Friday, January 2, 2009


Happy New Year

One of the reasons I wanted to go to New Orleans for our Christmas break was to visit “Prospect.1,” a city-wide exhibition of contemporary art featuring work by 81 artists from 39 countries at more than 23 locations. This show takes some space in every art museum in the city as well as parts of many other venues such as the Old Mint, the African American Museum, many art galleries, and some abandoned buildings; see, There was no way to see it all. We decided to spend one day at the Contemporary Art Center where the show is headquartered, one day at the New Orleans Art Museum and one day on the free shuttle bus visiting the venues scattered across the Lower Ninth Ward, the area most devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

For those of you who want an overview of the show as a whole I recommend the reviews from the New Yorker ( and the NY Times ( ) I want to share my own views on just a few pieces I like, with an emphasis on the pieces in the Lower Ninth.

We spent the first day exploring the Contemporary Art Center (CAC). This is a relatively new museum built in an old warehouse downtown within walking distance of where we were staying. Prospect.1 (a/k/a P.1) has taken over all four floors of the museum. There are numerous video pieces, some sculpture, some two dimensional pieces, one “virtual” piece and a few installations. When it comes to contemporary art, I prefer sculpture. Sculpture demands personal interaction. At a minimum you walk around it; at best you get to play with it. On the top floor in a room by itself we found a piece I like a lot by Pedro Reyes called Leverage (photo below). Essentially it is a giant orange see-saw made from tube steel with ten small wooden seats on one side and only one on the other. When we got to the room two adults and a child were sitting on the seats on one side but their combined weight had absolutely no effect. Gradually more folks climbed on, but it still didn't tip. When I tried to climb on I gently pushed down and the whole thing started to move slightly. The child climbed off and moved to the single seat on the other side. Merry took his place. Now that there were ten adults on one side and one kid on the other the thing worked like a charm. We rocked up and down each time a little faster, the kid shot toward the ceiling his arms outstretched. That's art.

Also in the CAC tucked in a corner is a shiny seven foot tall black plastic lump looking a bit like a giant deformed Darth Vader helmet. This turns out to be Bunker-M. Bakhtin by Lee Bul. The whole thing sits on a floor of mirror tiles. On the far side is an opening. Inside hangs a set of headphones. Put the headphones on. Every sound is amplified and reverberated. The tiles underfoot are connected too so every shuffle or step is an explosion. Dancing is essential, as are silly sounds. Anyone watching can't hear what you hear, only the silly sounds with no echos. People entering this piece are tentative at first, then get wilder and sillier until someone comes along and they stop in embarrassment. I went back four times. It's very hard to embarrass a trial lawyer.

The next day we went back to the CAC and looked at a few pieces a second time while waiting for the shuttle bus to the Lower Ninth Ward. As we crossed the bridge over the Industrial Canal the entire cityscape abruptly changed. On one side, most of the buildings had been rehabbed or at least boarded up. On the other, most of the buildings were just gone, replaced by tall grass. A little further from the canal we pulled up to a house that is now the L9 Center for the Arts where we switched to a small van for a tour. Across the street sits a bare foundation with a rough outline of a house made by strings of lights. The owner paid her savings to a contractor who stole the money; now her home is an art project with hope. Another partly destroyed home in the immediate neighborhood has been completely covered in flame orange – art as a warning. We drove to a mostly destroyed furniture store. Now it's called Lower 9th Ward Village. It contains two small galleries of paintings by people from the neighborhood, a police substation and three installations for P.1. The largest of these is a full size metal boat hull. When you climb the scaffold you see the top of the boat is a shallow tank of water. The hull slowly tips and a small wall of water slides back and forth. We walked down the street to the Tekrema Center, a former hardware store. The walk was more sobering than almost anything else we saw that day. A few houses are occupied. Many are boarded up, some too far gone to save. The weather was balmy, but few people were around other than the P.1 visitors. Upstairs at Tekrema the walls of the rooms were completely covered by a realistic mural of the bayou country. The message was clear: nature is returning to claim the waterlogged land the humans appropriated.

We drove closer to the canal where almost everything was totally annihilated. A former public restroom standing by itself in a weedy field has been turned into a quiet meditation spot with bubbling fountain, but the water marks from Katrina are clearly visible high on the walls. In an abandoned church we visited Diamond Gym, the piece described in the New Yorker article. All around we saw the various rebuilding projects but the effect on me was one of despair. The scale of destruction is too large, the effort to rebuild too small. The art was particularly moving because it was intended to be seen in this context. It brings a lot of people to the Lower Ninth and shows them what happened there complete with emotional content. I don't know if this will ultimately help the people of the Lower Ninth, but taken as a whole it is a successful art experience like none I've experienced before.

On our last day, we visited the New Orleans Art Museum, the city's most formal gallery and home of a terrific contemporary sculpture garden. It sits in City Park, another area completely inundated and largely destroyed by Katrina. Much of the park and surrounding area has been cleaned up, but reminders are everywhere. The last P.1 piece we saw before leaving for home was Paul Villinski's Emergency Response Studio. This rebuilt travel trailer, superficially like the infamous FEMA trailers, sits on the lawn in front of the museum. ( For me the piece raises the question of whether artists need to rush to respond to natural disasters. At first glance it seems to be all about rushing to the scene of future disasters in ecological comfort, but is it? When Merry looked at it she laughed out loud since the concept of the piece seems so totally off base it has to be an elaborate joke. The artist statement makes it clear that he is not joking, just nuts. To me the piece points to the irony of trying to make art out of people's suffering. Transforming and commemorating suffering is one of the central roles of art. The problem presented is how to make art from suffering without at the same time exploiting the victims. To my mind P.1 succeeds in this effort by never letting the visitor forget the context of the art.

Go see it if you can.

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