Prospect.3 curator Franklin Sirmans has put forth the exhibition’s theme in the question: how does one get to know the other? The implicit answer is: through art. Gauguin and Brazilian modernist Tarsila do Amaral are his historical touchstones for this question. The commonplace view of Gauguin has him reenacting white colonialism by moving to Tahiti and then the Marquesas Islands (it turned out that Tahiti was not primitive enough for him) in search of the exotic Other. Gauguin was not the only one to go on such a search. “Primitivism,” a mimicking of the look of non-Western artworks in an attempt to capture a more raw and honest expression, was a fairly standard modern art practice for western European artists. Reading Gauguin against the grain, Sirmans imagines that this encounter with the Other might have been destabilizing in a good way, with potential to upset criteria of difference between the terms “primitive” and “civilized.” Tarsila (as she was known) then represents the primitive Other speaking back, in a woman’s voice to boot. Her work counters Western othering with a cannibalistic method of performing the expected primitive, but instead of ingesting her own culture, she swallows up Western culture.
Both are exhibited at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where their works have been woven into the permanent collection by being displayed in the appropriate period galleries—so seamlessly woven into the collection that many visitors have reported missing them entirely (it seems that the P.3 signage was a little too subtle). Gauguin hangs out in the Impressionist room with Monet, Cassatt, Manet, and Caillebotte. Two artworks are on view: a set of painted glass doors from NOMA’s permanent collection and a painting on loan from the Dallas Museum of Art. Both feature female figures in native dress and placed in natural settings. On the right side of the doors, Rupe Tahiti (Hurrah, Tahiti), 1893, a woman sits on a riverbank with her back to us, her head in profile. Her back is bare, and she wears a printed fabric that covers the lower half of her body. Two other female figures wearing printed sarongs inhabit the riverbank on the left side of the doors. A big flower arches over the main figure’s head, and a bunny and a peacock round out the cast of characters.
Tarsila do Amaral is two galleries over, in the context of early 20th-century avant-garde movements Cubism, German Expressionism, and Futurism. Os Anjos (1924) features a choir of angels with dark brown skin, hands held together in prayer. The bodies are straight-edged cylinders, some tonal variation at the edges suggesting three-dimensionality and providing evidence of her connection to Léger, with whom she studied in Paris. Her Estudo para Antropofagia (1929) inspired Oswald de Andrade’s Movimento Antropofágico, or “Cannibalist Manifesto.” In ink on paper, two figures sit in a landscape of cacti and one oversized banana leaf, the sun shining down from the upper left. The proportions of the bodies are distorted—tiny heads, giant feet—but it is the style that she “cannibalized” from the European avant-garde. Instead of mimicking their primitivist take on her home country, Tarsila’s style recalls drawings by Matisse that simplified forms to swooping lines.
Tarsila’s inclusion sets the stage for a postcolonial reversal of terms, perhaps even a reversal of traditional power relationships. While this idea is hinted at in the contemporary galleries at NOMA, especially in Jeffrey Gibson’s work (a Native American artist who uses visual patterns from the early 20th-century avant-garde), we must move across town to see its promise fulfilled in the exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC).
Featuring 23 of the 58 artists in P.3, the CAC exhibition focuses on the theme of the Other, with some breathing room provided by abstraction. The works are spread across three floors of the multidisciplinary arts center, which is housed in a converted 19th-century warehouse. Globalization is a key theme, so we have artists from East Asia, India and Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and, of course, New Orleans, as well as the expected American and European cities. The artists themselves may be “from” one place but live in a second, or third, or fourth place—another characteristic of globalization.
The “look” of difference is apparent, whether it’s the traditional ink painting style used by Chinese artists on scrolls, or the way that the crowded composition of figures in Entang Wiharso’s work recalls Hindu imagery. Sometimes the look of difference is a sound—the sound of the Muslim call to prayer on loudspeakers blaring from Agus Suwage’s self-portrait. Certain themes cut across the differences of place, such as industrialization. Chinese artist Yun-Fei Ji reinvents the tradition of Chinese scroll painting to reflect on and eulogize the impact of industrialization on the Chinese landscape. Zarina Bhimji’s video brings us to a sisal factory in Kenya, while Manal AlDowayan’s project uses photography and video to trace personal experiences of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia. Other artists tackle the theme of identity, whether reflecting on race (Joe Ray) or gender (Pushpamala N.), while music is also a running thread (David Zink Yi).
