Prospect.1 (or P.1) is New Orleans’ first biennial and the largest international contemporary art show ever organized in the United States. It features 81 artists from 39 countries in more than 20 venues. Typical for a show this size, there are some hits and some misses. Overall however, a large number of excellent artworks are on display. The following are some of my favorites.
New York-based Sanford Biggers’ Blossom, 2007, is impressive in scale and in psychological intensity. As I crested the stairs to the second floor of the Louisiana State Museum, a tree appeared to be growing through both the floor and a grand piano. The instrument played a dirge-like rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a song whose lyrics reference the bodies of lynched black men hanging from trees.
Like Blossom, the photographs of South African Zwelethu Mthethwa are visually compelling and emotionally powerful. Their masterful compositions and saturated colors are magnetic—I literally felt drawn to them, compelled to take a closer look.
Mthethwa’s lushly textured images defy their slick surfaces. The eye is seduced, followed by the mind as it translates the rich textures and colors into a disturbing reality: impoverished South African shantytowns. Although Mthethwa captures formal beauty in these difficult settings, images of dirty clothing and patched-together walls force the viewer to consider troubling social and political issues.
Japanese photographer Yasumasa Morimura, by contrast, believes: “Art is basically entertainment. Even Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were entertainers. In that way, I am an entertainer and want to make art that is fun.”
And that he does, and well. Morimura creates computer-aided reconstructions of images from art history and pop culture by inserting his own face and body into them. He prints the results on canvas, a medium that suggests “high art” status.
Sometimes disturbing, often amusing, Morimura’s images definitely entertain. Exchange of Devouring, 2004, is a reworking of the disturbing Francisco Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-23. Wild-eyed, Morimura poses frozen in mid-feast.
Another take on a Goya—this time inspired by the illustration The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1797-98—showcases Morimura’s sense of play. In A Nightmare is Coming, Crawling Up. Get Up!, 2004, owls and humanoid creatures wearing cat-like masks watch over the main subject while planes fly overhead and miniature tanks cross the floor. The overall effect is theatrical and humorous, not ominous like Goya’s illustration.
While possible meanings of Morimura’s works could be theorized in terms of appropriation and identity, I happily took the artist’s advice and simply enjoyed them.
Another slightly guilty P.1 pleasure is Los Angeles-based Stephen G. Rhodes’ installation Who Farted?!!? (interregnum), 2008. (Interregnum is the period of time between the election of a new U.S. President and their inauguration.) This work looks like the remains of a post-election party, complete with burst balloons and discarded ballots littering the floor. (A video clip of the installation can be seen here.)
A slightly disorienting, cacophonous combination of piano plunks, video game-like sounds, and bells fills the dimly lit room. Large, glowing framed images read as anti-portraits.
Videos projected from voting booths suggest violence has taken place in the room. Footage of people cracking whips, popping balloons, and punching the air are superimposed over videos of the mechanical stars of Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. A wrecked interpretation of the presidential set fills one corner.
I must admit I was a little ashamed of my glee as I watched a video of a young black man in Victorian garb “whip” a mechanical Abraham Lincoln. The footage was looped such that Lincoln, hilariously unnatural in his robotic movements, was whipped down every time he tried to stand up.
I mention this response because it compliments the mood of the installation: a mixture of immaturity and cynicism. In an interview Rhodes defined “interregnum” as “the period between political movements,” undoubtedly an intentional choice of words given the title of his installation.
This sampling of some of my favorite P.1 artworks hints at the diversity of the biennial’s offerings. Experiencing art can be exhausting, particularly when the goal is to visit as many venues as possible in a short amount of time. For this reason in particular I appreciated P.1’s stimulating mix of headiness and playfulness. From being forced to contemplate upsetting social and political realities to being amused by a Japanese man in drag portraying the Dutchess of Alba, I enjoyed myself immensely.
Prospect.1 is on view in New Orleans through Sun. Jan. 18.