Michael Farley on Prospect 3 New Orleans – Part 3/3
On the bottom floor of the Contemporary Arts Center, there’s a Theaster Gates piece “Creamy Rich Sky, Asphalt Horizontal Roll.” It almost looks like a minimalist abstraction from the 70’s. Of course, Theaster Gates is known for his relational aesthetics and urban interventions—exactly the kind of projects I half-expected to see at Prospect. But here he’s showing a composition in roofing tar that’s hung like a painting. The materials have an association with labor and the built environment, but it’s evocative on many more levels.
In a biennial and city where “Blackness” has been such a central topic of conversation, these three bars of black (differentiated by texture and luster) read like a flag. It’s hung directly across from another piece, appropriately titled “Flag” that consists of the fire hoses used to disperse civil rights protesters sewn together like red and white stripes. Even on its own, I think “Creamy Rich Sky, Asphalt Horizontal Roll” would read like a banner to be rallied under. It feels subversive not for its political undertones — which are to be expected in this context — but for its embrace of a passé aesthetic as a vessel that can still hold relevance. I like it. In a biennial (and city) that’s jam-packed with visual stimuli, it’s refreshing to stare into a quiet abyss that’s anything but a void.
Similarly, Lucia Koch’s “Mood Disorder,” a series of transparent panels printed with gradients, function as a study of color and light but have the capacity to spark dialog beyond formalist concerns. They are positioned in a glass storefront in the corner of the building and are probably the only Prospect artwork at the CAC that’s visible from the street. From this vantage point, the backlight effect doesn’t quite work. From the inside looking out, however, they reveal their true vibrancy. The installation suggests different frames and lights through which the city could be viewed, or “rose tinted.” Its also evocative of the seemingly opaque relationship between the biennial and residents of the host city on the outside looking in.
Analia Saban, who’s work is scattered across all three floors of the center, is one of my favorite new artists I’ve been exposed to at Prospect. She creates “found paintings” by removing paint from objects or architectural features and transferring it onto stretched linen. They are quietly beautiful and remind me why I love cities with a patina like New Orleans or Baltimore — chips of paint with multiple strata suggest an accumulation of time and a collective authorship over the look of a place or heirloom.
There’s a ton of good work on the second floor of The CAC, from Hayal Pozanti’s acrylic abstractions to Sophie T. Lvoff’s dreamy photographs of built environments around NoLa that are eerily still. But I actually almost cried in the gallery (which I don’t think I have ever done) looking at and thinking about Glen Kaino’s “Tank.”
The installation consists of a series of aquariums in which coral grows on translucent resin forms. Aesthetically, it’s insanely beautiful. They’re an utterly alien bouquet of neon and texture. Someone in the gallery told me that the piece was inspired by a government policy of creating artificial coral reefs out of decommissioned military equipment and that the resin forms are casts of weapons. I was struck by a wave of conflicting emotions and physically teared up, thinking about what a poetic statement about human nature the gesture is — our species devotes an unfathomable amount of energy and resources to killing one another, but uses the same instruments of destruction to create a habitat for coral. It’s incredibly moving to think that humanity can have compassion (or at least concern) for the life form that’s probably about as much of an “other” as something can be within the animal kingdom.
Later, I found out that the piece is actually a protest of the policy — tanks aren’t used to deliberately create coral reefs – they are illegally dumped in the ocean and are an environmental catastrophe that actually threatens coral. Now I have less faith in the goodness of humanity and I’m pretty much just angry again.
The piece is so appropriate for New Orleans — a colorful, fragile place that’s been the victim of environmental disaster and irresponsible policy. But again, the same nation that supports the military-industrial complex, Right-wing politicians, and oil multinationals swarmed here to offer help (obviously too little, too late) after Katrina and the Deep Water Horizon spill. An outpouring of compassion immediately following crises brought on by chronic willful neglect seems to define the American ethos.
The legacy of Katrina is unavoidable here; the city is still pockmarked by acres of vacant land and ruined structures. Lisa Sigal’s epic work “Home Court Crawl” casts some of these buildings as characters in a sort of architectural theatrical production. The artist installed text from the one-act play “Burning” by Suzan-Lori Parks on scattered vacant houses. Viewers can wander from home to home and read the script. The play consists of dialog between a man and woman discussing a nearby vacant structure that catches on fire—hypothesizing over the fate of the building and it’s impact on their lives. Visiting all the sites requires a lot of planning and work, but the free newsprint map with images of the homes that Sigal left in the CAC is actually far more user-friendly than the majority of the P.3 way finding materials. For visitors who don’t want to make the trek, there are a series of collages that approximate the site-specific installations in the CAC’s galleries, but the act of visiting the sites can provide additional experiences.