The exhibition starts off slow and quiet on the first floor. Theaster Gates’s large-scale paintings made with tar or fire hoses clearly refer to discourses of racial difference. Gates’s artworks feel like a very resistant choice to start off the show with—as if a signal that the show will be pushing back quite a bit. The tar paintings, such as Creamy Rich Sky. Asphalt Horizontal Roll (2014), are shiny and obdurate, divided into three vertical or horizontal registers. Though completely abstract, the material summons linguistic association—racial epithets such as “black as tar” and “tar baby.” Civil Tapestry 4 (2011) looks like a Minimalist painting on an Abstract-Expressionist scale, but it is made out of decommissioned fire hoses that recall the Birmingham race riots of 1963. In the context of Prospect.3, a visitor might also connect Gates’s hoses to the same material used by Terry Adkins in Ezekiel Wheel (2009), which is on view at Dillard University.
I was disappointed to see that these were the selected Gates works, as these objects pale in comparison to what I’ve read of his social practice. I was hoping to see the more activist work, especially from The Dorchester Projects (2006-ongoing). The name is a catchall for the various activities that he has been coordinating in his neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, where he transformed three broken-down homes and gave them new life as cultural centers. Objects such as Civil Tapestry 4 and the tar paintings are used to fund the work on the ground in Chicago.
Thinking about how Gates uses the art market as a funding mechanism would be fascinating to present in the context of a biennial. Instead, the artworks rest here with little commentary or explanation, their shiny surfaces deflecting such discussion. Their inclusion is in line with the entire P.3 exhibition’s focus on objects, featuring almost none of the more radical “socially engaged art” that Gates’s practice otherwise engages (Mary Ellen Carroll’s project is the exception that proves the rule).
The rest of the first floor investigates the nature of signs through conceptual commentary, often playing off the abstraction and language that Gates engages. A huge painting by Lucien Smith looks like a two-page spread of an index in a book, while another depicts a lurid seascape at sunset. The former, Ark (History of the Earth), 2013, is, in fact, a silkscreen of an index. It could refer to the index as a category of semiotic signs (theorized by Rosalind Krauss in her series of articles “Notes on the Index” as being important to contemporary art), in which case the landscape would then demonstrate the category of iconic signs (ones that look like what they represent). Rather than depict an actual sunset, though, Smith depicts a postcard image of a sunset. With the title Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin, 2013, a Hebrew phrase meaning “the future is predetermined,” the viewer is encouraged to question the relationship of text to image.
The lesson on indexes continues throughout the first floor gallery. In an indexical sign, the signifier points to the signified, just as a term in the index of a book points to the page where it is discussed. At the far end of the room, Lucia Koch’s Plexiglas panels catch the sun streaming in through the corner windows, thus pointing to the light as our object of attention. One of Analia Saban’s indexical paintings rests in the corner on the other side of Smith’s work. Saban’s strategy is to use paint as an index and not an icon, so her canvases always point to their sources. In Composition with Readymade Paint (from 8ft. House Moulding), 2014, the moulding provides the source of the painting, with bits of paint moved from object to canvas. The display pairs together the canvas and the house moulding, propped against the wall. The title refers to Duchamp by way of the readymade, but the materials have been read by Sirmans as a specific reference to post-Katrina house renovations.
Arriving on the second floor, another work by Saban greets us. An old door with peeling paint leaning against the wall makes up half of Composition with Readymade Paint (from Door), 2014. Up close, penciled marks by what must have been a teenage resident are evident: “This was Hannah’s Room! You should feel LUCKY!” Next to the door, a tan linen canvas is largely empty except for pieces of paint taken from the door. Saban’s work is used as a unifying thread throughout the CAC installation, showing up on each floor. Nearby, a video installation by David Zink Yi works like a black hole, sucking viewers into a two-hour musical experience. Horror Vacui (2009) explores the relationship between recorded and live music in the context of specific Afro-Cuban performances. Also here are abstract paintings by Hayal Pozanti, made in the aspect ratio of Instagram and iPhone screens, and MacArthur Binion, whose gray checkerboard patterns recall Jasper Johns and Sean Scully, but on close inspection, the gray stripes obscure writing underneath.
