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Monday, April 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

More is Less at the Whitney Biennial

According to its press release, the Whitney Museum’s 2002 biennial is the largest since 1981, with works by 113 artists and collaborative teams. Known artists such as Kiki Smith and Vija Celmins are included, along with new collectives and outsiders, and the exhibition stretches the boundaries of what is considered art by presenting considerable amounts of sound, performance, and Internet art. This show, like the other Whitney biennials, is meant to be all things to all people – an overview that places its finger on the pulse of contemporary art in a country that is notably large and varied in its artistic output. Perhaps inevitably, given the exhibition’s scope and its ambition to open a window onto the way art is made today, fault is easily found. It is easy to criticize the overall sway of the show – one can always point out that a particular artist was missed, or that the inclusion of others is problematic. But in this biennial, perhaps more than others, the quality of the art provokes questions that underscores the image confusion in art today in a way that doesn’t reflect either on the artists or the curators but on the role of the museum and the place of contemporary culture itself.

To talk about the biennial as flawed is to judge the nature of culture generally in America. In the bias of the show, in which an attempt was made to translate anxiety about form into social assertion, it proved hard to come up with criteria for judgment. Certainly, video and even computer art has been part of our esthetic awareness for some time now, and the language of high technology is increasingly an idiom evidenced in the presentations of art museums. Art generally seems never to have been so popular, even when it is difficult and obscure. But there is something else that is happening as well; the practice of art, in the sense that an object is constructed, physically made, is no longer the center of interest. What Roberta Smith, in an insightful article in The New York Times, quite rightly called “the fear of form” has taken over, with a literalization of image and metaphor that sees no need to transform the language of art into a language of shared communication. As Smith points out, the art is “literally what it is, about what it is about.” The image offers no more than itself as a commentary on itself, literally limiting the possibility that art might be, at its best, about a transformation of means.

This is not to say that all the art in this biennial is weak, only that it often fails to work its way out of a conceptual box. One of the most interesting exhibits in the show was Roxy Paine’s two stainless-steel versions of trees, one encased in a vitrine on the first floor of the museum and the other located in Central Park, a short walk away. Both trees are stunning pieces on display, but it is also fair to say that they are what they are – manufactured items meant to draw attention to their difference with similar objects in nature. According to the accompanying brochure, “by announcing its grand manmade artifice…Bluff [the large tree] is a cunning reminder that Central Park is itself an artificial sanctuary, a product of city planners as much as Mother Nature.”

The point about nature is well made, but it is also self-evident, so that the comment is a repetition of bald truth. And that is what the art in the biennial turns upon: a truthfulness that exists in fact in opposition to the metaphorical possibilities of the imagination. Given the culture’s anxiety about beauty and usefulness, as well as its inability to translate value through form, it proves impossible to discuss the achievement of the show from the point of view of the imagination.

So, then, what is the show supposed to do if not open up the possibilities of the mind? It can document, that is to say, it can bring to the surface the artistic activities of young artists without commenting on the nature of their achievement. As troubling as much of the current biennial is in its repudiation of metaphor, it is still an accurate description of what is taking place. Kim Sooja’s outdoor installation, Deductive Object (2002), is a simple placement of materials: she uses traditional Korean bedcovers, given to newlyweds in search of a long, contented life, to cover the tables at the Central Park Zoo cafe. The brightly colored textiles link culture to the natural environment of the zoo; moreover, they bring materials that are essentially private into public contact. As moving as this project may be in its implications, its meaning is derived from a contextual understanding of the artwork, without which the simplicity of the intervention could conceivably lose its interest. Kim’s art brings to bear personal notions of intimacy that need to be explained so as to be understood. It is the biennial’s job to present the installation without comment, so that its implicit values are transmitted without judgment – but also without elucidation. Documenting art that either refuses to transcend its circumstances or requires considerable information beyond the work to make its claim as art is itself, for all its seeming objectivity, a comment on the impenetrability of contemporary art’s meaning.

The curators could have chosen a completely different show, in which formal values were appreciated. That would not have done justice to the spirit of the time, however, which rejects such values as historical and irrelevant. The call of modernism – its heroic and formal stance – seems to offer little of consequence to an age devoted to the bitstream. Videos and Internet art may prove less intrinsically interesting than the results of the artist’s hand, but they say more about the present sense of speed and cultural unease. In an attempt to extend the boundaries of art, sound installations are presented in a darkened room on the first floor of the museum. One makes one’s way into the space and sits on a large couch, listening, for example, to Meredith Monk’s Eclipse Variations (2000), which sound like contemporary versions of plainsong. As beautiful as this singing might be, as it penetrated the dimly lit gallery, it struck this viewer as outside the purview of art. The catalogue entry on Monk’s work says that it has been “presented as a site-specific installation” and that it “invites us to explore the inseparability of music and movement.” One fears being thought of as too rigid in questioning the inclusion of the work in a show devoted to visual art, yet it seems problematic to bring it in without comment. A show that is so very inclusive loses its focus, with the general result being entropy in its overall presentation.

A showcase such as the Whitney biennial needn’t overpower its viewers with accomplishment in a traditional sense, but, it seems to me, it should challenge its audience by presenting art that demands more than a cursory glance. So much of the show is so informal, so utterly lax, that it is hard to give credit to the efforts. Hirsch Perlman makes sculptures out of the cardboard boxes he used to move from Chicago to Los Angeles, photographing them with a pinhole camera of his own making. The images of the sculptures have a brutal fascination; they occupy Perlman’s studio, an apartment room, with a presence nearly monstrous in their proportion and casual manufacture. But the pictures do not record, in any way, an art that appears cognizant of the language of history. Again, the impulse in the viewer is not to judge – it is too easy to dismiss the work as bathetic. Its power stems from what the catalogue calls the “grotesque apotheosis of the archetypal Romantic artist,” in which the “tortured” protagonist is understood to be “struggling with the brute materials of his craft.” One can only accept as given the idea of this artist in combat with form, for the nature of his art is so much outside the historical idiom that it is hard to connect it with anything but what it is.