I got to talk to the artist about her work and the process of installing at the sites. At one home, a neighbor was concerned that the content of the play might incite arson. At another, she discovered that the condemned structure wasn’t actually vacant—when she cut through the “shotgun-style” house to access a hard-to-reach spot, she encountered the belongings of squatters. When her family visited a different site, an argument between neighbors spilled into the streets and for a second seemed to be a staged component of the tour.
Part of what I like so much about this piece is its relationship to the very public culture of New Orleans, where Mdrama (both real and fantasy) is acted-out in the streets. Wandering here reminds me of reading Walter Benjamin’s memoirs of porous/gregarious/chaotic Naples. The act of procession from chunk of dialog to chunk of dialog correlates to the city’s culture of parades and vigils.
As individual moments, certain text/home pairings seem wistful and sad. Others (almost humorously) can read like real estate jargon or a sales brochure. I like how these solitary sites remain ambiguous or open to interpretation, but as a part of a whole, form a somewhat cohesive narrative.
Similarly, moments in “Temps Mort”, a video piece by Mohamed Bourouissa on the 3rd floor of the CAC, are engagingly ambiguous until the viewer grasps the disjointed narrative whole. The piece consists of grainy cell phone video and text messages in French slang. It’s an exchange of instructions and conversation between two individuals who I presumed were male and didn’t know each other very well. There are somewhat absurd moments where the men exchange low-res videos of their houseplants or boiling pots of water. Some exterior night shots are barely-legible and read like surveillance footage of banal landscapes. The pen pal relationship at first seems almost cute, for lack of a better word. Gradually the piece begins to feel claustrophobic, and it becomes evident that the man is incarcerated, shooting his grainy cell phone footage from inside a prison. When I realized this, I felt guilty for giggling at the oddly specific requests for seemingly inane shots.
Bourouissa has another series on the same floor. “Périphérique” (the beltway that divides mostly-wealthy Paris from its mostly-poor suburbs) is a series of photos that read a little like stills from a soap opera. Each is a carefully staged tableaux that hints at tension without betraying enough information to form a complete narrative. Aside from their cinematic quality, they allude to the compositions of nineteenth-century French painters such as Delacroix. But the figures in the images are not ethnically French—each represents a different immigrant group that has found an uneasy home in greater Paris. The actual Périphérique—originally planned as an infrastructure to facilitate the circulation of goods and people—has come to symbolize the divide between the symbolic/geographic center of French culture/power and those who live (figuratively and/or literally) outside of it. “Périphérique” hints at the uncertain potential for an osmotic membrane. Here classical French culture, pop-culture vernacular, and newly-French people of color sit posed like a paused video. They seem to be wondering: where do we go from here?
The two other series in the gallery also play with notions of identity and cinema. “Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs,” a collaboration between Pushmapala N. and Clare Arni is to Bollywood what Cindy Sherman’s work is to Hollywood. The artist poses in campy situations that reference everything from contemporary film to historical Hindu religious paintings, assuming a variety of feminine ideals with a knowing grin.
In Pieter Hugo’s photos, characters pose in bizarre scenarios. In one, a man in a bloody business suit stands over a slain horned animal holding a lump of flesh. In my favorite, a figure in a mask stands on a city street holding a hatchet. Behind him, a billboard has a scrawled message “vacant board.” The images all seem to pose some threat, but the tension between the sleekness of the photographs and absurd campiness of their content negates any sense of actual danger.
I love both series of photographs, but I find their accompanying wall text problematic. The artists are supposedly challenging the “colonizing gaze” or “fetishizing Western gaze” by enacting stereotypes that “we” bring to “our” perception of “the other.” I, like most of the people I imagine enter the Contemporary Art Center, am an American of European descent. Is my gaze inherently colonizing? Am I supposed to feel bad that I like artwork by someone who was born on a different continent that was supposedly produced specifically to meet and “challenge” the expectations of the demographic that this wall text says I belong to?
When I first saw the image of the businessman standing over the dead animal, I thought it might have been a commentary on the notion of a bull market. I certainly didn’t “expect (and desire?) imagery from the Dark Continent to provoke a confrontation with the uncanny” because “In the phantasmagoria of the Westerner… the absurd and horrific are indigenous to the African cultural landscape” as I now know I was supposed to. Oops!