In his research, Sirmans uncovered evidence that Gauguin was invited to find the Other in New Orleans by his friend Degas, who was here, but turned it down because the city would not be Other enough. A number of works were chosen for their representation of New Orleans as Other. Douglas Bourgeois and Sophie Lvoff offer two very different takes on New Orleans, and the pairing has been singled out for praise by many. Bourgeois’s paintings are lurid, and feel like Outsider art—the junglelike settings suggest an Henri Rousseau for New Orleans. I’m sure that has a lot to do with why visiting journalists swooned over his work, as it fulfills the expectations of otherness and difference. A New Orleans artist that looked like a New York artist would not fit into this scenario; difference must be exhibited. Bourgeois is not actually an Outsider artist—he is represented by the high profile Arthur Roger Gallery, and he did study art in college, but he’s clearly not part of the Chelsea-based scene that defines mainstream contemporary art.
My favorite is Iko-Icon (2010), an oil-on-panel ode to the ’60s-era girl group the Dixie Cups, who recorded the song “Iko-Iko” as their take on the Mardi Gras Indian song “Jock-a-Mo,” first recorded by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in 1953 (“Jock-a-Mo” is a standard in the Mardi Gras repertoire). The three women of the Dixie Cups are standing in the street in front of two shotgun houses. They wear matching orange hot pants, lavender camisoles, and high-heeled purple pumps, singing with the Coke bottles that were supposedly used as instruments for the recording. A Mardi Gras Indian is standing in full dress on the front porch of one house, while the Virgin of Guadalupe is on the one to the right.
Next to Bourgeois’s small, intricate paintings are Lvoff’s large-scale photographs, beautifully lit, with highly saturated colors that, in one image, make a lonely Diet Coke vending machine in a trashy corner look fabulous. Some are locations I recognize, even if I haven’t been there, like the Saturn Bar. Others are locations that I don’t recognize, like the Art Deco-era train station ticket desk, which looks like it could be anywhere, not here. But there’s no one in these photographs. This version of New Orleans is a still life, as if the artist has tried to turn the city into a Gregory Crewdson artwork. The project has merit (think post-postmodern), but it’s being sold here as getting to the truth of New Orleans. While Lvoff does refuse the tourist clichés, this is definitely not the truth.
One of Sirmans’s nuggets that has found traction in the written response to Prospect.3 is his suggestion, or perhaps warning, that “If you can’t smell, hear, and taste New Orleans at Prospect.3, then you are not experiencing the exhibition to its fullest intention.” The line was meant to summon up the particularity of New Orleans, a uniqueness that Sirmans sees as in dialogue with international strains. Or, perhaps, a sense that in an international context, many places share this experience of uniqueness. Given that Sirmans wants the exhibition to be about trying to see each other, there is a need to acknowledge difference. New Orleans is different, and Sirmans’s rejoinder suggests that one can start to know that difference by looking at Bourgeois and Lvoff, but also by noticing the smells, hearing the music, and tasting the famous food. It sounds like a lot of fun, and it sounds like exactly what a good tourist would do. But it’s not enough to get to know New Orleans, to really understand the difference, to respect it. It makes it sound as if we can all just get along if we just share a table together and hang out at Jazz Fest (as we are constantly reminded that Basquiat came here to go to Jazz Fest).
Lisa Sigal’s Home Court Crawl, a site-specific project on several abandoned houses throughout the city, promised to be more truthful about the city by way of its placement. On display at the CAC are digital prints of the houses, featuring text from Suzan-Lori Parks’s play 365 Days/365 Plays (2002-03) that Sigal added to the houses on Tyvek. Sigal used three of the 365 plays for her project: Empty is installed in the Hollygrove area of town, I Cant Help the Mood Im In, But Right Now Im Thinking that the Narcissism of White America Knows No Bounds in St. Roch, and Burning in Mid-City.
