Photo Essays

Pleasant Surprises in the Swamp at Prospect, the New Orleans Triennial

Newly restructured as a triennial, Prospect 4 opened in New Orleans last weekend; despite technical challenges and an overly broad theme, it yielded some satisfying moments.

Kader Attia, Halam Tawaaf, 2008, Installation view, “2987 beer cans.”

Prospect New Orleans, the biennial founded in 2006 in response to Hurricane Katrina, opened this weekend in New Orleans as a newly minted Triennial. Massive in scale, the new schedule would presumably give the organization more time to organize, fundraise, and create a stronger exhibition. But some events have a harder time than others making changes, and if this iteration of the Triennial is any indication, Prospect 4 is one. Opening day, art was still being installed. Worse, there has been little improvement in exhibition design and visitor experience, so finding the locations of art in this show remains an exercise in frustration. Sites are poorly marked — when they’re marked at all — and the printed site map doesn’t help. It clearly indicates all the locations of art, but not which artists are at these locations.

All this would be forgivable if what was at the sites made the trip worth the effort. There’s not been much buzz about the artwork, though, because a lot of it disappoints. Some of the blame for that lies with artistic director Trevor Schoonmaker, who took few risks. The theme of the Biennial, Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of The Swamp, might easily be summed up as an exploration of oppositions, which is almost too broad to be meaningful. The show draws inspiration from a blossom in the mud. Beauty grows from ugliness. Redemption exists in the ruin. You get the picture.

We see the theme play out through boldly colored installations and transformative figurative sculptures exploring how colonialism has impacted the city (Rina Banerjee, Penelope Siopis), delicate site-specific sound works juxtaposed against noisy landscapes (Hong-An Truong, Radcliffe Bailey), and provocative text based art (Runo Lagomarsino, Jillian Mayer). These constitute some of the strongest points in the show. There are less successful works, too, but I’ll leave the bulk of those for the more fleshed-out review. A taste of what’s in store below.

 

Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans

Kader Attia and Halem Tawaaf’s mandala made of beer cans (above) is the visual center piece of the exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center. The cans mimic the posture of Muslims engaging in prayer.

Rina Banerjee, Viola, from New Orleans-ah, a global business goods raker, combed, tilled the land of Commerce, giving America a certain extra extra excess culture, to cultivate it, making home for aliens not registered, made business of the finer, finer, had occupations, darning thread not leisure with reason and with luster, in a”peek a boo” racial disguises preoccupied in circulating commerce, entertaining white folks, pulling and punching holes in barriers, places that where was once barren, without them, white banks made of mustard and made friendly folks feel home, welcomed and married immigrants from noted how they have been also starved, fled from servitude and colonial dangers, ships like dungeons, pushing coal in termite wholes, curing fitre, but always learning, folding, washing, welcomed as aliens. She wandering, hosting, raising children connected to new mobilities and most unusual these movements in Treme’, New Orleans was incubating enmeshed embedded in this silken cocoon when she land, she’s came to be parachute mender, landed those black immigrant peddlers from Hoogali network of new comers (2017).

Yes, that’s actually the whole title. The sculpture is a masterpiece, depicting a winged figure attached to what appears to be a winged parachute behind her. Banerjee drew inspiration from the marriage of Viola Ida Lewis, an African American woman, and Joseph Abdin, who was Indian.

Zina Saro-Wiwa, from the series TABLE MANNERS (2014-2016) Eight high definition color videos with sound.
Jillian Mayer, “You’ll Be Okay” (2014), high definition color video

“You’ll Be Okay” appears to be text written by an airplane, but it’s in fact a digitally produced image. Whether a viewer knows this or not is of no consequence to how it’s read. It’s a fading image, but one that can be rewatched indefinitely as long as it is needed.

Penelope Siopis, “World of Zulu” (2017)

Found objects relating to the Zulu tradition speak to Siopis’s home country of South Africa and her home in New Orleans.

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art

John Akomfrah, “Precarity” (2017), 3 channel film installation

A non-linear look at the life of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, a key figure in the development of jazz until his career was cut short due to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Don’t expect to hear a lot of jazz in this piece. It’s mostly shots of Bolden staring off into the horizon interspersed with poetry spoken by the actor.

Quintron and Miss Pussycat, installation view

Above are displays for the puppets Miss Pussycat has used in her performances. Her puppet shows provide the opening act for Quintron, a musician known for his unusual homemade instruments and electronic sound. Quintron and Miss Pussycat are based in New Orleans.

Installation view of the work of Andrea Chung through the permanent collection at the Ogden

Chung covered the room with her custom cyanotype print on watercolor paper. Inside the room feels like being wrapped in warm ocean water (though apparently it’s supposed to be scary because there are floating fish bodies depicted.)

New Orleans Museum of Art

New Orleans Museum of Art stairway in the Atrium.
Dawit L Patros, “A series of complicated ambivalences, Barnako, Mali from the Stranger’s Notebook” (2016)
Xaviera Simmons, from the series Index Eight (2017)

Barkley Hendricks’s “Photo Bloke” (2016) at the New Orleans Museum of Art, via @vajiajia

 

The New Orleans Jazz Museum at the US Mint

Rashid Johnson, “Fiend” (2017)

This strange, office-cubicle-ready cube houses books including Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout,” records purchased in New Orleans, and a few abstract sculptures tucked into the nooks of the piece. One surprise lurks inside: speak into its walls and viewers will find their voice amplified. In a talk, the artist explained that the function was meant to reflect the erroneous belief that a louder voice is the one that reaches more people. The mics barely worked in the echoey chambers of the bank vault, though, so it was hard to draw that reading from the piece.

Maider Lopez, “Under the Walls” (2017)

According to the wall label this still-to-be realized project will replace advertised material with brightly colored surfaces in construction sites across the city. This piece — presumably a prototype for the site specific work — doesn’t do that, though. The Tyvek and DUPONT trademarks remain throughout. Confusing.

Park Locations

 

Radcliffe Bailey, “Vessel” (2017) Steel, conch shell, speaker, midi player; in Crescent Park

Arguably the strongest piece in Prospect 4. Here, Bailey wraps a conch shell inside a large metal structure to amplify the sound of the ocean emanating from the shell. It’s a simple, elegant gesture that reveals that quiet sound you hear inside a shell to be an honest-to-goodness actual thing.

Mark Dion “The Field Station of the Melancholy Marine Biologist” (2017)

An easy-to-miss installation located adjacent to the Algiers Point Ferry. The piece reflects the title — it’s an imagined, obsessive replica of a marine biologist’s lab.

Derrick Adams, “Saints March” (2017), single channel video with sound, located inside Louis Armstrong park

Inspired by New Orleans Street tappers, this piece collages recorded footage of kids tapping on top of moving clouds and a slowed down version of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. It’s a beautiful video, but unsettling for its oddly colonialist positioning. Adams told me he intentionally recorded only the shoes of the tappers to avoid using any identifying features of the kids. (Adams includes the names of the performers—Torrance and Derrick Jenkins—in the wall text.) At first, I didn’t think anything of it, but when a friend mentioned that the strategy seemed off putting to her I began to see her point. It’s an ugly kind of borrowing that seems more akin to stealing for the purposes of profiteering than it does appropriation.

Prospect 4 continues at various locations in New Orleans through February 25, 2018.

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