Notes for Now
Prospect.3 in New Orleans

Behind blood-red curtains, Carrie Mae Weems conjures up spirits from the past. Accompanying a jazz soundtrack, the artist has a parade of talking holograms appear. Whether black activists, boxers, or Playboy Bunnies – all of her characters talk about violations they have suffered, the continued existence of racism, and feelings of revenge. The hypnotic installation Lincoln, Lonnie and Me is on view at the Museum of African-American Art within the framework of Prospect.3, the New Orleans biennial. Weems also delves deep into American history in her photo and video work Louisiana Project. Based on Mardi Gras, the artist, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection with works from this series, interrogates how strongly today’s New Orleans society is still impacted by past cultural patterns.

“Carrie Mae Weem's work represents much of what I have sought to discuss within this biennial,” said Prospect.3 Artistic Director Franklin Sirmans. “She has constantly probed with an unflinching eye of pure honesty how we love and also hate each other as human beings trying to coexist on planet earth. Notes for Now is the title of his biennial. Under this motto, Sirmans, who since 2010 has provided fresh impetus to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as curator of contemporary art, has put together a show focusing on the situation in New Orleans. Yet he is equally interested in universal issues such as feelings, identity, and people’s understanding of how they want to live together. Sirmans selected a total of 58 artists who are on exhibit in 18 locations all over New Orleans. As at earlier editions of Prospect, admission is free, to enable as many residents and guests to visit the show.  

Sirman’s list of artists includes some surprises – for example the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin; Tarsila do Amaral, who paved the way for Brazilian Modernism; and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose link to the American South is traced in the small exhibition Basquiat and the Bayou at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The local art scene is represented by such disparate artists as Zarouhie Abdalian with her subtle interventions in public space, the folk art legend Herbert Singleton, and Douglas Bourgeois, some of whose detailed paintings pay homage to great African-American musicians, including Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack. In addition, Sirmans chose positions such as David Zink Yi and Camille Henrot, representatives of a younger generation of artists. They realize their works all over the world, always presenting human identity as a construct, as something fractured, heterogeneous.

Two photographic projects presented at Prospect.3 are particularly exhilarating. In his series about bizarrely costumed actors from Nigerian “Nollywood” cinema, the South African artist Pieter Hugo, who is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, shows one of the few examples of African self-representation in the mass media. Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick have documented the situation of African Americans in New Orleans for 30 years. One of the couple’s long-term projects is devoted to the “Alcatraz of the South,” Louisiana State Penitentiary. In precise black-and-white photos, they show day-to-day life in the largest high-security prison in the U.S., the prisoners’ isolation in their cells, their hard work in the fields, and rare encounters with their wives and children.  

The first edition of Prospect was initiated by Dan Cameron, as a reaction to the devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina. It opened in November 2008 with contributions by 80 artists, including Cao Fei, Katharina Grosse, William Kentridge, and Wangechi Mutu. The exhibition, the largest in the city’s history hitherto, was praised by critics but was deeply in the red. As a result, Prospect.2 (2011/12) was much smaller. Now the biennial is in the process of repositioning itself. While the first two shows concentrated on the reconstruction of the city, this time there is an expanded focus.

But the notion that art not only comments on social realities, but can also change them, continues to be play a key role at Prospect. Two of this year’s participants – the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and the artist Theaster Gates – particularly stand for this idea. Ban was awarded the 2014 Pritzker Prize for his creative use of recyclable materials like paper and cardboard, and developed emergency housing in Rwanda, Haiti, and in the Philippines. Gates gives vacant buildings and streets a new lease on life. Together with unemployed youth from his neighborhood in South Chicago, he transformed a condemned house into an installation-cum-cultural center that inspired the district, which is plagued by social problems. The urban planning graduate, whose show 13th Ballad at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art was sponsored by Deutsche Bank, calls his approach “poetic and pragmatic.” Crisis-ridden New Orleans should be an ideal breeding ground for his art.
Achim Drucks

Prospect.3: Notes for Now
10/25/2014 – 1/25/2015
New Orleans