Robert Smithson proposed a theory of sites and nonsites in the late 1960s as a way to structure a relationship between the gallery and the world outside its pure white cube spaces. Typical of his work was to collect material from a site (often rocks) and then display the work in the gallery as a nonsite, with documentation of the location of the site. The CAC wall serves as Sigal’s nonsite; a stack of newspapers for the taking includes photographs of the work in situ (but no map, leaving viewers at the mercy of their phone’s GPS to find the actual sites). On the wall are photos of the houses bearing text that Sigal took from Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays (2002-03). Given the dilapidated state of the houses, her work feels like the requisite Katrina artwork, responding to the pressing issue of blight in the city. But the blight is complicated, with reasons ranging from Katrina to property tax regulation to economics. Instead of plumbing the depth of these reasons, the CAC prints use the buildings as stages, literally. The text of the play is attached to the house, as if the house is an actor speaking the lines given to them by a director.
I went to find some of these houses. In St. Roch, I parked, and as I fumbled around looking for my big camera, a man sauntered in front of my car, looking at me in a perplexed manner, as if to say, who’s this chick? I was planning to walk around the neighborhood to see the various houses, as each one is about a block apart, but immediately abandoned that idea after the second house. I felt uncomfortable taking out my camera and being watched by neighbors sitting on their porches. Perhaps they were ignoring me, but I was aware of being out of place. I resorted to the camera phone—less obvious—and driving instead of walking. It was still hard to find each one. In NOLA, you almost never drive down a street you don’t know, because the road conditions are atrocious. Sigal’s project required ignorance of this tacit rule. Meanwhile, the experience on site frustrates the narrative dimension of the work, as it is hard to follow the order of the text in the course of negotiating road conditions and mapping systems. The experience also brings up questions about Sigal’s relationship to this neighborhood. What research did she do about this place? Did she talk to the residents? Get their permission? Answers to these questions are not part of what can be seen in the work, making one wonder if she too has othered the city. It could very well be the case that process was important to her, à la Christo, but we don’t get to see the negotiations that she had with the housing authority or the neighborhood residents.
I had better luck on my second attempt, in the Mid-City area, where the houses are closer together and there’s less of a sense of surveillance. The texts here suggest that a house has caught on fire, with a man and woman commenting on living the rest of their lives “in the shadow of the ruins.” The reference to ruins on a ruined house in New Orleans conjures Hurricane Katrina, but to what end? Is this ruin porn? An elegy? Does the artwork take advantage of somebody else’s misfortune? Is visiting these neighborhoods to see artwork on abandoned buildings a display of questionable ethics? Could the piece have worked just as well as digital prints, without the site visits?
Using a community land trust model, activist and curator Imani Jacqueline Brown and local artist Carl Joe Williams are spearheading the second phase—Blights Out—of Sigal’s project, which is to buy one of the houses at a New Orleans Redevelopment Authority auction (in March 2015) and renovate it for use as a community center (see their video introduction here). They are working with other organizations such as Junebug, Justice and Beyond Coalition, and the Louisiana Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Inspired by Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses in Houston and Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects in Chicago, they envision a project that can use art to instigate the renewal of blighted neighborhoods in New Orleans. Only time will tell if that type of success will happen here.
Back at the CAC, Sigal’s project is followed by Glenn Kaino’s coral warfare, Tank (2014). Fabulous, I think to myself as I round the corner and am presented by the expanse of aquariums filled with beautiful corals and the mechanical equipment that keeps them running. The concept is to illustrate an analogy between human and biological warfare, with cast tank fragments representing human warfare (based on U.S. military dumping grounds in the ocean) and the corals engaged in their own territorial warfare. Nice idea, but it doesn’t translate visually—the objects in the aquariums look like abstract shapes, not tank fragments. The coral war is invisible, and instead, I’m drawn close to admire their bright colors and textural differences and complicated forms. When the work came up for discussion at a special event with Sirmans, an audience member said that he didn’t see them as at war; he said, “they’re just beautiful paintings.” That’s it, I thought—that’s the problem. If you see them as beautiful paintings, then you miss the point. The corals fail to exhibit the conflict behind the work, and the pleasing display distracts. They are too fun to photograph, and as I kneel down to get a good shot, I’m already anticipating how good they will look on Instagram.
