ON HALLOWEEN WEEKEND, three years after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the streets of New Orleans embraced a new kind of flood, one of tourists from New York and Los Angeles besotted with art.
Joined by a number of local enthusiasts, they formed the legion of VIPs who arrived for the opening of Prospect.1, the first New Orleans biennial. This exhibition, the inspiration of former New Museum curator Dan Cameron, features eighty-one different projects in art venues and public spaces all over town. That makes it the largest such exhibition ever in the United States. Supplemented by homegrown shows in galleries, derelict cottages, and abandoned lots, it took the weekend’s spectators into neighborhoods far beyond the forced hoopla of Bourbon Street and into the Big Easy’s wounded soul.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am right now,” Cameron told the several hundred faithful who showed up at the W Hotel on Thursday night, October 30, to greet visiting artists like Tony Oursler, Josephine Meckseper, Fred Tomaselli, Isaac Julien, and Wangechi Mutu. New Orleans collectors Charlie and Kent Davis, philanthropist Alexa Georges, Global Green CEO and architect Matt Petersen, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, private adviser Sandy Heller, and Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu were also among those toasting the cultural—and economic—resurgence that Cameron was hoping to spark.
“Outsiders who come here to help don’t understand that we play by different rules,” said a friend who has spent her life in New Orleans, where unique intersections between politics, race, class, and corruption make for a particularly heady brew. Cameron, now also the resident visual-arts director of the local Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), was determined to prove the exception. “Can New Orleans gain economic salvation through cultural tourism?” he asked.
That was the $3.2 million question—that being the amount of cash it took to get Prospect.1 on its feet. No one expected the answer to be quick in coming, not in a city that often clings to the nineteenth century (including the old Napoleonic Code), its tragic flaw as well as the source of its charm.
Thursday, the first of two Prospect.1 vernissage days, was also the opening of KK Projects’s parallel show of site-specific installations in the blighted Eighth Ward neighborhood known as Saint Roch. Cocktails were served in the Bakery, a gallery where New Yorker Peter Nadin had sunk a number of terra-cotta sculptures—many of them enlargements of Michelangelo’s nose—in a large pool of black honey. Drawn to the garden by the Elysian sound of the James Singleton String Quartet, I pressed my nose to the glass of a completely derelict cottage, where New Orleanian artist Dawn DeDeux was placing a Mathmos-like cloud, fluorescent-green glass tiles inscribed with hurricane-shaped spirals, over the dirt floor.
The Bakery is one of six decrepit spaces that KK Projects proprietor Kirsha Kaechele, a sunny transplant from Los Angeles by way of Guam, has acquired on Villere Street, fortuitously bounded by streets with the names Arts and Music. Bending to peepholes drilled through the plank walls of one wreck, a barnlike former package store, I watched two Oursler videos projected large on what remained of the far walls. Each featured some of the spunky neighbors who still live around there, rapping or singing and making their post-Katrina presence in this eerie place known.
Later, during dinner at Herbsaint on Saint Charles Avenue with Creative Time director Anne Pasternak and curator Nato Thompson, I learned from artist and Printed Matter director AA Bronson, in town to conduct a midnight Saturday séance with actor Peter Hobbs in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, that historically a disproportionate number of psychics have been gay.
Everyone in New Orleans seemed queer on Halloween night, even the seven hundred bewigged and costumed art types who showed up for Prospect.1’s French Quarter benefit at Antoine’s, established in 1840. Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison made her spunky horns visible in a red-devil gown that made even more sense when she donned a MISS ALASKA sash and smiled for the paparazzi. New Orleans Museum of Art curator Bill Fagaly dragged out his old dalmatian suit, and collector Dianne Ackerman seemed to rise from the floor in the Wonder Woman outfit she had found that day in a Mardi Gras shop on Decatur Street. (“I got a wardrobe for the weekend in just a couple of hours,” she touted.)
