NEW ORLEANS — Over the last few weeks more than a few locals have stopped by to inform a small construction crew in the Lower Ninth Ward here that it obviously does not know what it is doing.
“The whole time we’ve been here, people have been like, ‘You know, that’s not the way to build a house,’ ” said Karen Del Aguila, laughing. “They’d be like, ‘Are you guys licensed?’ ”
Ms. Del Aguila, an assistant to the artist Wangechi Mutu, and her crew have been building the frame of a traditional shotgun house, not as a permanent dwelling but as part of Prospect.1 New Orleans, an ambitious new art biennial that is to open here on Saturday and continue through Jan. 18.
Billed as the largest exhibition of contemporary art ever held on American soil, the biennial is intended to help restore the cultural vibrancy of a city that remains on its knees three years after Hurricane Katrina.
With a star-filled roster of 81 artists and a projected 50,000 visitors from out of town, it may indeed bring benefits to New Orleans. But it is already clear that the arrangement has not been one-sided, and the New Orleans contribution has been rich. With its history of destruction and rebirth, artistic triumph and economic struggle, this crumpled crescent of a city provides a singular interpretive context that acts as a resonance chamber.
Some of the art refers directly to Hurricane Katrina, like Ms. Mutu’s “ghost house,” which sits on the property of an elderly woman whose attempts to rebuild were stymied by a vanishing contractor. But most of it does not have to.
In a shedlike community center a few blocks from the ghost house, the New York artist Janine Antoni has deposited a “soft wrecking ball” made of lead and scarred by the act of demolition. Nearby, the Chilean artist Sebastián Preece has excavated the foundation of a Lower Ninth Ward house and transplanted it elsewhere.
Adam Cvijanovic, another New York artist, has taken a page from traditional New Orleans style and, in an unused house, installed a custom wallpaper that presents a lavish scene of a waterlogged swamp with no humans in sight. At the United States Mint in the French Quarter, Stephen G. Rhodes, from Los Angeles, is building a Hall of Presidents in which the presidents themselves are largely absent.
Other pieces mine the city and its history. The Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul will present the jazz funeral that was never held for Narvin Kimball, the banjo player for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who died in March 2006 in Charleston, S.C., where he went after the storm. Skylar Fein has recreated a French Quarter gay lounge that burned in a suspicious fire in 1973, killing about half the patrons.
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