Prospect.2 was a disappointing exhibition. The biennial’s first edition, held in 2008 in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, generated more than US$23 million in cultural tourism for New Orleans, attracting 41,000 visitors and considerable critical praise. It featured 80 artists from 30 countries, but reportedly racked up debts to the tune of US$1 million. There were funding issues and board upheavals. Prospect.2’s budget was slashed in half, and without city funding it struggled to make ends meet, supported by founding benefactor Toby Devan Lewis. The artist list dwindled from 80 to 28 – the most the biennial could afford whilst remaining solvent.
These days, empty pockets aren’t unique to Prospect.2, but a grave case of the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome didn’t help either. The show, curated by Prospect New Orleans founder Dan Cameron, felt half-hearted at a curatorial level, unable to galvanize the ‘pull out all the stops’ attitude of its predecessor. A threadbare patchwork of venues spread carried scrappily installed exhibitions shoved into lost corners of museums or community colleges. If there was any kind of sense to be made of the show, it escaped this writer. Should the failings of Prospect.2 leave Prospect.3’s existence hanging in the balance it would be a crying shame, because if anywhere could do with the boosterish help of a contemporary art biennial, New Orleans could. Post-Katrina, the city’s recovery has been uneven, social problems persist and reports indicate that the city’s population is in decline (according to census information released last year, the figure has dropped 29 per cent over the past decade, accelerated by the calamitous effects of the hurricane). But alongside this, there is the important and valuable fact that New Orleans – one of the most culturally complex and unique cities in the US – is not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Visit New Orleans – home to a small yet vibrant community of artists – and you are reminded that there’s more to the US art scene than a plutocracy of coastal museums and galleries, and that the conversations that go on in cities such as New Orleans need to be kept plugged into the international art mainframe.
For all the biennial’s modesty in comparison to its predecessor, there was some very good work shown by the participating artists, one third of whom were from New Orleans, one third from the US and the rest international. At the Contemporary Arts Center, highlights included Alexis Rockman’s riotously fecund swamp-baroque landscape painting Battle Royale (2011), depicting a battle between species native to the Louisiana bayou and those introduced to the eco-system over the past 500 years. Karl Haendel’s drawings of suits of armour chimed quietly with New Orleans’ links to the old world. Jonas Dahlberg’s oddly named video Macbeth (2011) – a tracking shot of a model of a room based on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) – evoked a sense of dread at nature taking over. Artist and activist Dan Tague’s fun, if somewhat heavy-handed installation, Department of Civil Obedience (2011) was a model of a Pontiac Firebird muscle car imagined as a homeless shelter, surrounded by American flags stitched from counter-culture T-shirts. It imagined a governmental department devoted to crushing free expression. A voice-over intoned double-speak phrases, such as ‘the earth can sustain unlimited amounts of toxic waste’, that could come straight from the mouth of a Republican presidential hopeful.
The Louisiana State Museum, Old US Mint, featured work by An-My Lê (a series of photographs depicting Vietnamese migrants to New Orleans); an elegant film portrait by Ragnar Kjartansson of Mississippi bluesman Pinetop Perkins (The Man, 2010) and William Eggleston’s 1973 video Stranded in Canton, depicting hard-drinking denizens of bars in Memphis and New Orleans. Despite being projected in a room with light spilling across the image, Stranded in Canton is compelling and disturbing viewing, and was fleshed out by a series of black and white portraits of many of its characters (‘Untitled, From the Seventies: Volume Two’, c.1970s). For Sophie Calle’s installation True Stories (2010–ongoing), at another branch of the Louisiana State Museum, the 1850 House, objects and short narrative texts from the artist’s life were placed in the domestic rooms of an Antebellum-era house in the city’s French Quarter. The house – once home to slave owners – gave an unsettling tint to Calle’s stories.
A small room on the top floor of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art held Mardi Gras costumes by New Orleans legend and ‘folk artist historian’ Ashton Ramsey, work which should have been given a more prominent position. Each suit was adorned with an array of collaged newspaper clippings and photographs, and designed as teaching tools with themes such as freedom and history. Continuing the parade theme over at the New Orleans Museum of Art were Bruce Davenport Jr.’s drawings of marching bands, which offered a witty and barbed critique of issues ranging from crime to the need for more art critics in New Orleans. (A suite of cartoonish portraits by Nicole Eisenman hung on the opposite side of the room, but the placement of both artists in shadowy recesses of the museum’s large lobby, along with a Jennifer Steinkamp’s animation of a tree in changing seasons, did no one any favours.) Although formally very different to Davenport Jr., Keith Duncan’s lurid figurative paintings at the New Orleans Healing Centre – a community centre in the St Claude neighbourhood – were similarly upfront about local social issues: homicides, funerals, political corruption and Mardi Gras floats. An interesting comparative work to those featuring parades could be found at the New Orleans African American Museum with ‘Art Is …’ (1983/2009), a series of photographs made by Lorraine O’Grady of an intervention she made in Harlem’s African American Parade in 1983.
Save for an open-house collaborative painting project by Robert Tannen at the Art House on the Levee in the Katrina-blasted Lower Ninth Ward, there was relatively little ‘social outreach’ work in Prospect.2. However, rounding out the static exhibitions were performances by Dawn Dedeaux (John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces turned son-et-lumière at the Brulatour Mansion), R. Luke Dubois (several hundred young musicians parading in sync through different parts of the Faubourg-Marigny district) and Joyce J. Scott (a musical performance based on St. Veronica). William Pope L. presented Blink, a truck-turned-magic-lantern, towed one night through the streets of the city and showing photographs donated by New Orleans residents in answer to the questions ‘When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream?’ and ‘When you open your eyes in the morning, what do you see?’
Cameron has now resigned as the biennial’s curator, and LA-based Franklin Sirmans will take over as artistic director for Prospect.3. I look forward to seeing what Sirmans dreams of when he dreams of New Orleans.