Charles Gaines’s Skybox I (2011) then comes as a relief. Visitors enter a darkened room, where a starry night sky is visible on a wall panel. The LED stars were twinkling, and the atmosphere was peaceful (except for the very distracting sound bleed from David Zink-Yi’s video next door). Then the sky transitions, fading out as text emerges—fragments of political writings by Gerrard Winstanley, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Frantz Fanon, and Ho Chi Minh. The piece is timed so that viewers may read the text before it darkens and is replaced by the starry night sky. The peace of the stars invites contemplation of the ideas just read.
By the time visitors reach the third floor, they will have followed the narrative of the exhibition from semiotic analysis to racial difference to the Other of New Orleans and, finally, the most explicit cases of cultural difference. As the elevators door open, the image straight ahead is Agus Suwage’s monumental self-portrait, Tolerance Wall #2 (Temak Toleransi #2), 2013. Painted on recycled tin cans, it uses a car audio system to project garbled sounds, which, according to the wall label, reference the culture that the Suharto regime imposed on Indonesia.
As a postcolonial artwork, Zarina Bhimji’s 7½-minute long video Waiting (2009) uses the evidence of colonization from sisal factories in Kenya. The camera moves through the space catching sunlight on a corrugated tin ceiling while electronically manipulated sound echoes. The sounds have a natural source in the sound of the machinery and the voices of the workers, perhaps even birds. A reverberating boom and a single note on the piano punctuate the film occasionally. Clouds of sisal resemble cotton candy wisps. The camera zooms in on short strands of sisal hanging from the ceiling timbers, slowly dancing in the breeze. Voices ring in ululation.
The film is absent of bodies, of characters, and yet full of voices and the sounds of the machinery in operation. It feels like the space is haunted. It could have been abandoned, or it could be still in operation. The music and the editing of the images create a sense of liminality, of being out of time, and that is our way in to this world. It relies on the imagination, rather than documentation. Bhimji’s film is one of the most successful works in the exhibition.
The most instructive example of the dynamic of othering is a gallery of photographic work, featuring Pushpamala N., Pieter Hugo, and Mohamed Bourouissa. Pushpamala N.’s photographs are reminiscent of Cindy Sherman, their titles cluing us in to the original images that they mimic and thereby mock. Hugo’s large-scale photographs are based on the Bollywood-type of film industry in Nigeria called Nollywood. But I have no personal experience of Nollywood, or of the images that Pushpamala cites. When it’s Cindy Sherman, I get it. Standing in front of Pushpamala N. and Pieter Hugo, I felt estranged from these sources. The feeling did not lessen in front of Bourouissa’s work, selections from the 2005-06 series Périphérique, created following the 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs. Viewing the works in this room reminded me of the radical difference between my culture and the one that had created these images.
For some viewers, I’m sure that radical difference is exciting. It can be fun to encounter images and cultures that seem strange. Sometimes it is even inspiring, like a trip to a far-away culture that gives one perspective on one’s own home. But experiencing the radical difference in these artworks was not a good feeling. It was disorienting, like not understanding the language of a country that one is visiting. But it’s not a bad feeling to have when standing in front of an artwork. It seems to me that art often makes us recognize difference. In other words, that I fail to read the images fully is its own lesson, and that failure should express the difficulties of life in a globalized age.
There’s a lot of talk about the Other in this iteration of Prospect. A lot of this talk is positive in spirit, celebrating difference, celebrating the uniqueness of New Orleans. But othering, as a process, is usually not a positive experience. Instead of assuming that this search to see the Other will lead to understanding, I would rather start with the opposite assumption: that difference is radical difference, that divides will never be fully bridged, that no, the P.3 visitors will not understand the Other of New Orleans simply by participating in its tourist rituals. I’m sure that sounds full of despair, but I don’t mean it that way. I simply mean to describe the uneasy feeling I get when I hear talk from the Other (nonresidents) about the Otherness of New Orleans, or when I read reviews by journalists who were parachuted in for opening weekend and thought they came to some sort of understanding about the city and Prospect after only 48 hours. I’ve been here for more than two years and know that I’m nowhere close to such an understanding. We should be talking about how art can make difference visible rather than accepting a fantasy version of the Other.
 Sirmans, “Somewhere and Not Anywhere,” Prospect.3 Notes for Now, Delmonico Books/Prestel, 2014, p. 22.
Prospect.3 is on view through January 25.
Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.