Prospect 1 Log #1: 11.8.08 & 11.9.08
By Brian Boyles
The Old US Mint, Esplanade Avenue
Fred Tomaselli & El Anatusi
The works of these two artists hang in adjoining galleries in the Mint. While they fit quite naturally next to each other, I think the contrast in their official interpretation is instructive as to the difficulties in pulling this Prospect 1 thing off.
From what I’ve heard, in biennial organizer Dan Cameron’s description and in other reviews, much of the art in this city-wide exhibition will have New Orleans as its subject. This is quite a difference from other biennials, which are often just a collection of the last 2-4 years of Chelsea hits from disparate sources. Instead, this exhibit will feature work made specifically for this site, unveiling the interpretations and reflections on New Orleans of the international contemporary artist. We in the audience will see what they have to say about the place and events surrounding their art.
How weird. And how wrought with danger and hope. Danger, because an artist is as apt as anyone to misread history or politics, but is talented in ways that can manifest and overstate that misreading. Hope, because the artist may bring to light the meanings and details that others miss, illuminating and recharging the atmosphere with new colors and angles.
From what I can tell, most New Orleanians have learned to err on the side of caution, i.e. to look for the danger. Almost to a fault, they don’t want to be told, they want to tell. And they’ll fight like a motherfucker over issues of authenticity and the ownership of this recent narrative. Whoever the artist is, he/she better know the facts and be original with the fantasy.
Prospect 1, however, has chosen to wade right into town and take the place on as the collective subject. Some have questioned the value of this enterprise to New Orleans and its residents, other than the hotels and restaurants. Personally, I look at Prospect 1 as a gift, both to your average interested citizen and to the artists who live here. For a little over 2 months, we can travel through our city and see what International Contemporary Art has to say about us, and then we can either heartily shake International Contemporary Art’s hand or we can spit in its eye. If she puts herself in the right position, the local artist can make and sell work and tap into new channels and connections, broadening the reach of her artistic voice while ingesting the forms that descend on us from the world’s creative class. What’s not to like?
So what does this have to do with an artist from Nigeria and an artist from San Jose, CA? I believe they tell us of the trepidation that the organizers are conscious of and will struggle to get past. The tapestries by El Anatusi needed no placard phrase to explain their connections to our location, to the historic and cultural body of New Orleans. Those connections were in relief, they popped out with meaning. Next door, Tomaselli’s collages were dope, vaguely African, delicate but sharp. They did not require nor deserve, however, the explanation:
“The three painting on view were all made after Hurricane Katrina, and represent a form of composite rendering of how the artist imagines disaster, with nature itself as the starting point.”
Uh, that Katrina shadow may or may not be in the mind of the artist, but not a thing suggests it in the work. By contrast, Anatusi’s tapestries speak to our long rusting, liquor-littered visual field—the majesty of a closed brewery or the blown out wall of an old apartment building on Earhart Blvd., or the new savannahs of the disappeared housing projects. Paint chips and untamed banana trees and abandoned cathedrals, the strange confluence of decay and classicism, these are all New Orleans kin to Anatusi’s work. His labels and bottle tops could’ve been harvested from any corner here, and he made something rich and transcendent from them—a process close to the New Orleans soul. Transformation, not clarification, gives hope.
If the connection is not there, I’m saying, just allow the art to be. The forcing of the issue is what hurts us when we talk to outsiders. The interruption before we can explain ourselves. We don’t want to talk about Katrina and the government all day. We also don’t want to be told about them, either.
Plunked from within, the keys of the piano played “Strange Fruit” with no hands. The brown baby grand was wrapped around a tree, the trunk shooting right through the body of the baby grand. The sculpture stood on the landing of the second floor in the Mint. Now, minus the song playing—the dream-like quality of a player piano—many of us saw scenes like that, an instrument or a washing machine or countless cars wedged into trees. Crazier, more violent physical facts. To give this thing a song, and that song—redundant. Most of all, this is a small scale case of another issue: this landscape, what happened here, the course we navigate on a daily basis, all of it is full of accidental works of sculpture that blow the mind and defy ownership. Mirrors, no matter their craftsmanship, are not enough.
