To walk through the 74th Whitney Biennial was to experience the somewhat schizophrenic nature of contemporary American art, a situation that curators Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin optimistically characterized as “heterogeneous and disperse.” When anything goes and no rules apply, art is all over the place. The Whitney Biennial is where you can see it all at once.
Eighty-one artists, with a surprising number from the West Coast, were spread out between two locations, the museum and the Park Avenue Armory down the street. Video, sculpture, installation, sound, performance and social practices were strongly represented. Painting barely put in an appearance, with practically no representational or figurative work, and there was less photography than in past years.
The “unmonumental” gesture of assemblage and collage, recently highlighted in an exhibition of the same title at the New Museum, took up almost a whole floor. Rachel Harrison’s Sops for Cerberus (2008) exemplified this trend. One room contained a cubist-like sculpture painted in a colourful harlequin pattern that held three small carrot sculptures, nineteen painted-over photos of dolls and statues, a video projection of the film Pirates of the Caribbean and a video projection of a man selling paring knives produced in Switzerland. Alluding to Hercules’ labours and the ability to get around a difficult task, the title raises the question implicit to the so-called unmonumental gesture: does it compel viewers to decipher a work?
A number of sculptures were the result of artists’ formal experimentations with common materials. Mitzi Pederson’s untitled (ten years later or maybe just one) (2005) consisted of a stack of broken cement cinder blocks made less prosaic through the careful application of grey glitter to the cement’s jagged edges. Jedediah Caesar’s Dry Stock (2007) also elevated the low to the high; he cast urban detritus like dirt and fabric scraps inside a block of white resin, which was then cut and polished into one-inch slices and installed as abstract paintings on the wall.
The exhibition contained many overtly or indirectly political works. The poetically titled, not a matter of if but when: brief records of a time in which expectations were repeatedly raised and lowered and people grew exhausted from never knowing if the moment was at hand or still to come (2006) was one of these. Collaborators Julia Meltzer and David Thorne filmed Syrian performer Rami Farah reciting improvised stories that seemed to reference both real events and symbolic metaphors, such as one tale of people who are forced to eat poisoned bread by their oppressors but magically do not get sick. Farah’s charisma and gift for narration endowed this work with poignancy, crossing a cultural divide to speak of human fear, anxiety, love and hope. Another standout was Daniel Joseph Martinez’ Divine Violence (2007): 125 gold paintings arranged in a grid from floor to ceiling contained the names of groups he has designated terrorist organizations (Mossad, Blackwater, Al Qaeda, etc.). These minimal blocks of gold referenced both the worldwide economy (“black gold” and the lost gold standard) and the international currency of the art market. Memories of 60s political confrontations also surfaced, as in William Cordova’s installation about the house built by Frank Lloyd Wright where Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed by police in 1969; and Adler Guerrier’s fictional artist group named BLCK that he situates historically in the real Liberty City (Miami Beach) race riots of 1968.
“Networking” is a media buzz word for this Biennial, referring to the social connections between the curators and selected artists, and also the inclusion of artists or groups whose work is social in form. Among the latter, Ellen Harvey’s 100 Biennial Visitors Immortalized (2008) seemed truly participatory: she drew 100 15-minute portraits of visitors at the Armory, which they got to keep after the exhibition in exchange for their written criticism of her work. Neighbourhood Public Radio (NPR) was a guerrilla radio station based in a storefront near the museum that broadcast on local frequencies and depended on community participation. Organized by artists Linda Arnejo, Whiz Biddlecombe, Jon Brumit, Lee Montgomery, Katina Papson and Michael Trigilio, NPR achieved true freedom of speech by operating entirely outside of corporate sponsorship and by playing whatever the public brought in.
Many of the works at the Armory referenced the site, but were overshadowed by the grandeur of the building itself. Carved wood, high ceilings and organically shaped wrought iron all competed with artists’ projects that often did not measure up. Mungo Thomson’s work, Silent Film of a Tree Falling in the Forest (2005-06), escaped this rate. The colour 16mm film projection shows six trees falling in the forest, each one disappearing into the background foliage. The mortality and materiality
of film and nature were artfully echoed in the clicking of the film reel and quiet space. Back at the museum, the memorializing of nature was taken up quite differently by artist Fritz Haeg, who created twelve “animal estate model homes” for animals once living where the Whitney now stands. Animal Estates 1.0 (2008) included a built-to-scale eagle’s nest located high on a roof above the visitor’s entrance. At once funny and sad, this empty nest seemed a particularly rich metaphor for the times. The concept of home feels increasingly unstable, as war, climate change, immigration and a recession continue to rise to the surface of Americans’ consciousness about themselves and their place in the world.
These challenges were represented in the work on display, and visitors likely found the 2008 Biennial either a delight or a disaster depending on whether they seek the reassurance of finely crafted formal works, or less reassuring records of ideas and actions still being tested. The latter type was more evident this year, and, while not pretty, it does seem necessary.
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