In some cases, the art seems familiar even though the names of the artists are new. Julie Moos’s picture series, entitled Friends and Enemies and Domestic, involves private-school youth and affluent women and their housekeepers, respectively. In the first series, Moos, influenced by the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, decided to photograph pairs of students at the Altamont School in Birmingham, Alabama. She researched relationships between students at the school and determined, with the help of teachers, who were friends and who were enemies. She then photographed the students randomly, so that they did not know until the last moment with whom their picture would be taken. The viewer, seeing the image, does not know what the relationship between the two subjects is; the solemn gaze of the pairs of students looking into space betrays neither friendship nor enmity. In the series with the domestics and their employers, notions of class and race come to the fore. The subjects stare into the camera’s gaze, silently revealing the components of their character. Moos comments, “These photographs are about relationships and about the personal bond between employer and employee.” While both sets of photos induce contemplation of the vagaries of relations according to like, dislike, and class, the ideas producing the images seemed tired, recognizable in light of earlier efforts. There is nothing wrong with the art, but one would hope for a less disengaged, less distant presentation of ideas. The yoking together of the image’s subjects seemed too arbitrary to hold interest.

If anything, the notion of pop art dies hard in American contemporary art. It remains in the work of the Detroit collective, Destroy All Monsters (Mike Kelley, Cary Loren, and Jim Shaw), who make history paintings based upon the local tradition of Detroit vernacular art. In The Heart of Detroit (2000), the painting includes heroes such as the singer James Brown, bluesman John Lee Hooker, and Soupy Sales, the host of a well-known children’s television show, along with a group portrait of the rock group MC5. Kelley asserts, “This once marginalized and very eccentric local culture has become widely respected, even mainstream….So we decided to make grand history paintings of a small local history.” The painting introduces a pantheon of idiosyncratic musicians and misfits, who nevertheless have had an influence far beyond their immediate environment. The sheer fun of the painting goes a long way to endearing it to the audience, but its vulgarity poses a problem: how to make esthetic sense of a culture that denies the history of art. It is strange but true that the popular music of Detroit has reached the outside world; whether that merits inclusion in a biennial is another matter.

Some of the strongest images in the show have little to do with art per se. Chan Chao offers photographs taken in Myanmar (formally Burma), his native country. Intending to visit friends and family, Chao found himself unable to pass the country’s borders legally. In consequence, he visited refugee camps, where he photographed the inhabitants, many of them soldiers of the pro-democracy movement opposed to the current brutal regime. The casualness of the gaze of the people he has photographed belies the seriousness of their condition and beliefs. In regard to a striking picture of an orange-robed Buddhist monk, Chao notes that he is a “former member of ABSDF, an armed student group.” The monk stares solemnly back at the camera, with the jungle as background. Knowing of his political resistance, the viewer can only meditate on the struggles of peoples at the edges of the world; the monk’s gaze holds a powerful recognition of the inability of the world to redress suffering or injustice.

The achievement of Chao’s photographs exists as a reproach to much of the art in the biennial. There is a moral consistency and strength to his reporting that, while outside the compass of what we traditionally accept as art, claims our attention in ways that art should. By comparison, much of the art in the exhibition seems almost willfully negligible – James Buckhouse’s Tap (2002), in which a man or woman tap dancing on a screen can be beamed into one’s own personal digital assistant, may be playful, but its content is at best whimsically facile. Interestingly, the inclusion of two of Vija Celmins’s spiderweb paintings goes nearly unnoticed, even though the sense of time in them is in dialogue with the tradition of painting. The two works’ quiet integrity is nearly lost in the midst, for example, of videos about snowboarding or children’s birthday parties. Chris Ware’s graphic novels are, after all is said and done, cartoons, while Christian Marclay’s bent guitar and elongated accordion are visual pratfalls meant to entertain. One senses that the artists need to be liked, as if popularity were the key to artistic success.

In the end, the need for transformation outweighs one’s desire for the trend. The Rural Studio, the architectural program at the Auburn University School of Architecture headed by Samuel Mockbee, has created structures that meet the needs of the small towns for which they are built; just as important, they are remarkably visual spaces, rich in their relation to modernism. One outstanding project, Mason’s Bend Community Center, is built for a very small community and serves as a meeting place – ”a combination community center and chapel.” It is constructed of repossessed wood, glass, and steel, in an idiom that takes its cue from modernism’s notion of truth to materials. Light comes in through a roof made of recycled Chevrolet Caprice windshields; here, the ethics of living is as important as the esthetics of being.

While not art in a usual sense, the architectural project has a lot to teach many of the artists currently showing in this exhibition. If art is seeking an ethos by substituting the language of entertainment for that of achievement, the real point being made has to do with a democratization of culture. The museum, traditionally a repository of history and culture, now finds itself exhibiting work that denies tradition. But the Rural Studio projects make the point that art, at its best, finds its origins within recent history, in particular the history of modernism. Despite the attempt of many artists in the show to create in a historical vacuum, the achievements of the last century hang over the beginnings of the next. While this needn’t be a burden, contemporary art appears to experience the past as an intolerable weight. The current esthetic – namely, that anything goes under the name of art – may have its momentary charms; however, a depth is lost, with the result that more is less.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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