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Prospect.1 in the Lower Ninth Ward

Through Jan. 18

Various Sites, 715-3968; www.prospectneworleans.org

Not long after Prospect.1 opened, the Houston Chronicle's art writer, Douglas Britt, ran some photos in his "Arts in Houston" blog with the comment: "There was some terrific art at the conventional sites, but what really made this biennial special was the site-specific installations in the Lower 9th Ward." Others have said as much for the city overall, but the Lower Ninth really is special — not because of the destruction, but for the sense you get on a quiet, sunny day in Holy Cross that this may be the most soulful neighborhood in America. Traces of things hauntingly poetic coexist with the damage and decay, but the biennial is the main attraction, and trying to find all the sites by car can pose some navigational challenges. What follows are a few tips for finding your way around, as well as some commentary on the installations themselves.

The first step is to get to the L9 Center for the Arts (539 Caffin Ave.). On one side is Anne Deleporte's ethereal Editorial Blue collage mural, and the other side features Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick's eloquent photographs of local street life culled from what they could salvage of their three decades worth of work after the storm.

On a nearby table are Prospect.1's free and very helpful maps of its site-specific installations in the area, and this map is really the only way to find them by car because the larger official map lacks the necessary street information.

Catercorner from the L9 Center is Wangechi Mutu's Miss Sarah's House, a skeletal frame where Sarah Lastie's house once stood. Luminous at twilight, it's essentially a visualization that will hopefully lead to its restoration.

The next stop is the nearby Tekrema Center (5640 Burgundy St.), a one-time hardware store that now houses a mysterious installation by Chilean artist Sebastián Preece. Like an odd archeological dig, it features concrete slabs turned upside down, or replaced with other concrete slabs to reveal secret topologies or obscure geopsychic excavations. Upstairs, the walls are covered in Louisiana swamp murals by New York painter Adam Cvijanovic, which are upstaged by the house itself, a time warp filled with the spirits of its former inhabitants and their assorted relics, some of which remain on a mantle in the form of old turpentine and mouthwash bottles, a battered crucifix and a calendar page from February 1924. More problematic is a house (5418 Dauphine St.) transformed by the talented German artist Katharina Grosse into a fiery expressionist painting. Such tactics work well in soulless urban environments but can seem tone deaf in this most soulful of neighborhoods.

While Mark Bradford's house-size ark (2201 Caffin Ave.) is well known, Miguel Palma's Rescue Games piece at the Lower Ninth Ward Village (1001 Charbonnet St.) is no less monumental. A life-size recreation of a World War II Higgins landing craft, it holds a shallow sea of water that becomes a tidal surge when the craft lurches to and fro on hydraulic pistons as the eerie soundtrack from Janine Antoni's video of horrified eyes and wrecking balls emanates from the next room.

The flood ravaged Battleground Baptist Church (2200 Flood St.) holds Nari Ward's Diamond Gym sculpture. A skeletal diamond-shaped steel cage filled with gym equipment surrounded by mirrors, it makes an inexplicably powerful statement to the accompaniment of famous Civil Rights-era sermons. Robin Rhode's simple fountain in the shell of a former playground structure (2500 Caffin Ave.) is meditative when the water's turned on, but almost disappears when it's not. Finally, Argentine artist Leandro Ehrlich's great Window and Ladder sculpture (1800 Deslonde St.) serendipitously takes us to the new Brad Pitt houses and the old Common Ground compound, where Egyptian artist Ghada Amer's spindly Happily Ever After metal sculpture suggests the fragility of such glad tidings. With regard to the Lower Ninth Ward, we can only hope it's a prophecy.

click to enlarge Adam Cvijanovic's swamp murals at the Tekrema Center share space with the assorted relics of the antique structure's former inhabitants.
  • Adam Cvijanovic's swamp murals at the Tekrema Center share space with the assorted relics of the antique structure's former inhabitants.
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