[iDC] Whitney Biennial 06

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Tue May 30 16:17:30 EDT 2006

Whitney Biennial 06: An Afterword

Judith Rodenbeck and Trebor Scholz

The articles have been written and the doors of the Whitney Biennial are
now closed.

It is an historical truism in cultural production that after World War
II, but especially after the freedom struggles of the late 1950s and
1960s, to think of art along traditionalist lines as devoted to beauty
(or even only to itself) became suspect. More pressing were questions of
authority and interest, of exclusion and inclusion, and critical art
practices took on such post-Duchampian topics as "Who conditions the
context in which artworks are situated and by which they are certified?"
Aesthetics for many became a productive problematic for art rather than
a field delimited by notions of "the beautiful" as its proper
expression; no longer attached to the ineffables of the beautiful or the
sublime, a new aesthetics was, rather, addressed to the play of
cognition and sociality. And this has been the case in advanced
practices of the last 50 years.

Reviews of the Whitney Biennial of 2006, however, found much of the
press up in arms about absence of beauty in the exhibition. (Though as
Calvin Tomkins pointed out in the New Yorker, the one reliable thing
about the Biennial, decade after decade, has been that Hilton Kramer
will object to it on exactly these grounds.) Many critics writing about
this Biennial juxtaposed the absence of the "pretty" with the presence
of collaborative works, the latter understood as "political" sheerly by
virtue of multiply-credited authors. But is collective or collaborative
production necessarily a) "political" (whatever that means) and b)
therefore un-aesthetic? (And is the "not-beautiful" necessarily the
un-aesthetic? Kant himself wrote that the ugly could be sublime.) The
question of beauty versus politics seems a smokescreen, or at least a
critical misfire. 

The question of beauty versus politics assumes that "beauty" equals
aesthetics and does not equal politics. Yet the so-called "absence of
beauty" at the Whitney (and there is plenty of beauty, actually) was not
necessarily due to a presence of politics. In many of the works on view
what was absent all too often was not only craft and precision and but
historical consciousness; these were overtaken by (relatively)
privatized narratives invested with semi-public anxieties--imagination
for the ³reality television² era. And even the "beautiful" paintings
were more political in this show than the much touted but utterly dopey
Peace Tower, which we can't even think of as "colossal" in its failure.
Aside from its silly siting (for a real statement it should have been in
the middle of Madison Avenue, blocking traffic and accessible to
intervention) this nominally collaborative piece was clubby and the
contributions, indexed together, came off as puerile and self- rather
than message-centered, presenting as "democratic" and "free speech"
something manipulated, in-crowd, and homogeneous. By contrast, working
thoroughly within the art world and, unlike the Peace Tower, fully
cognizant of that fact, the chocolate appropriations by Kelley Walker
reinserted politics and a level not just of actuality but of
contemporaneity into Warhol's race-riot silk-screens. Peter Doig's
paintings also stood out. And the Francesco Vezzoli¹s Caligula trailer
bears up over repeated viewings, becoming more and more sinister and
hilarious each time; tired as it may have been after its trip from
Venice to New York it cannot help but win fans.

Was there a different aesthetic that emerged because the show contained
so many collaborative projects? While there were collectives like
Bernadette Corporation, Deep Dish TV Network, and Critical Art Ensemble
in the exhibition, the biennial was not a call for a collaborative
aesthetics. The show merely acknowledged the fact that collaboration,
cooperation, and consultation are important features of the contemporary
cultural landscape. That such inclusion of collaborative practices or
collectives "stretches conventional definitions of art and artist even
further," as Holland Cotter claimed in the New York Times, is hard to
fathom in 2006. Artists have not just discovered working together. Where
were all those critics who suddenly discovered that artists collaborate
(or even form networks)? 

The post-readymade dialectic--between the display-as-art and the
forensic trace--that seems to be driving much art these days was not
only ever-present but seemed in fact to drive this Biennial, too, in
both its selection and its installation, from the pairing in the
Whitney's drab moat of the unfortunate Peace Tower with a visually and
conceptually underwhelming piece by Natalie Jeremijenko and Phil Taylor
to the installation of Francesco Vezzoli¹s Caligula-as-CSI trailer
(complete with velvet cinema seats) nearby a popcult winnebago and
alongside Ed Paschke's supremely good images of voyeurism. Forensic
traces ranged from accumulations of data to arrays of painted mugshots
(the 9/11 crew, dispersed throughout the gallery, anonymous artist) to
photographic techniques (the brilliant "Left Behind" series by Angela
Strassheim) to the list of desiderata for barter (Carolina Caycedo's
art-by-telephone network) to faux pop star obituaries to the blobs of
chewing gum stuck not only on specific works but also on random walls
and artworks.

