Friday, August 9, 2019

Ongoing at NOMA

The new exhibition Bodies of Knowledge at the New Orleans Museum of Art offers a display of videos, photographs, installations, in the galleries on the first floor and a number of related events including curators lead gallery visits, artists talks, musical and dance performances, site activation, movies through October 13th. Eleven artists contribute to the show, some internationally renowned like William Kentridge, others locally based like filmmaker Garrett Bradley. The "role that language plays in archiving and asserting our cultural identities" is the theme developed by the artists through diverse media.

Opening night brought an enthusiastic crowd to attend the first event, a dance performance in five movements choreographed by Edward Spots and Donna Crump. With the Great Hall and its staircase as a backdrop, Black Magic culminated with a celebration  of black culture's beauty and joy. The vision of Spots shadowing Rodin's famous sculpture L' Age d'airain, 1877, was enthralling.
Of course, it was not a propitious night for an in-depth visit and the twelve stills from Garrett Bradley's film America hung along the Great Hall's walls were unreachable. A few days later, a walk-through the exhibition started with Black Mask, 2012, the video from Wilmer Wilson IV facing the gallery's entrance. During its six minutes length, the artist slowly covers his face including eyes, ears, mouth, with black Post-it notes until they sculpt a black mask and then removes them all but one, revealing his visage, reborn. In Family Tree, 2000, the Chinese artist Zhang Huan now living in New York City is also in front of a camera for a day-long performance documented in nine giant photographs of his face eventually concealed by layers of selected texts of personal thoughts, family stories and Chinese folktales written in black ink by calligraphers.The wall texts are informative and relate the artist's intend to underline the body as bearer of identity. On a lighter note, Wilson lampoons hurried tourists in six booklets of blurry photographs. Taken in diverse cities like Paris, Philadelphia, New Orleans,..., they feature monuments, known places, in fuzzy images reflecting the sightseers' confused memories back home.
In the main gallery, William Kentridge who trained as an actor early on, tells a story in five acts. Zeno Writing, 2002, is a video made of archival film footage, shadow puppets, writings, drawings, short animated films accompanied by a sound track from Kevin Volans. Filled with historical references, packed with texts and graphics, it takes several viewings to appreciate its diverse facets and its life lesson: our trivial pursuits are futile swept by the course of history. It all ends in smoke (last picture of the video), death is unavoidable so is the annihilation of the world. "Smoke, Ashes, Fable? Where are they all now? Perhaps they are not even fable."
Nearby, Memento, 2013/2019, from Adriana Corral can be called a funerary installation. The site specific piece includes two horizontal panels along the walls bearing a long list of  names and on the floor, a thin coat of ashes from burned documents laid in the shape of a plot. It denounces the disappearance of women subjected to violence in Central and South America. Compounding the tragedy of their life and death, the names obtained through classified documents are illegible and the victims stay anonymous, lost for eternity.
How to find beauty and peace after war? Wafaa Bilal's four photographs from the Ashes Series, 2003-2013, are pictures of models of houses destroyed during the Gulf War. The Iraqi-American artist has selected a grand piano surrounded by debris, an abandoned swimming pool and living rooms covered with gravels. The scenes are eerily quiet, filled with the vestiges of violence. His ongoing project 168:01, 2016, is about the future and the white empty books lined up on the white bookshelves are rapidly replaced by colorful publications about art donated by the visitors to rebuild the library of The College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad looted during the war. They are all written in English (one is in Chinese) and if the eager donors offer the gift of knowledge, the choice of books brings up the question of acculturation.
More ashes, this time from burned silk paper are randomly spread on a wall and interact with music for the site specific installation  from Manon Bellet Brèves Braises. Musical events are scheduled throughout the length of the exhibition and include performances by students from NOCCA. A photograph from Shirin Neshat's Rapture Series, 1999, featuring Muslim women wearing chadors with inscriptions in Farsi on the palm of their hands is a resume of her work, mainly films, which will be projected throughout the coming months.
The last piece America, 2019, is an immersive multi-channel video installation from Garrett Bradley. A mixture of archival material and Bradley's own short films featuring non-actors from New Orleans, the thirty minutes black and white film projected simultaneously on three screens is a succession of beautiful images, a celebration of African American silent film. The thorough review from Devika Girish is a must read before or after the visit.
The richness of the exhibition can be overwhelming and one tour will not be enough to absorb all the material available. The ongoing performances are the occasion to discover different aspects of the works and each visit brings a new experience. From Mahmoud Chouki's musical compositions to the movie from Neshat or the talk from Bilal, the variety of events will attract different crowds.

photographs by the author:

Edward Spots and Donna Crump "Black Magic"
Wafaa Bilal "The Ashes Series: Pool", 2003-2013
William Kentridge "Zeno Writing", 2002 (still)

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