Try picturing avant garde Damien Hirst’s sheep suspended in formaldahyde hanging in your middle school gymnasium, and you’ll get a sense of the tone of the Prospect.1 art installations showing at the Charles J. Colton School. The St. Claude Avenue Orleans Parish school is home to several Prospect .1 expos and work by local artists as well.  Installations are in classrooms, scratched onto chalkboards and in the auditorium. Prospect.1 is the largest biennial of international art ever organized in the United States, and will run through January 18 in locations throughout New Orleans. At one of the more unusual neighborhood venues in the city, you can roam the hallways of the Colton school for free and take in the installation pieces, as well as discover the work of local artists and set designers.


The Charles J. Colton school operated for 75 years until Hurricane Katrina hit and decreased enrollment forced them to close their doors. CANO (Creative Arts New Orleans) is collaborating with the New Orleans Recovery School District to create a community-based educational alliance at the school. Plans are in the works for a new wave of high school students to enroll in the fall of 2010. In the meantime, the school is mostly empty, leaving room for art seekers to wander and pause for as long as they like.


Past the front doors, your first stop will be the auditorium, featuring the work of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, the Art Director of Visual and Special Effects for the Beijing Olympics. Guo-Qiang is known for his work with explosives on a massive scale, and this is evident in his art. Dazzlingly huge objects that look a lot like the tip of a sparkler dangle from the ceiling of the auditorium, casting light across the red seats. The installation looks like a paused explosion, allowing you time to marvel at the beauty without any of the destruction.


Walk through a room full of haphazardly arranged pianos, and you’ll find the installation by Jose Damasceno, titled “Tabula Rasa Calculator.” A piece that a gallery would normally rope off, Damasceno has meticulously arranged pieces of chalk into the shape of a calculator on the floor. What might have been conceptual art with little impact is rendered interesting because of the space. Chalkboards line the walls along with those familiar high school windows that you can’t actually see out from. One misstep could easily nudge the chalk design out of order, and it’s reminiscent of school days because of this fragility and impermanence.


Climb three flights of stairs, moving past empty rooms and head toward the blue light, where Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima has created “Pile up Life,” an installation he describes as “a prayer for the souls of the ones lost in Hurricane Katrina and for the revival of the people of New Orleans.”  Miyajima has created mounds made of brick and mortar with light emitting diodes that count numbers from one to nine. From one room, the letters count in blue, casting an eerie glow out into the hallway. Another room is illuminated purely by the red light of the numbers as they continuously change. Miyajima explains in his artists statement that these “towers of requiem” and the 1400 counter gadgets are meant to honor those who were lost in the hurricane, but it is unclear why the counting devices were chosen as the means to express the sentiment.


Like many contemporary international art installations, it’s difficult to know what is an intentional addition to the space, and what “viewer participation” is intentionally part of the experience of the art. This line is particularly blurred at the Colton School, where finding a crushed plastic cup inside an installation room or a scribbling on the chalkboard is more likely an untied loose end than a conscious choice. This is not your typical gallery, with sterile white walls and docents reminding you to keep your distance. There is an evocative, lived-in quality to the space that mingles with the work of the artists to offer a unique and compelling experience.


Colton is one of many unconventional sites included in Prospect.1. A few blocks down the street is another venue at Universal Furniture. There is a free shuttle to other Prospet.1 sites. — Anna Marschalk-Burns