Despite the fact that someone might be a resident of the Global North or Hegemonic West or—god forbid—Pacific Northwest, it’s pretty fucked up to assume that everyone’s trying to colonize each other all the time. One of the biggest problems with identity politics is that those who participate in its discourse are constantly preaching to the choir. I wouldn’t take a train for 30 hours to attend an international art biennial if I didn’t already think of international artists as peers whose work I respect and would like to see. If I only wanted to see serious artwork by other Americans followed by pointing and laughing while reaping the benefits of globalization, I’d go to the Whitney Biennial and then buy a bunch of sweatshop-produced “ethnic-print” jeggings at H&M.
Is “seeing oneself in the other” really so hard?
Dear Pieter Hugo, if you like photographing people who paint their faces and do strange things in the middle of the city, come visit me in Baltimore. We probably have more in common than you think, in spite of my problematic hemisphere of birth.
Overall, the Contemporary Art Center is one of the highlights of Prospect, despite another patronizing treatment of identity that left a bad taste in my mouth. Thankfully, New Orleans is a great palate cleanser.
From the CAC, it takes about an hour to walk to/wait for/ride the St Charles streetcar out to Tulane University. The streetcars make the Baltimore light rail seem like the Japanese Shinkansen, but the slow, open-air ride is a nice way to see some of the wealthier residential areas of the city that I otherwise wouldn’t have had an excuse to visit. I really love how in leafy neighborhoods the dangling Spanish moss seems like glittery tinsel from the thousands of sun-bleached Mardi Gras beads tangled in the stuff. And at $3.00 for an unlimited daily pass, the streetcars and busses are a bargain compared to Prospect’s “guided tours” (and are surprisingly more functional than most locals make them out to be).
When I got off the train, I asked a student if she knew where the Tulane art gallery is. It just so happened she was an art major, and—in a prime example of NoLa hospitality—offered to walk me in that direction. When she asked me why I was visiting, she was totally surprised that an international art biennial was happening in her own backyard: “Huh, you would think that the art department here would have said something about that…”
It was odd to see how indifferent/oblivious the student body seemed to P.3, because the work at Tulane screams to be noticed. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Andrea Fraser’s “Um Monumento às Fantasias Descartadas” (A Monument to Discarded Fantasies)—a towering heap of abandoned carnival costumes collected from the streets of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a cornucopia of sequins, rhinestones, feathers, and gold lamé. Full disclosure: I feel a deep bond with this sculpture partially because it looks uncannily like my apartment. As a colossal mass, the piece conveys a sense of decadence and excess. Up close, the incredible detail of embellishment on the individual garments is just as evocative. Who are the people who made, wore, and discarded these costumes? Why did their wearers abandon them? Most poignantly in the context of New Orleans—where bars never close and every night is a costume party—what happens when the party stops?
The surrounding galleries are just as glittery. I love Monir Farmanfarmaian’s mirrored geometric sculptures. The remind me of 70s minimalism, disco balls, and Islamic architectural motifs—three of my favorite aesthetics. There’s something fragile but deliberate about them that’s very endearing. They present an interesting foil to Fraser’s piece; each taking an ambiguous stance in a discussion over gaudiness, preciousness, and ethereality.
Hew Locke has a few works on paper that I pretty much of breezed-by—they have a kind of cheesy new-age souvenir-poster quality that I didn’t find that interesting. His installation, however, is one of my favorite works at P.3. An entire room of the gallery is devoted to his epic piece that exists somewhere between drawing and architectural embroidery. Using thick black rope and strands of beads, Locke describes a pantheon of mythical archetypes. They remind me of decorative embellishments, tattoos, and ritual procession, a perfect accompaniment to Fraser’s mound in the city of Mardi Gras. I could stare at this forever.
On my long trolley ride back to the center city, I was struck by how appropriate the view was to the work in the galleries at Tulane. Those discarded Mardi Gras beads up in the trees could easily join “Um Monumento às Fantasias Descartadas.” The drippy, monochromatic chintz in Locke’s room read like a tribute to those same sun-bleached strands. The moments at P.3 where the act of viewing art and the act of experiencing New Orleans overlap are the most rewarding.
I wish I had experienced more of those moments — that alchemical synergy between art and the real world that doesn’t require verbal explanation. All too often, I felt smothered by P.3’s didactic agenda. But another part of Prospect’s agenda was to expose the art world to New Orleans, and on that front it’s a success. The only thing harder than getting to certain Prospect venues was convincing myself to leave the city after only one week.
Author Michael Farley was born at John’s Hokpins Hospital, attended MICA for a BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculptural Studies, and recently received an MFA in Imaging Media and Digital Arts from UMBC. He has a complicated relationship with institutional critique. Although he went to digital art school, he has no website, but did switch to electronic cigarettes.