One might extend the notion of forensics towards the historical, for
this exhibition presents a melancholic autopsy of the 1960s, from
Walker's visually and conceptually smart riffs on Warhol to Otabenga
Jones's strangely arid evocation of the Panther era. In one of the
show-stoppers, DTAOT (Tony Oursler and Conrad, Dan Graham and Rodney,
Laurent Berger, and Japanther) deliver an autopsy of 1960s hippie
culture. While the satirical hippie opera touches on the artworld's
imperative of youth, this is ported to the present and a certain
bitterness is hard to miss. The biennial did not feature many works that
we were crazy about. But works such as DTAOT's did counter the art world
youth obsession and valued artists who are not the next big thing but
have rather worked for many decades. More extrapolated still would be
the repeated references to Warhol, Bruce Nauman, and Jay deFeo, all of
whom serve as over-strong models for younger artists, along with the
actual inclusion of 1960s bad boys Kenneth Anger, Tony Conrad, Ira Cohen
and 1970s weird girls Sturtevant and Dorothy Iannone.

What exactly does historical consciousness do? We'd submit that it's
here because that historical work emerged in an era with a serious
political culture and discourse. Some of that historical work, looked at
afresh, now gives forth its culturally critical secrets in a way that
may not have been so clear then--the intensities of Ed Paschke's
painting, for instance, or Tony Conrad's Flicker are striking. In this
regard the strong and repeated citation in this exhibition of
avant-garde music of the 1960s--work that dealt with liminality and
limit experiences, with harmonics and the spatialization of the
temporal, with collective production and experience--seems an interest,
at least on the part of the curators, in exploring experiential models
that have been obscured by the IPO frenzy of the art market. Yet so much
of the reference material for today's young artists has been obscured in
the pedophilic rush to the bank; artists reinvent the wheel, and usually
not very well. And we live in an era in which mainstream popular music
from U2 to the Strokes and the White Stripes has been largely devoted to
the technical replication of the 1970s sound, while missing the radical
experiential dimension of its production. One of the only chiefly-sound
piece, Jim O'Rourke's "Door," seemed to be largely opaque to its
"viewers," who spent their time clustering at the entrance of the
installation vying for the best static vantage point from which to watch
a slow 3-screen projection rather than moving around and exploring the
acoustic, spatial, physiological dynamics of the piece.

There were things in "Day for Night" to engage the masses (contrary to
what some critics claimed), from the consistently narrative photography
to the repeated citations of celebrity to the literal and figurative
invocation of graffiti and bubble-gum. Visually much of the work focused
on its own legibility, even lexicality. This had two aspects: the
presence of language, either written or spoken, as keying device; and
the predominance of figuration, either as bodily representation or as
citation. One was struck by certain repeated motifs that appeared here,
as if the individual artists participated in a hive mind (or
mindlessness): the bunny puppet (recycled now through past works by
Nayland Blake, Pierre Huyghe, and the film Donnie Darko and here present
in photos of pseudo-Satanist ritual and in a pathetic knock-off of
Schwitters¹ Cathedral of Erotic Misery), the phrase "eat shit and die"
(it appeared in works by two different artists), the bottled excrescence
motif (as perfume and as pickle), the apocalyptic desertification motif
(from conestoga wagon to Unabomber hut to cities in the scrub to the
subtle contribution of the Center for Land Use Interpretation), the
apocalypse itself (not one but two works dealing with the Rapture), etc.
The recurrence of individual riffs is interesting but irritating; yet
more troublesome is their sheer obviousness.

