Franklin Sirmans
This interview was originally published in the print edition of The Excellent People: The Artist Issue, Winter 2014/15.

Franklin Sirmans is the Terri and Michael Smooke Department Head and Curator of Contemporary Art at LACMA. He is also the Artistic Director of Prospect New Orleans : Notes For Now , the Third-ish Installment of the International Biennial, Currently on View in the Crescent City. We Got Sirmans on the Phone to Discuss His Vision For P.3, His Discovery of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and the Meaning of Cultural Imagination.

The EP-Interview with Franklin Sirmans

HZ: How did you become involved with P3?

FS: It was a process of Dan Cameron and the board, so I was invited when the second one (P2) opened. But I had seen the first one (P1) a lot so I’m sure that might have played some role as well because I was in Houston.

HZ: Had you visited NOLA before, or was this a new city for you?

FS: Well its new, but I’ve known it and had been there as a tourist. I did an exhibition in 2008 that had a strong reference point to NOLA, So I don’t know if that played a role in the selection process or not, but its certainly a place that I had thought about in terms of a “cultural imagination” way.

Tavares Strachan, You Belong Here, neon river bargeHZ: I like that term “cultural imagination,” it conjures up some curious elements in my head. What do you mean by that, exactly?

FS: Well as a space, it is such a specific context (the city of New Orleans). I did a show called NeoHooDoo which was very much about the syncretic religions of the Americas, so New Orleans would be just as important in that constellation as any, in thinking about it in that sense. It was a show that tried to talk about spirituality but in a very American, kind of post colonialist sense. It was so long ago that I don’t even know if I like to think about how it should look now!

HZ: Have you been appointed as an Artistic Director for a biennial before, or is this your first experience in this role?

FS: As far as an exhibition this size, nothing similar. There are other shows that we call biennials, but nothing this big. It’s been insane, but great at the same time. And for me, it’s also a nice balance between working on the exhibitions that I am working on here in Los Angeles, with a little bit more long term aspects to them, and then, something like this which has an amazing sense of urgency. It’s been interesting in that sense, it’s been completely different.

Ed Clark, New Orleans Series #4, 2012

Ed Clark, New Orleans Series #4, 2012

HZ: What sort of differences have you seen already and do you anticipate in the role of Artistic Director for P3 compared with your ongoing role as Head Curator for LACMA?

FS: I wish I would have anticipated all of the differences, but I didn’t…so much of it is about surprise too…There are things you just cannot anticipate working with artists who are making work in the moment and making work in spaces that you don’t even know super well. The element of chance at the biennial is just amazingly greater than anything that happens in the space of the museum.

HZ: Is that because you are outside, or because you are unfamiliar with the city structure or perhaps a combination of the two?

FS: It’s because you don’t know it. For one, you don’t have the same infrastructure—LACMA is not super old by any means in terms of encyclopedic museums, but its been up and running in Los Angeles since 1965. So you have a certain infrastructure that is a well oiled machine, whereas in New Orleans, for something like P3, its only the third one, people are still trying to figure it out, and the element of chance is so much greater. And that is what makes it interesting, and what I think gives it so much energy as well. You don’t know how everything is going to look or how it’s going to play out.

HZ: How long was the selection process for participating artists in P3?

FS: I gave myself a year and a half to look and not make any hard and fast decisions. Then I gave myself another year in which to really work with artists, and ask them to consider being in the biennial. There were probably twenty of those kind of situations where you are really having a conversation that is about the process of what will eventually happen, as opposed to the artists who made work where I knew the piece, so I was coming at it from that angle too.

P.3 merchandise
HZ: For artists that are represented by a gallery, how are the dealers involved in the biennial, if at all?

FS: We can’t do anything without dealers. When we have an artist where you just want to get the work, it often involves the gallery. There are also situations where we have artists who are making completely new work and it is a huge financial commitment and so we correspond with galleries about how to make that happen, i.e. perhaps they have collectors that would support the project, because there is a lot of fundraising that goes into the site specific works. It’s all interconnected in some way.

HZ: Can you talk a little about this biennial’s theme Notes for Now and perhaps a few program highlights?

FS: I think Notes for Now is a blanket way of talking about what I think a good biennial should do at this point in time, which is on one hand it should be timely, in regards to talking about the last 2-3 years, and then on the other hand, you try and make sense of things.  So it’s not like printing a book—actually, we printed 2 books! (a P3 exhibition catalogue and a book on Basquiat)—but to me, the exhibition is an exercise in that you are taking notes for the duration of two and a half years and fact finding by talking to artists, curators, and people about what is important, or what you believe to be important about showing in an international exhibition of contemporary art at this point in time. I think those are notes that are constantly changing which is why the title Notes for Now is a good way of encapsulating what is a really big project and it is not only the exhibition that I have curated but it is also P3+ which is the hundreds of galleries and nonprofits that are going to be putting on art exhibitions during the run of Prospect 3. Its also P3 Reads which is an ongoing, year round series of conversations that happen in libraries in NOLA so it entails a lot of different moving parts.

