Social studies: the 76th Whitney Biennial revels in its own eclecticism, sensitivity, and light resistance
2:44 pm Feb. 29, 20122
Biennial art exhibitions tend to be messy affairs, thankless attempts to balance a cool, market-approved roster of artists whose work is thrown together and who must each serve as a mouthpiece for a moment.
So it is with the seventy-sixth edition of the Whitney Museum's Biennial, which opens today.
The driving force behind the selection seems to be a shared sensibility among the artists of living in a fragmentary, in-between age. Filled with references both implicit and explicit to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, many engage in institutional critique—both of the great art institutions and the social and political institutions beyond them. The materials reflect a concern for an economy of small means (these projects are no bloated, budget-busting affairs; there are no diamond-encrusted skulls, but there's plenty of film povera and ordinary stuff lying around—as in L.A. artist Dawn Kasper's installation, which features everything she owns) while their attitude exudes felt, meditative positions.
Beyond which, the show is simply eclectic, and not much more; viewed as an attempt to demonstrate how art can address social change, the method comes across as a precarious hunch and flail.
The Biennial is never completely about art's outsiders or esoterics. This year is no exception, presenting as it does work from jerky artist-director Vincent Gallo; iconic director Werner Herzog; D.I.Y. architectural-environment artist Oscar Tuazon; punk sympathizer and choreographer Michael Clark; or even the recently departed, multifarious Americana artist Mike Kelley.
Even the truly surprising moments in the Biennial, like a clutch of abstract paintings dating back as much as a half century by Forrest Bess, require special permission to enter the fray (in the case of Bess, they were selected specially by guest-curator Robert Gober; plus, the museum holds one Bess painting in its collection)
The exhibition layout reflects this conflict, between the need to bring the work together and to let its eclecticism ring out; to cater to the very latest ideas circulating among artists and to fulfill a mission to the ticket-buying masses.
It spreads out over four and a half floors of the museum and takes up plenty of its alcoves as well. For all the openness in the main-galleries (where walls have been removed in a show of communality), the exhibition remains largely maze-like, as though Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project provided the inspiration (which, given the vox populi feel suffusing the show, could be true).
Yet practically this can be frustrating more than whimsical: Finding Georgia Sagri’s performance on the fifth floor mezzanine was a reconnaissance mission.
The most notable change to the museum space would be the converted fourth floor, now a seated auditorium that will host performance residencies (more vox populi in the Whitney agora). The blueprint plans of the museum are printed on the floor.
The Biennial's curators, Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, lean heavily on their artists to declaim any clear conceits, and the loudest of these comes right at the start of the exhibition, and belongs to Andrea Fraser, an artist celebrated for her institutional critiques.
In the past, her didactic works have taken the form of audio tours, wall text, and pamphlets. Here it is the exhibition catalogue itself, inconspicuously displayed on a pedestal at the entrance to the second floor, where the exhibition begins. The book’s pages are glued down to the appropriate text, which explains how, for Fraser, participation in the show is a conflict of interest with her political beliefs.
Informed by Hans Haacke’s canceled 1971 project for the Guggenheim, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, in which the artist pinpointed the real-estate holdings of slumlord Harry Shapolsky and traced his relationship to and questionable transactions with a few of the museum’s trustees, Fraser’s work calls out those museum donors who have directly benefited from the current economic crisis, only to reason that the very conditions of the exhibition compromise participation and make it into a form of collaboration.
And of course Fraser is right: The Biennial's main sponsors are Sotheby’s, which recently shut out their union workers, despite claiming world-record auction sales; and Deutsche Bank, a corporation embroiled in lawsuits for their participation in the subprime mortgage crises.
These details went viral thanks to an official letter of condemnation from Occupy as well as a Whitney parasite-protest website that emerged early Monday morning. But thanks to Fraser, the protest was redundant; after all, it was already taking place inside the exhibition itself.
As though to underscore the theme of organized resistance, a steady, recurring chant spills over from Werner Herzogs’ four-channel film installation Hearsay of the Soul. Yet the spell of dissent is broken, as Herzog’s work is a meditative look at the detailed, crosshatched, landscape etchings created by Hercules Segers in the 1630’s paired with Ernst Reijeger’s contemporary cello composition and Oullof chanting.
The warm recurring bass of the film resounds over and over through the cavernous space, inviting meditation on the slow practice of image-making, or wryly returning to Fraser’s argument of today’s quickly-paced image campaigns—where the celebrity artist (here suffusing the whole floor with his sounds) makes the company or institution look “good."
Art theorists ought to love this biennial: its devastatingly unspectacular poèsie, the art of its self-explanations, is primed to receive a heavy application of post-Occupy non-gloss rhetoric. The exhibition is replete with works dedicated to disrupting the social body: no less than thirteen Richard Hawkins’ collages (at right); K8 Hardy’s twisted fashion apparel; Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark’s live performance residencies; Sam Lewitt’s on site-production of live material reality (above).
These wait for the delicately processed narrative arc of the keen art historian, or the thunderous boom of the art theoretician who experienced May ’68 first hand and intimately understands today's version of Arte Povera. The artists are taking their work off the walls and into the streets! The lived artwork will live on in the hearts of the people! These aesthetics are relating!
Look no further than Cameron Crawford’s mono-filament net, unfortunately slung against an impassable wall, Sick Sic Six Six ((Not) Moving): Seagullsssssssssssssssssssssssssss., 2018. It's a plasticized grid, reminiscent of the material used by police for "kettling" protests, and whose pockets could be just large enough to catch a viewer or two.
