New Orleans artist Michel Varisco is one of 73 featured artists in the central component of this year’s Prospect.4 exhibition.
But the piece she’s creating will live long after the exhibition closes in January.
Varisco’s “Turning: prayer wheels for the Mississippi River” will be a permanent installation on the Lafitte Greenway, where Bayou St. John intersects with Jefferson Davis Parkway. It will be unveiled Nov. 18, during Prospect.4 opening weekend.
The piece consists of three 9-foot-tall cylinders inspired by Buddhist prayer wheels, which are traditionally used to purify a space and bestow blessings upon those who engage with them. (A smaller version of the piece was on view at last December’s Luna Fete in the CBD.)
Each of the cylinders will be imprinted with iconography of the Mississippi River in three distinct phases in its history, from its ancient wilderness to the advent of European colonization to its modern incarnation as a locus for petrochemical and industrial activity.
“‘Turning’” was inspired by a call for proposals to create a piece of art based on living with water, so I turned toward the Mississippi River as my focus,” Varsico said.
Interactivity is also an important part of Varisco’s vision for the piece: Visitors will be able to interact with it by turning the cylinders, which will emit a blue glow (via solar power) when “activated” at night.
The installation will include a path around the cylinders reminiscent of the meandering course of the river as well as an adjacent garden planted with species indigenous to southern Louisiana.
“Turning” is the latest example of Varisco’s engagement with the effect of human activity on the natural environment, which has characterized her art for more than two decades. (The artist is the cousin of another well-known local artist, Michel Rae Varisco, spouse of former Saints player Steve Gleason.)
“I’ve studied the Mississippi River, the environment and social justice issues for years,” Varisco said. “I decided it was time to blend the social and environmental exploits in an easily relatable form to the public, like maps, and the prayer wheels allowed a vehicle for the public to physically interact with the information in an engaging yet contemplative way. And I’d been experimenting with praxinoscopes, those wonderful old-fashioned wheels where you can make images turn into the illusion of movies.”
While the interactive nature of the piece will make it immediately engaging to those who encounter it along the Lafitte Greenway, Varisco said it’s intended to make audiences aware of larger issues as well.
‘I hope ‘Turning’ will raise questions about our exploits in energy extraction, whether it be through slavery or fossil fuels, and ask how do we move in a direction toward long-term sustainability and social justice,” Varisco said. “My overall hope is that the sensory experience of engaging with the site will inspire curiosity, nudging folks toward introspection about larger social and environmental issues.”
As befits a project that examines the river’s relationship with the entire south Louisiana community, “Turning” is as much a collaborative effort as it is the vision of an individual artist.
“The success of “Turning” has relied on and been defined by community engagement, which to me is reflective of the collective nature of life in New Orleans,” Varisco said. “A project of this scale requires an amazing team of supporters, from the construction and installation of the sculptures to the planting of the indigenous garden and now the upkeep of the site.”
And it’s a project which both distills and reflects Varisco’s own experience of living and working in the city and its surroundings.
“I’ve had an incredible team behind me and countless neighbors putting their energy into ‘Turning’,” Varisco said. “The overall community experience of this entire project is part of what makes living on Mississippi River soil so wonderful and so real.”