During a considerable service lull in the ten-course tasting menu, bandleader Glen David Andrews and the Lazy Six moved over two floors and fourteen dining rooms, raising a napkin-waving, chair-dancing ruckus in one upstairs room, while across the hall, Cameron and Toby Devan Lewis, Sanford Biggers and Jack Shainman, Fred Tomaselli and James Cohan, Julie Mehretu and Christian Haye, John Pilson and Tony Fitzpatrick, Amy Sillman and Brent Sikkema, Marcel Odenbach and Kathy Goncharov, were only a few of the odd couples scattered throughout. Elsewhere, two skinhead dancers in formal white performed balletic turns in the aisles between long tables seating Beth Rudin DeWoody and Randy Polumbo, New Orleans City councilmember at large Jacqueline Clarkson (introducing herself as the mother of actress Patricia Clarkson), and hometowners such as dealer Howard Read and artists Jacqueline Humphries, Lynda Benglis, and Robert Tannen.
Conversations veered between the art in Prospect.1 and the approaching presidential election. (Obama signs peppered lawns all over town.) Most people picked the Lower Ninth installations (by Mutu, Mark Bradford, and Nari Ward, among others) as the knockout location on the art tour. Bradford’s enormous ark, made of plywood boards papered with peeling advertisements from Los Angeles walls loomed over an empty plain where homes once stood, surrounded by lots still marked by concrete foundation blocks that eerily resembled crumbling tombstones. Near Leandro Erlich’s lone window perched high on a ladder like a triumphant fist, the hideous wreckage of a Katrina-battered house gave mute testimony to the once-broken levee behind it.
Some of us wondered whether this high-risk floodplain wouldn’t be put to better use as rice paddies or farms or parks for music festivals, especially with housing available in uptown neighborhoods above sea level. Perhaps the artworks, scattered hither and yon amid streets with bittersweet names like Forstall and (egad) Flood, made the contrast between leveling nature and “civilizing” art and architecture starker. Robin Rhode’s Duchampian turn put a geyser of a fountain inside a former public toilet, in a single gesture underscoring the power of water to both give life and take it.
Left: William Fagaly, curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Right: Artist Robin Rhode.
Just as profound, but in a more upbeat kind of way, were the works on view at the Studio at the Charles J. Colton School, a P.S. 1–style free studio and art-education program set up by Tannen and his wife, Jeanne Nathan, who also founded the Warehouse District’s CAC after relocating from New York in the late ’70s. Cai Guo-Qiang had hung a light display from the auditorium ceiling and Jose Damasceno outlined an impressive calculator on the floor of one room with pieces of chalk. But it was more enlightening to talk to resident artists like Eliza Zeitlin, whose assemblage of salvage and puppets exploding from an old hearse had previously served as a barge sailing Lake Pontchartrain in her brother Benh’s recent film, Glory at Sea. Michelle Levine related how she depicted Katrina’s toll on Louisiana by making portraits of all the McDonald’s signs around the state damaged by the storm, and Tatsuo Miyajima explained how the LED numbers blinking on the hivelike stones of his Pile Up Life Project are counting the fourteen hundred people said to have died in the disaster.
With these and many more artworks on my mind, I left Antoine’s and (literally) piled into a limo with dealer David Maupin, T magazine editor Stefano Tonchi, artist Anton Ginzburg, Kaechele, and other friends and drove through streets alive with Halloween revelers. We stopped briefly by the party of ghouls drinking champagne at developer Sean Cummings’s historic Esplanade Avenue mansion—formerly the studios where music legend Allen Toussaint recorded Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, U2, and various New Orleanian musicians like Ernie K. Doe, the Neville Brothers, and Lee Dorsey.
Left: Artist Eliza Zeitlin and filmmaker Benh Zeitlin. Right: Artist Sanford Biggers.
