One of Prospect.2‘s signature installations is Pawel Wojtasik‘s “Below Sea Level.” Located in the art gallery on the third floor of Delgado’s main building, it’s a series of videos projected on circular walls that almost completely surround the viewer. The round screen immerses the viewer in a series of sequences that examine life in South Louisiana, connecting Bayou Country, the Gulf of Mexico, the river and the French Quarter, which will likely be more powerful for those in the audience who aren’t already immersed in that life.
Much of Wotjasik’s footage is arresting and uses the panorama the rounded screen makes possible to great advantage. His camera skims just above the water level in front of a pirogue in a bayou, so it puts the viewer on the water. The Gulf and oil refineries spread out and become slightly daunting in their size, and bridges become a complex network of girders as they surround the viewer. In a journey through the streets of the Quarter, it’s hard not to wonder how Wotjasik completely encircles the viewer in one image, with the images to the left and right clearly related but not mirrors of each other.
For his soundtrack, Wotjasik went away from the natural instruments that his affection for the landscape suggests he might employ. In fact, he foregoes all local sounds in favor of electronic drones. He warned that the audio was slightly out of sync on Friday afternoon, but it wasn’t noticeable. The drones aren’t obviously tied to a specific action, and they makes everything about the region seem a little more eerie and more anachronistic.
In general, his affectionate treatment of the ways of life in South Louisiana leads Wotjasik to include footage that unquestionably will be familiar to locals – Mardi Gras Indians, second lines, French Quarter scenes, for example – and we’re left to wonder: Are these cliches? Or are they remarkable images that we’re so used to that they don’t grab us the way they grab visitors to the region? Or both?
Still, “Below Sea Level” smartly uses its architecture and technology to make those questions a minor concern. After a sequence has reached its conclusion, a series of images shot with fish-eye lenses appear at different places on the curved screen, and one of those fish-eyed shots grows as the others fade. The next sequence emerges from there. The placement of those starting images means that viewers will have to move around inside the space to see it all, which makes the experience an active one and a social one if seen with other people.
“Below Sea Level” is also a living thing, appropriate considering its subject matter. Wotjasik has shot footage of the BP oil spill and plans to integrate it into the 38-minute piece during the course of Prospect.2. The installation is respectful – perhaps to a fault – but it’s also a gently effective piece of environmental activism, reminding people what’s at stake if the Louisiana Wetlands aren’t preserved.
In other Prospect.2 news, in my interview with Dan Cameron, he mentioned the statue by Francesco Vezzoli that would be in Piazza d’Italia. As of Friday, it wasn’t there yet. I’ll update when I know when it will arrive.
Also, today Doug MacCash reported in The Times-Picayune that Cameron will step down as artistic director of Prospect New Orleans after this showing.
In an interview after the Prospect.2 opening, Cameron said part of his decision to leave the director’s position was based on the persistent memory of Prospect.1’s financial troubles. Some onlookers will always ask: “Isn’t that the director that incurred that debt,” he said. Despite the $25 million in economic impact that Cameron claims Prospect.1 provided, city and state support of the second show has dwindled, he said. He hopes support will increase, if local financial backers can be assured “It’s not Dan’s biennial; it’s the city’s biennial.”
Cameron said another reason to end his tenure as director is an international art exhibit tradition. Prospect.1 and 2 were modeled on similar biennial exhibits from Venice to Sao Paulo that change curators for each show to ensure a freshness of vision. Though Cameron originally expected to select artists for the New Orleans show through Prospect.5 in 2017, he now feels it’s time for a change. “I’m doing the best thing for Prospect,” he said. It’s time for us to join the ranks of biennials all over. I didn’t want to be one of those directors who just lingers.”