Favorite fact: The man who wrote “Strange Fruit” adopted the Rosenberg children after the parents were executed. Recently, those children came to the conclusion that, yes, their parents were spies.
Also, speaking of trees: I wonder if there’ll be any Jena 8 in our biennial?
Stephen G. Rhodes
In the gallery off the landing where the piano tree stood, was the video installation of Stephen Rhodes. Part of this installation was a crashing soundtrack, coming from different sources. This sound bled fully and unfortunately onto the landing, so that even with the “Strange Fruit playing,” it was in mix of that soundtrack…
…The soundtrack of that wreck of an installation. This is the first piece I’ve seen in P1 to address the Administration and patriotism, and I’m sure it won’t be my last. But that Administration is over. And so here we have the first “test of time” for the last 8 years of political contemporary art from the US.
It is a vital coincidence, the election. Here we have a collection of the last few years of international art, and for the first time, that era—our era—is seen in light of the election. P1 launched at the climax of the campaign and will run through the inaugural. That will be quite the lighting for an exhibit.
Works of art will stand up against that most recent history. Our outrage doesn’t end and the conditions on the ground are the same, so work made prior to this event oughta stand up fine. I guess we’ll see.
Or else change our definition of “stand up.” This hall of balloons and briefcases, bent flagpoles and discarded ballots looks a bit like a hotel suite after an election party. On the walls hang large portraits with the subjects blurred out like Hiroshima ghosts in the concrete. Pennies and dimes and political theory books lay on the red carpet. Overstuffed chairs and globes stand on a riser that takes up one corner and the projectors all sit obtrusively on what look to be classroom desks. The films show a man, I think maybe the artist, ripping up photos of presidents, and of the same man—I think—in presidential costumes. The scores sound like a casino or a violent video game. It is all angry and campy.
And not very critical. I mean, the whole hall is a kind of tantrum, a rash little exercise in iconoclasm, not unfamiliar in the galleries of the Bush Era. We suffered through many an artist’s misstatement in that era, when not a few galleries hosted what amounted to therapy for pent-up “I Hate My Daaaaad” wails by artists who hadn’t given much thought to politics before 9/11. Those insta-protests may finally come to an end. This particular installation would’ve been questionable a year ago; today, it is happily out of date.
I dig the US Mint. It is an old warhorse of a museum. Our last visit was for the Napoleon exhibit. I love me some Napoleon, to a benign fault, I’d say. They had his coat, his maps, his hats, the little bee pendants he was so fond of. Perfect fit for the building.
The first floor of the mint holds a collection of odd machinery for money printing from the 19th century. Levers and buttons and cranks. Truly a rich backdrop for an installation of art from today’s international avant-garde.
From the Esplanade Avenue entrance, you come into a hall at the end of which sits the reception desk. On either side of this hall are small rooms with stone floors, cave-like in their curves and lighting. For P1, New Orleans-based artist Srdjan Loncar has installed a pallet of “counterfeit” cash in the left room, stacks of bills in a neat square. In the room to the right, a pallet of gold spray-painted briefcases.
Tell me: if you were told, “Sir/Madam, you will have the two entrance positions in the US Mint for this big art show thing we’re putting together, please have at it,” would this be the best you could come up with? Doesn’t this seem like the knee-jerk thought, the starting point, only the most literal output? That’s the challenge today and for this whole enterprise: merely connecting the dots in this landscape gives you more than enough to work with. Meaning and symbolism aren’t hard to come by. Getting beyond and through that, there’s the work New Orleans (and everywhere always) needs. In a way, this production of counterfeit is just that—an exact copy of value, done with relative exactitude, speaking of and to nothing besides its exact referent.
Oh, and the trick is supposed to be that you can buy the cases and the “money.” Yeah.
