Biennial Contemporary art Fairs USA

In New Orleans, you gotta have a dream

Curatorial kudos to Prospect 3 as it aims to become the leading US biennial

Tavares Strachan’s floating neon sculpture You Belong Here, 2014, in New Orleans. Photo: courtesy the artist

For the past ten years, Miami has been riding its luck during hurricane season, but it is a different story across the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. However, out of the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 came the Prospect New Orleans biennial, now in its third edition.

The biennial got off to an ambitious but shaky start in 2008; it left the organisers nearly $1m in debt and was almost wrecked by the ensuing infighting. It is now under new leadership, and many are looking to the third edition, known as P3, to cement the exhibition’s reputation as the leading biennial in the US.

The organisers of “Notes for Now” (until 25 January 2015) set themselves a daunting mission: to stabilise the event, repair severed relationships within the community and mount a show of international standing. Franklin Sirmans, the curator of P3 and the head of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has organised an ambitious exhibition that probes sensitive issues such as race, nationality, crime and migration. Two of the experts we asked for their impressions of the biennial are in Miami this week (see below).

Dan Byers, the curator of Modern and contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, says: “A well-chosen route between the venues is essential. Begin with the Propeller Group’s unforgettable new work.” Christopher Y. Lew, an associate curator at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, picks out the same piece. The Living Need Light; The Dead Need Music, 2014, “emphasises a South-to-South dialogue, a conversation that is emblematic of P3 and continues connections made by previous biennials in Havana, Johannesburg and Dakar”, he says.

“Notes for Now” uses as its touchstone Walker Percy’s classic 1961 novel The Moviegoer, in which the detached hero Binx Bolling is in pursuit of some semblance of inner self. Such existentialism seems apt: P3 is prone to introspection, or the question of “how we see ourselves through others”, as Sirmans describes his curatorial aims. This edition has a tremendous amount of promise, but the organisation has yet to fully live up to its potential. Its quest for identity is still ongoing.

Given its Herculean rehabilitation task, P3 has done well. The budget is stable after the organisation raised $4m in 18 months. Sirmans has worked with 18 venues across the city to display the work of almost 60 artists and has staged a biennial meatier than most in the US, and far more diverse: 22 of the 58 participating artists are African-American. In total, 44 are artists of colour.

New Orleanians appreciate the effort. “This edition is a quantum leap,” says Carol Bebelle, the director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, one of this year’s venues. “Their intention is to be a national biennial that has an international draw, and also to be as local as they can. It’s a big aspiration, and they get points for trying.”

P3 indicates that Prospect has the potential to become the US biennial. Its location is unique. Although the city hums with vitality, it is impossible to ignore either its traumatic recent history or the longer legacy of Southern-style class systems and racial prejudice that formed the city.

The most successful works in P3 are the most disquieting. These include the Propeller Group’s video and a display by the artists Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, which features photographs of inmates in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as “Angola”) and a film about Henry James, who spent 30 years in the prison before DNA evidence proved his innocence.

There are flaws: like the city itself, the show is not easy to navigate, and local people seem to have little idea that there is an international art exhibition taking place. Although the organisation has recently made more effort to embed itself, there is still much work to do.

Odd choices, great dreams

There are also some odd artistic choices. Will Ryman’s large sculptural flowers are pretty, but ineffectual in this context. In contrast, the socially minded practice of Theaster Gates seems a good fit, although his older works made from fire-hydrant hoses feel tokenistic—what a wasted opportunity not to have commissioned a site-specific piece. (One of Gates’s site-specific works, created in collaboration with the artist and philanthropist Paula Crown, was unveiled in Miami on 1 December. TRANSPOSITION: Over Many Miles is a 3,240 sq. ft work installed on a parcel at NE 1st Avenue and NE 39th Street.)

Despite these issues, the organisation has great dreams and a chance of achieving them. It aspires to become the visual arts equivalent of Jazz Fest, the legendary music festival in New Orleans. Prospect needs a bigger budget to allow for the commissioning of more site-specific works that interact with its location and its mission. More money would also allow for more marketing, both locally and within the art world, so that more people are aware of the biennial. Great works can change the world, but people need to see them.

Curators in Miami this week give their impressions of Prospect 9

Dan Byers, curator of Modern and contemporary art, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pennsylvania: Eschewing the Lower Ninth Ward and other areas badly scarred by Katrina, P3 has insinuated itself across a variety of neighbourhoods and cultural centres, articulating a latent network of extra-governmental institutions in a city that has recently privatised its entire public-school system. Works redolent with symbolism, ritual and process, by Lonnie Holley, William Cordova, Terry Adkins and Piero Golia, occupy humble university art galleries. Each fraught juxtaposition of under-funded gallery space and auratic works of art conjures “precarity” as both inspired thematic and frustrated reality. A well-chosen route between the venues is essential. Begin with the Propeller Group’s unforgettable new work. The Living Need Light; The Dead Need Music, 2014, a fluent and sexy music video, sets the tone for the most persuasive thematic strain of the biennial—a succession of works steeped in storytelling, ritual, music and landscape. Follow it with works by Akosua Adoma Owusu, Los Jaichackers, Carrie Mae Weems and Tameka Norris, whose work is in an interesting small space called May Gallery. The other high point was Andrea Fraser’s unnerving performance, which troubled the waters around the enervating racial complexity of our country, filtered through a precise modulation of tone and address.

Christopher Y. Lew, associate curator, Whitney Museum of American Art: Inspired in part by Gauguin’s painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Franklin Sirmans infuses the peripatetic artist’s probing questions with the spirit of the Mississippi Delta. The one-room exhibition of paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art delves into the artist’s ruminations on the South. A grim reality informs other presentations in the museum, namely Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s photographs of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as “Angola”, as well as the work of Herbert Singleton, who was imprisoned in the very same jail. On the opening day, Andrea Fraser revisited a tense moment in the city’s recent history through her performance Not just a few of us?. Re-enacting 19 voices from a 1991 city-council hearing on the integration of private clubs and carnival krewes, Fraser embodied a debate around race, class, private ownership and equal opportunity that continues to resonate today. Equally compelling is a new video by the Propeller Group and Christopher Myers. The work emphasises a South-to-South dialogue, a conversation that is emblematic of P3 and continues connections made by previous biennials in Havana, Johannesburg and Dakar.

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