After a personal tour of Cummings’s sleek bachelor quarters upstairs, it was on to KK Projects’s outdoor performances and installations in a Bywater brickyard. Walking it was as close as I’ve come to an Owsley-strength acid trip in years. Fabulous. As I peered around in the darkness, people or artworks would suddenly appear, each a new cause for wonder, including a mirror-sided shack by Elliot Coon, seemingly set ablaze by a snaking pit of gas-fueled fire passing by it, AdrinaAdrina’s astonishing four-poster bed made from a block of ice that was lit from within, and the pièce de résistance, a submersive environment by Homemade Parachutes, a New Orleans collective, in an old molasses factory that bore more than a passing resemblance to the horror-film classic House of Wax. We stayed late.
The next day, artist Mel Chin opened his SafeHouse on Villere Street with a press conference announcing Operation Paydirt, a far-reaching art and science project to rid American cities of lead-polluted soil, of which New Orleans has a great concentration. The cleanup will cost at least three hundred million dollars, and to pressure Congress into allocating the money, Chin plans to collect three million hundred-dollar bills drawn by school children across the country and take them to the Capitol in an armored car bought for that purpose.
After that, I hit as many Prospect.1 and other local venues as possible. I started with Linzy’s film at NOMA, then took in installations at the CAC by Candice Breitz, Mehretu, Meckseper, and Cao Fei, before setting off for Skylar Fein’s re-creation of a NOLA gay bar (the site of a fatal fire), the Sally Mann show at the Ogden Museum, the Jim Richard painting show at Arthur Roger Gallery, and the Pilson and Fitzpatrick works at the Jazz and Heritage Center. Finally, it was time for KK Projects’s Ritual Feast, where I found Uma Thurman and her half sister, Taya (daughter of art patron and designer Christophe de Menil), among the three hundred guests awaiting the dinner gong at the three-hundred foot-long, pierlike table designed by DeDeaux, which took up the length of the block.
The food, prepared by Michelin three-star chef Rocky Barnette, was served on thick, communal platters sliced from a long-leafed pine-tree trunk, one for every four people. I sat down with Howard Read and his wife, Katja, Art + Commerce co-owner Anne Kennedy, Brant Publications editorial director Glenn O’Brien, and Company Agenda’s Gina Nanni. Forced to eat with our fingers from one plate, the meal, interminably slow in coming from the mobile kitchen parked at the corner, proved the downside of glamour, at once demonstrating the necessity of sharing in the face of disaster and the self-serving generosity of carpetbagging. The paltry dinner was not enough to keep us on our benches, and between courses we had time to drive over to Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club a few blocks away to catch Linzy’s rousing performance with a New Orleans pickup band, organized for Prospect.1 attendees by the Art Production Fund.
Backed by the band, whose members (I heard) were not expecting a strapping male singer in a glittering silver unitard, Linzy had everyone in the club on their feet during a finale that began with the artist’s own “Asshole” and ended with James Brown’s “Please Please Please” and Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.” “Tonight, we put our hands together for Kalup Linzy!” shouted the MC. “Tuesday night, for Barack Obama!” That brought down the house.
Left: Artist Isaac Julien with Metro Pictures' Helene Winer. Right: Artist Francesco Vezzoli.
Left: Dealer Lisa Overduin, artist Stephen Rhodes, and dealer Kristina Kite. Right: Christian Rattemeyer, MoMA curator of prints and drawings.
Left: Collector Beth Rudin DeWoody. Right: Art Production Fund's Yvonne Force Villareal and Doreen Remen.
Left: Collector Lisa Schiff and dealer Carol Greene. Right: Artist Josephine Meckseper.
Left: AdrinaAdrina's bed. Right: KK Projects's founder Kirsha Kaechele.
Left: Critic Diego Cortez with artist Tony Oursler. Right: New Museum curator Laura Hoptman and artist Verne Dawson.
Left: Dia director Philippe Vergne. Right: Artist Marcel Odenbach and curator Kathy Goncharov.
Left: Artist Jim Richard and Armory Show vice president Paul Morris. Right: Pamela Auchincloss and Performa director RoseLee Goldberg.