11/9/08: The New Orleans African-American Museum
The New Orleans African American Museum resides in a planter’s mansion in the Treme, the oldest African-American neighborhood in the nation. The main house sits on a corner lot, with grand galley porch and a rear yard with several shotgun houses for slave quarters, all of the structures raised up from the ground. Today a second line parade for the Sudan social club is about to begin as we make our way to the museum. Treme is one of the nexuses of black culture in the city and parades still roll on weekends or whenever, especially in the Fall, regardless of occasional harassments and the increasing gentrification. Little boys in sky blue Sunday shirts and navy blue hats are followed by older men in similar dress and then come a group of ladies in lemon suits, another club, each collection separated by a different brass band and flanked by onlookers and second-liners.
Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry: Evidence of Things Not Seen
Inside the main house of the museum, the walls are lined with portraits of civil rights activists. In fact the portraits are mugshots, and the ID numbers given to each subject by the Birmingham police are superimposed on the photos by way of a thin silk screen. The layering blurs the photos and gives them a ghostly quality, as if the memory of each face threatens to fade before our eyes, with only that number left to scar them. The blurred overlays are the Establishment’s ordering of violence.
Finding Martin Luther King, Jr. in one room, I think about the effect of Obama on this story. The tragedy of that struggle will never fade, and yet today we have a new resolution, a different story. As if it all worked out in the end, which we know isn’t the case, and yet....
The music builds outside and we walk back onto the porch and down the stairs and stand on the corner in the sun for awhile, as this manifestation of that story marches proudly and routinely through the battered old neighborhood with its colonial curves and ancient shade. There’s Bennie Pete, the giant tuba player of the Hot 8 Brass Band, thumping his way through the noon. Whatever this ritual carries, it carries it a little lighter right now.
In the backyard, we enter the first long shotgun. The house is divided into two sections. In each, two screens hang from the ceiling. On one side, the soundtrack is gospel, on the other, a delta blues with bottleneck guitar, the sounds clashing in the long room, salvation vs. sin. In each room is a kaleidoscopic looping of a scene from Gimme Shelter, the film about the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert. In the room we enter, the image is just before the riot, when the camera focuses on the young black man in the lime jacket who sticks out in the crowd of white acidheads. Again and again, he sticks out, as if we are the eyes of the coming terror.
In the other room, we watch the attack scene when the paid-in-beer Hells Angels security force descends on the man, Meredith Hunter, who pulled a pistol and was stabbed and kicked to death. It is that moment, some old heads will say, when the Woodstock dream died.
Well, it was a naïve fucking dream, I say, and let it be a warning to us, just as it was a wake-up to the Stones. If you watch the actual movie Gimme Shelter, there’s a scene after the concert where the Stones gather in a dressing room and listen to the radio as Angels leader Sonny Barger blasts Jagger and the rest for putting the gang in this situation. The faces of the young Brits are seriously worried, as if Barger might jump through the radio and whip their limey asses. One of them, I think Charlie Watts, says in bewilderment, “Seemed like a perfectly nice fellow.” No, he was a Hells Angel, part of a gang of meth freaks who were in no way bent on a brighter future. Let us not be as foolish as those blues loving Brits; posturing is a dangerous substitute for a real understanding of America’s racial history. Ramos sticks us in one of those fateful, wrought moments, and the setting is a slave’s house.
For a good decade now, I’ve been fascinated with Kentridge’s work. I believe he has done more to obliterate the form/content divide than anyone in recent history. Centered on memory and the pathos of apartheid, his animated films are endlessly provocative, both visually and in the ongoing narrative that connects them. All that being said, his piece in the second shotgun surprised me.
The room is entirely dark but for a round table in the center, on the other side of a partition from the door to the quarters. Upon the table is a swirling image projected from directly above. In the center of the table is a glass cylinder and in that cylinder, the image on the table is refracted into clarity. We watch a movie play out in that small crucible, a story coming together from the blurred lines that surround it. This is memory as a vessel for the distortions of reality, the tracks of time. The fevered carnival within features bombing and landscape, a gas mask hot air balloon, tanks that turn into birds into the rhinos that inhabit other Kentridge films. The story is more abstract than other works, perhaps even darker (in content, not coloring), and the technique of pencil and eraser continues to work as both medium and metaphor. Martial music alternates with Ethiopian and Eritrean folk songs as we watch this séance play out. What a weird machine, this sleek embodiment of the mind.
To be continued….