There are the obvious draws for New Orleans– the food, the music, and the beautiful swampland scenery on the drive there. But the best reason to go to any biennial is the art, and there is some inspiring work in this one. Here are the highlights:
1. Zarouhie Abdalian at the New Orleans African American Museum of Art, Culture and History
The museum that houses this exhibition is closed indefinitely, and I found myself wandering around looking for the art. I heard sound coming from inside shotgun houses and realized that the art had been around me the whole time. Voices murmur from behind doors, mingling with the sound of pigeons and chatting visitors. Inconspicuous mirrored pieces have been inserted all around the buildings in the back of the museum, and once you notice them, you see them everywhere. The artist’s interventions are subtle and engrossing. It was the highlight of the exhibition for me.
2. Carrie Mae Weems at The George and Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art
Weems custom built a theater inside the McKenna Museum to create an effect where projected video appears to hover in front of plush, red velvet curtains. A seemingly random series of figures from Lincoln to a magician to a modern dancer to civil rights protesters gaze at the audience as an etherial soundtrack of droning jazz music and spoken word plays. This hypnotic tour de force problematizes subjectivity, identity, and the potential for social change in a much more subtle way than the artist’s earlier work. The piece asks more questions than it answers, and that is its greatest strength.
3. Glenn Kaino at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans
Kaino’s allegories for the futility and endurance of aggression are piled one on top the other in his laboratory-like installation. Parts of an armored tank are cast in clear glass and submerged in water where species of coral fight for territory on its surface, creating brightly colored geographies. Yet, the gallery is calm, the custom-made vitrines immaculate, and the calming sound of running water soothing. A statement on war becomes a peaceful meditation. It is literally transformative.
4. Pieter Hugo at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans
These enigmatic, staged Nollywood stills are eerie and defiant of exotic stereotypes. The horror of “Heart of Darkness” meets the campy slasher film in a cool reworking of the old tropes, namely those desires for titillating violence and fear that are constantly projected onto Africa. The large-format, absurd, yet sympathetic portraits reward extended viewing.
5. Hew Locke at Tulane University, Newcomb Art Gallery
Before I walked into Locke’s installation, I read the label which listed mardi gras beads as a medium. I was immediately skeptical as that seems like too obvious of a choice for New Orleans. But I was convinced by the compelling imagery. Locke’s panorama of carnavalesque characters mixes motifs from African, Rastafarian, Aztec, and Baroque artworks to great effect. The beads dripping like tears from the figures is very effective. I love it when I am proven wrong.
These five works are just a small sampling of the biennial based on what I could see in a day and a half. With 18 main sites and 70 associated exhibitions, there is too much art to take in on a short trip. And everything is so well organized! There is even an app for the exhibition at bit.ly/prospect3.
If you make it to the biennial, please post your favorites below. I would love to hear about what I may have missed. I want to be convinced to go back to New Orleans.