Art critics, on the other hand, may hate this biennial—its lack of focus and the esoteric references made in the works and their descriptions will leave them sputtering to the population en masse.
For example, trying to explain the awkward situation of how one of the bigger names attached to the Biennial—Robert Gober—isn't actually in the Biennial, he just helped organize a small section of it. And then explaining how Gober's strange, unbridled enthusiasm makes his selection of Forrest Bess paintings one of the highlights of the whole show, and illustrative of the exhibition’s best and worst qualities. Perhaps critics won't hate that job of explanation so much, on second thought.
Bess was an eccentric and unsung painter, now revived. A handful of his paintings, letters, and photographs are tucked away in a pocket-size room on the second floor. His small canvases demonstrate an idiosyncratic, mystical vision of regeneration and immortality guided by the tenets of alchemy, Jungian psychiatry, and the hermaphroditic rituals of Australian aborigines, all measures that Bess applied to himself. Bess believed that genital re-assignment operations would have a generative effect, renewing vitality. Fervent in his beliefs, Bess even operated on himself. His eccentric theories seep into the imagery and symbols of his abstract work. However unusual, Bess also had a core group of followers, showing at historic New York gallery Betty Parsons and maintaining an epistolary friendship with beloved art historian Meyer Shapiro.
Among the works on view, his Untitled No. 31 (1951) is a conceptual riddle in oil on canvas, depicting a brushstroke that straddles the surface, from which a tiny triangle depends. The dangling mass is not unlike the uvula that hangs from the back of your throat. Sheep-like dots surround the arch. A conceptual “yawn,” the punch line of the nearly undecipherable canvas hangs upon close reading and contemplation. Bess’ sleepy protest against the norm may be the best protest in the Biennial, supported by Gober's tireless evidence and research; the work is sinuous, complicated, even arcane.
An artists’ artist, Bess's inclusion suggests that the curators' vision cedes much control of what curators usually do, letting artists have the last word on what artists they love. It's a noble stance, to be sure, but perhaps they give over too easily to the pressing voices of colleagues, losing any potential for a plot and ending up, again, merely eclectic in their tastes.
On the fourth floor is work from first-time soloist John Kelsey. A downtown New York critic, gallerist, and collaborator, Kelsey spearheaded such groups as Bernadette Corporation and Reena Spaulings. Yet, as a solo artist, Kelsey’s output is relatively unknown. Here he grafts his critique of the spectacle of technology onto two inkjet prints, each 34 x 24 inches, mounted on aluminum backing. Depsrsion, Impoetnce (2012) has the look and feel of the not-too-distant-past. The enlarged image of a page presents line after line of nonsensical sentences spliced together with ellipses, or sometimes just cut off midstream. To the right of the text is a list of almost-familiar names, changed by an elision of vowels (as in the title). This printed-out, mounted “spam” is an already uploaded, downloaded, and ready-made textual virus, one which has passed the filter of both Kelsey's server and the museum's. And it might just pass over the head of more than a few visitors.
Though the hard-to-reach cubbyholes of the exhibition frustrate some of the communal leanings it espouses, seeking out these secret hideouts is often worth the effort. On the fifth floor mezzanine, accessible only via the byways of the museum’s Singular Visions exhibition—selections from the permanent collection—one finds Lucy Raven’s What Manchester Does Today, the Rest of the World Does Tomorrow (2011) a player piano programmed to perform the LCD Soundsystem song "Dance Yrself Clean." The recent song and the antiquated machine collapse the twentieth century, and the sound, as it fills the space, is accented by the thumping of the piano’s mechanically turned keys.
The film program, screened consecutively in one room on the second floor, features a mix of independent films such as Kelly Reichardt’s Meeks Cutoff (2012), as well as avant-garde filmmakers like George Kuchar, whose soap-operatic films have singular, lovable bad-taste camp. Taken as a whole, the program highlights the American problem, an unfinished narrative on uncertain ground, an overarching theme which could have been made more clear, had the films been distributed in an egalitarian manner throughout the show, and not sequestered to one small room of a large museum.
Of course, the thankless task of curating the Whitney Biennial has been, for the past seventy six years, largely a contractor’s job, outsourced to independent curators or, as is the case with Gober, artists. What this yields is a cycle regurgitating not only the importance of the “new” but of emerging and re-emerging culture and its subsidiary effect, a seemingly effortless yet actually painstaking cool. Outsourcing insures a chain of curation, and thus its eternal continuation.
Jay Sanders, a relatively inexperienced institutional curator but a seasoned gallerist, plays the part of the dominant outsider. He has championed many artists’ artists such as Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad. His more seasoned teammate Elisabeth Sussman, a longtime Whitney curator, plays the part of the knowledgable insider. She has also worked with artists artist such as Paul Thek, Gordan Matta-Clark, and Nan Goldin. Perhaps their sensitivity to the works at hand, rather than any overarching intervention or selection by the museum itself, is what we are supposed to take home from an exhibition with more than fifty artists and hundreds of works.
One would think the Museum’s mission and endowment would allow for complete in-house curation of its signature show. Surely its curatorial staff is no more or less plugged in than those they’ve hired.
But the Whitney is still one of American art's most established institutions. Isn't it possible that its place in all this is to invest in its future? The museum would bolster rather than bankrupt its capital by assigning the daunting task of the “contemporary” and the “specialized” to each and every member of its built-in team in a collaborative effort. In this way a truly communal show could be created.
And then it could participate, in a different way, in attempting a model for social change, instead of catching "political" art, conveniently, just when it's a wave of interest that is already propelling the very market it resists.