The third installment of the international art biennial Prospect New Orleans opens Oct. 25 at museums, galleries and sites around the city. Prospect.3 is curated by Artistic Director Franklin Sirmans, who is the Curator of Contemporary Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). A native of Harlem in New York City, he became acquainted with the culture of the Gulf South during his previous experience as the head of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection in Houston, where he curated exhibitions such as his 2008 opus, NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith. A widely published writer, Sirmans is an authority on the late Caribbean-American art star, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and author of Basquiat and the Bayou, a scholarly exploration of Basquiat's Southern-themed paintings.
Prospect.1 got rave reviews for its mix of outstanding international, American and local artists, and Prospect.2 also had some memorable moments despite appearing during a severe recession. Can you give us a sense of Prospect.3's similarities and differences compared to those earlier iterations organized by Prospect's founder, Dan Cameron?
Sirmans: We set some parameters immediately: There are no repeat artists, so Prospect.3's content is all different. And P.3 is not a (Hurricane) Katrina show. Prospect.1 was very much about coming out of that moment, P.2 less so, and P.3 will be even less so. Dan Cameron is a curator I admire greatly, so even though P.3 will be different, there will also be similarities because it will be a continuation of the Prospect lineage.
Prospect.3: Notes for Now, will be the first Prospect New Orleans international biennial inspired by a literary work, Walker Percy's homegrown existentialist novel, The Moviegoer. Could you tell us how the novel affected you and your approach to producing Prospect.3?
S: I gave myself a year during which I avoided putting in place any ideas, themes or structures, and instead just visited artists' studios, listened to the artists and tried to be aware of the changing world around us. In the course of one of those studio visits, an artist mentioned the book. I had never read it before, but I'm often inspired by literature, and a fiend for the writers Percy liked, so I got a copy and read it, then read it again, then one more time — and it was obvious: The book provided a structure for the initial ideas that were starting to shape up. In order for these kinds of shows to be successful, no matter where, they must be somewhat reflective of their location. I was already into Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, James Baldwin's Another Country and Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting — but The Moviegoer delivered us directly into the city of New Orleans. Like those books, it is really about the universe and not just the city in which it is geographically located.
"Somewhere and not anywhere ..." is a phrase from the book, and that has been my experience in New Orleans. It is so distinct, and yet so reflective of a wider country, our America. And Prospect.3 is an American biennial that, at its core, is about its relation to other places. Which leads into the next part of the thesis: How do we see each other?
How does Prospect.3 explore the issue of how we see each other?
S: This is a city where you have the opportunity to bump into people, sweat with people, drink with people and dance with strangers. Yet, it is also a city behind closed doors. How do we see each other? How do we party together — and then not like each other? How is this the site of so much integration at times in its history and then, at the end of the 19th century, the site of Plessy v. Ferguson, establishing a (segregation) law that said we can't even ride in the same (railway) car? Crazy. And yet, all these things are part of the fabric of the present. The Moviegoer opens things up by being situated squarely in the city and the way we go about living with one another — that is the heart of the book — and I imagine that is why it was such a powerful presence when it was first published in 1961, at such a volatile time. Philosophically, that was the opportunity afforded by staging this type of show in this city — it's the perfect place to contemplate how to go about being together and seeing ourselves in other people.
How does Prospect. 3's title, Notes for Now affect, or reflect, what we see?
S: We are all trying to make sense of something for ourselves in the here and now. I could drill down from there and say that the title of my catalog essay, "Somewhere and Not Anywhere," comes from a passage in The Moviegoer that relates to a place being anywhere and not somewhere until it is represented in a film. I've expanded on that idea in several ways. The influence of movies and, most acutely, video installation art, plays a major role in the show. But I also think this idea of "somewhere and not anywhere" is important in a broader philosophical sense. What does "somewhere and not anywhere" mean when we are so connected by technology? And are we really connected by technology if we have a screen between us?
In discussing Prospect.3 and The Moviegoer, you have often mentioned "the search" undertaken by the novel's protagonist, Binx Bolling. How does "the search" factor into the show?
