PROSPECT.1 AT THE NEW ORLEANS MUSEUM OF ART: Xu Bing, Willie Birch, Monica Bonvicini, Victor Harris, Kalup Linzi, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Kaz Oshiro
Through Jan. 18
Reviews of Prospect.1 are starting to come in and so far they are enthusiastic, not just for the art but also for the way it interacts with the city. Take, for instance, The New York Times' famously no-nonsense Roberta Smith: "It proves that biennials can be just as effective when pulled off without bells, whistles, big bucks and the usual suspects. Maybe even more effective, especially if the local cultural soil is spectacularly fertile. ... Under these conditions something magical can happen: a merging of art and city into a shifting, healing kaleidoscope."
The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl put it this way: "Some of the offerings are keenly rewarding, but the best thing about the show is the sprawl, which affords a wide and deep immersion in the city's complicated charms. ... Despite catastrophic displacements, New Orleans can't help but remain New Orleans, which is to other cities what a poem is to prose. ... Featuring few big names, it is my favorite biennial since the nineteen-eighties."
For others less guarded in their enthusiasms, the response has been downright giddy. Walter Robinson, editor of the ArtNet Magazine component of the influential ArtNet Web site says: "The overall effect of Prospect.1 cannot be underestimated. For a New Yorker, the effect of the city is as dramatic as it is unexpected: New Orleans takes the reprobate scallywag nihilists of the contemporary avant-garde and converts them ... into goody-two-shoes bleeding-heart believers in the nobility of humankind." Then there's the Huffington Post's Paul Klein, who opens by saying: "I've just returned from Prospect.1 in New Orleans, the biggest biennial ever hosted in the United States, and easily the most significant and joyous art event I've ever had the privilege of attending" — a remark rivaled only by his closing statement: "It's all there, warm and welcoming, full of great art and love. Go."
You could spend days seeing the whole thing, but locals have the luxury of being able to spend a leisurely afternoon at the Old U.S. Mint, which is probably the best place to start, and then move on to the Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art. NOMA features five international artists and two locals, and for once, the national media and I are in agreement: Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Victor Harris of the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi steals the show. As Schjeldahl put it, "Feathered and beaded suits by Victor Harris stagger comprehension. Their intricate, savage beauty integrates countless insights of aesthetic intelligence, refined over time. 'Art' seems too effete a word for such glory." Indeed. But Willie Birch's purposely prosaic black-and-white line paintings on paper flesh out the background with everyday scenes of weddings, funerals, shootings and Labor Day parades in the 'hood in an almost anthropological yet lovingly empathetic exploration of community life worthy of a back-street Courbet. From there it's a startling shift to Brooklyn-based Kalup Linzy's hilariously campy video soap operas.
More abstract is Chinese artist Xu Bing's Book From the Ground, which he says is "a novel written in icons," but it's really his attempt to create a new language based on international airport symbols replete with a computer translator. Extending the scientific approach, Pulse Tank by Spain's Rafael Lozano-Hemmer converts the viewer's heartbeat into waves of reflected light. Japan's Kaz Oshiro fools the eye with what looks like an unusually sparse used-appliance showroom full of dryers and washers with telltale spilled liquid detergent — actually strangely convincing replicas, sculptural "paintings" made from wood and canvas. And German/Italian artist Monica Bonvicini's stainless steel sculpture — the word "DESIRE" spelled out on NOMA's roof — is intended as a statement about modern capitalism, but here it may also connote streetcars and oyster bars if not the slow consummation of a city's recovery.