology. (Sick, David. "Mit(h)ra(s) and the Myth of the Sun." NUMEN Vol. 51. Koninklijke Brill NV: Leiden, 2004.)