S: In the novel, the main character is trying to find himself. He's traveled a bit, his eyes are way more open than his older family. He grows throughout the book, and he changes. In the beginning, he lives in an isolated suburb, apart from other people's lives, but he finds solace in the contested city by its end. Set in a time of heightened social awareness during the movement for civil rights in America, the novel delves into a world where people were legally segregated from each other, making it impossible to celebrate the individual. In previous centuries, slavery and immigration had created a city that, even in 1961, was a complex social arrangement, one that remains palpable today. Prospect.3 is invested in and will explore "the search" to find the self and the necessity of the other as part of that quest.
What can you tell us about the venues and neighborhoods where Prospect.3 will be installed?
S: The great thing about the way these Prospect shows insert themselves throughout the city is that you have something that hopefully serves as the vehicle for a discussion on contemporary art and culture, one that spreads all over town and hopefully beyond, thanks to social media. Once the show opens, it isn't just our show but hundreds of shows via P.3+ because it's not only in New Orleans but also in Baton Rouge, Hammond and Lafayette. This free-flowing, or even Carnival-style celebration of art and ideas is what Notes for Now is really all about.
The artist roster includes a diverse mix of contemporary art from across the nation and New Orleans, as well as contemporary and postcolonial art from all over the world. What can you tell us about how these artists were selected and what you think they contribute?
S: Each and every artist was chosen for a very specific reason. Now, will every viewer see the reason why I thought the artist should be represented here? I am not certain, but I hope so. They all fit into the framework of a conversation, an international discussion. Yet it was also important to be grounded in the context of where we are, the mix of artists who were either born here, raised here, live here now, or have spent considerable time here. New Orleans is an international city with roots around the globe, so it's probably not all that surprising to see an artist from Vietnam whose project has very specific ties to Louisiana. Or, to see an artist like Zarina Bhimji who was born in Uganda, lives in London, and whose work is often about geographic displacement, represented in a show like this. It's also nice to consider an artist who has no ties at all, seemingly like Liu Ding, who came and spent some time and will create a performance based off that experience. To me, every artist in the show has a specific tie.
Among the biggest surprises are the vintage works by French post-impressionist painter of tropical exotica, Paul Gauguin, and late New York-Haitian-Puerto Rican neo-expressionist superstar, Jean-Michel Basquiat. How did their inclusion come about and how do they fit into the overall mix?
S: Gauguin is a historical entry point — the late 19th century still seems to be such an important part of the conversation in contemporary art that it felt fitting. Representational figurative art was important then, and it's important now. And, certainly, Gauguin's take on the body is different from that of another historical artist in the show from 30 years later, the early Brazilian modernist Tarsila do Amaral. Her exaggerated bodies exist in a space that is surreal in a way Gauguin could never have imagined.
And this Basquiat series is just too specific to New Orleans not to take the opportunity, and includes work that is just too important to lend itself to discussion in such a brief space. Beyond those three, I would also add the abstract painter Alma Thomas, who was born in 1891 and who inspires an equally important discussion of abstract imagery. Those are the foundation. If The Moviegoer enters us into a conversation about the philosophical via the early 1960s, then those artists born in the 19th century take us up on questions of abstraction and representation and questions of human relations just as much. Let us consider that Gauguin finished his iconic painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, in 1898, asking a simple question of humanity. In 1896, America — and not only America — decided that we should go separate ways based on the color of our skin.
How would you characterize contemporary New Orleans as a setting for an international biennial like P.3, and how did you work with its qualities of place in terms of the works on view?
S: It's the perfect city for this type of show. I don't like to try to make summations; it's not my city in that way. But I have my inclinations. It has geographical wonder; its proximity — to the [Mississippi] river and the Gulf [of Mexico] — is not unlike Venice. It has a deep, vibrant historical tradition that speaks to the 21st century's notion of the global city, though it remains small. Like America, it's full of contradictions, wonder and nastiness, yet also with a long history of music, literature and living life well.
To most observers, the task of putting together something as elaborate and complex as Prospect.3 can seem overwhelming if not crazy. What made you agree to do it?
S: It's been crazy. But how could I possibly say no? I have a director in Los Angeles and one based in New York City and New Orleans, and between the two of them and a gang of supporters (financial and spiritual), it was possible.
What do you hope visitors will take away from the Prospect.3 experience?
S: A good experience of an art show, one they will remember fondly for its entertainment, education and spirit. That would be nice.