I think Notes for Now is the umbrella statement. My essays in the exhibition catalogue are called Somewhere and Not Anywhere which is a more specific reference to Walker Percy’s book The Moviegoer which has been a real structural device for me in terms of thinking abut the exhibition thematically. The book does a couple of things, and both are in line with that idea of what I hope the exhibition does, which is, in order for these kinds of things to be successful, they need to be very much about the place in which they take place: so context was everything. The Moviegoer was written in 1961 and is based in New Orleans.  It is a story of someone who is trying to find himself, if you will. In regards to P3, I think the exhibition is an exercise in finding oneself and trying to understand people, and that ties back to references in the book. The protagonist is able to see people more clearly by the end of the book because they are more open to seeing people. This notion is where the “artist oracle” equivalent comes from as well, which is why we will be exhibiting a work from Paul Gauguin at NOMA. I think this work is somewhat representative of his search for himself, which precedes an idea that he posited a bit later, concerning who are we, what are we, and where are we going. These themes were important for Gauguin, especially as a postimpressionist European painter who goes to the “exotic place”. Similarly, the Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral (whose works are also in P3) looks at the construction of identity and of the self and from a different point of view, one in which she is talking about the construction of an identity that is a representation of a whole country and this idea of eating “the other” along the lines of a cannibalistic manifesto.

Paul Gauguin, Under the Pandanus (I Raro te Oviri), 1891

Paul Gauguin, Under the Pandanus (I Raro te Oviri), 1891

HZ: I really like the premise of P.3 Reads—an ongoing series of public talks held at the New Orleans Library—because it offers a perspective on the relationship between literature and art. Since the program launched in January, do you feel that the talks have been well attended and generated stimulating dialogues? Have you been moderating them?

FS: Ylva Rouse, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, conceived of P3 Reads, and Caroline Kerrigan, Deputy Director for the Public Experience, has administered the program. These talks have been occuring in New Orleans while I have been in Los Angeles, but I look forward to being present and moderating the panel in October. I’ll be speaking with Sophie Lvoff to discuss Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. And yes indeed, the talks have been well attended and have generated some very stimulating dialogues. The library has been packed! So it’s been really nice to have a great turn out, but it is also about having a meaningful presence, which is something we have strived hard to keep in mind.

HZ: Do you think the presence has changed since the first biennial back in 2008?

FS: I think with a different director it will just keep getting stronger and stronger. From my observation, Executive Director Brooke Davis Anderson has been an incredible force in terms of getting people excited about P3, not only in New Orleans but everywhere else, which is important for an international biennial.

HZ: Along those lines, how does P3 fit into the dynamic culture of the Big Easy? Do you foresee any challenges?

FS: A lot of it is about taking cues and keeping them in mind. There are references to music, which is a culture and a history that is specific to New Orleans, and there are references to performance, which is such a part of the city’s pulse. In turn, I hope that all of those things are part of the fabric of the upcoming biennial. At the same time, I know that there is no substitute for the real thing. Therefore, so much of the exhibition will be about people experiencing the city, just as much as it will be about people experiencing the art in the show.

Lisa Sigal, Home Court Crawl, I Can't Help the Mood I'm In, But Right Now I'm Thinking That The Narcissism of White America Knows No Bounds, 2014

Lisa Sigal, Home Court Crawl, I Can’t Help the Mood I’m In, But Right Now I’m Thinking That The Narcissism of White America Knows No Bounds, 2014

HZ: It’s wonderful to be able to have both of those components in sync. You mentioned performance; are there many performance artists that are going to be participating in the upcoming biennial?

FS: No…it’s not heavily on the performance side. The references are there, but in subtler ways. For example, Lisa Sigal has been working on an extended performance but it’s a private performance and she will come away with this project that is about painting and as much as it is about the city. Additionally, there are performances scheduled by Andrea Fraser, Liu Ding and Gary Simmons that will happen on opening weekend. But there will be others that will happen in pockets—some around the opening, some half way and at different events in between. Performance will be more of a constant reference point in most works on view. A more static work, like drawings by The Propeller Group and Christopher Myers, are about instruments and musicality as it relates to funerals, and not only funerals in New Orleans but also in Vietnam. Funerals are very performative in both places.

HZ: The last two biennials P1 and P2 inspired the creation of some the most iconic works in recent memory, like Mark Bradford’s Mithra and William Pope.L’s Blink.  Do you have a sense of what might resonate in the artistic canon from this year’s selection?

FS: That is a tough question! With Mark’s pieces, there are no comparisons as that is a big, important piece, and what you point to there is also that there were reference points to the Lower 9th in that piece. Leandro Erlich did a really memorable piece over there as well…For me, all of the work that I have selected for the biennial sticks out in a big way, but it’s hard for me to say what other people will be attracted to and what stands out in a more public imagination. It’s definitely hard for me to break the works up into preferential categories. I would recommend watching video works by Zarina Bhimji, or seeing new works by younger artists like Firelei Baez or Hugette Caland—who most people probably don’t know of—or watching the way that William Cordova treats the city in his video work and how Los Jaichakerers treat the city in their work. I’m excited about the way that Lucia Koch is going to create a kaleidoscope of color around the contemporary art center windows where Andrea Fraser will be performing actual conversations that happened in New Orleans. It’s a definite mix, and hopefully some things really stick with people. I would never compare P3 to any of the art fairs…perhaps a more comparable space would be the Venice Biennial. Right now Gwangju is going on in Korea, Sao Paolo is up in Brazil, and Taipei just opened. I will close by stating that the energy around P3 has been fantastic. We have received phenomenal press and the whole city seems to be buzzing.  It’s going to be a biennial you won’t want to miss!