Large exhibitions are 3D visualizations of the social network of the
curators and the artists (and gallerists and curators) they know.
Curators are legitimizers and editors of cultural content; they can be
power-brokers. But what Chrissie Iles and Walker Art Center deputy
director Philippe Vergne did at the Whitney was much more open, and
clearly not about the articulation of a singular vision. If anything, it
seemed clear that the curators had in mind an exhibition of something
other than the single-author marketable artist: Reena Spaulings and the
Wrong Gallery are complex projects; Sturtevant, and her redo of
Duchamp¹s career, has always been difficult; and the Center for Land Use
Interpretation produces no saleable object. Yet the institutional
commitment here seemed inconsistent. 

The biennial recognized the multiple roles that artists take on today,
including that of the curator (Maurizio Cattelan's Wrong Gallery). But
it was hard to overlook the crowding of the floors (including the Wrong
Gallery¹s contribution, which made that crowding an aesthetic gesture).
Curatorial decisions behind juxtapositions in the exhibition were often
hard to figure out; there were perhaps just too many pieces in the show.
(Globe and Mail: ³What a bloody mess.²) Often the juxtaposition of works
appeared nonsensical; in other cases, such as the decision to place
Jutta Koether¹s installation of pathetic disco-black panels next to the
work of one of her historical models, Steve Parrino, the combined result
was a deeply desultory slog. There were a number of collaborative works,
but this show was hardly "long on" collaboration. The very few new media
works were only awkward visual addenda to the spectacle of the styrofoam
graffiti Stonehenges; sound from one installation leaked over into
another (we were uncertain for a long time if the Paul Chan piece was
supposed to be silent). The screen-based work by Carolina Caycedo used
the computer as documentation device for a mobile barter project. Her
piece and the superb work of The Center for Land Use Interpretation are
hidden away in the maze of the exhibition. Squeezed into corners near an
exit, overlooked by most, was their computer kiosk featuring the
organization's 30 exhibits and many critical lectures, tours and
publications on various uses of land over the past 12 years. CLUI's
contribution to this biennial, one of the two working computers in the
entire exhibition, documented their research and art initiatives. The
computer kiosk served as archival apparatus. The performative artwork
itself could not be shown.

At the same time, some of the more politically charged pieces were
stashed away near toilets, the museum's gift store, or the stairwell, or
neutralized by curatorial sequencing. While this might have been a
self-conscious curatorial attempt to enliven the margins, it became
especially painful with Deep Dish TV's very confrontational and amazing
presentation of guerilla documentary, which was, ironically, placed
between the knick-knack stands of the museum shop and the banks of
toilets in the basement. If anything, this biennial fueled suspicions
about the isolationist artworld and the new morphology of the white
cube. The display of Richard Serra's Abu Ghraib protest poster as an oil
drawing alongside Monica Majoli's gorgeous-and hyper-aestheticized
images of intense bondage (and across from a bathetic photo-memorial to
Matthew Shephard) runs serious risk reducing it to an object of what
Susan Sontag called "fascinating fascism"‹discharging the political
force it had when it was distributed as a multiple, its original display
form. And Jerry Saltz, writing in the Village Voice, pointed out that
only 25 percent of the individual artists on view in the Biennial were
women. This seems lame and weird in 2006; while the nod to identity
politics in the exhibition was strong and clear this actual gender
imbalance nevertheless indicates that the Whitney is still fighting the
battles of the late 1960s--another argument for the inclusion of all
that "historical" work.

Biennials are easy targets and every biennial gets ritually trashed.
Berlinale, Liverpool Biennial, Taipei Biennial, Havana Biennial, Sharjah
International Biennial, the Texas Biennial, the Istanbul Biennial,
Capetown, Kwangju, Sao Paolo.... Every larger city seems to have its own
biennial these days. Phillip Vergne himself pointed out that "there are
now over 200 biennials in the world." New York itself has another
biennial (the Free Biennial) and the Whitney Biennial even has a
critical clone of its website. This rich landscape gives an event like
the Whitney Biennial much less of an exclusive hold on cultural capital.
Whitney director Adam Weinberg says that the museum has been rethinking
its mission as a museum of "American" art in a number of complex ways.
As for the Biennial, would it be possible for any show to be an adequate
survey? We don't think so. Either you'd get something radically
incoherent--an ³adequate² survey of art activities using, say, a
statistical model of distribution--or you'd get something coherent--a
possibly adequate survey of a specific tier, arena, or niche of art
activities. The curators acknowledged the limits of a best-of national
biennial by expanding it to a more international focus while narrowing
its thematic orientation. "Day for Night" juxtaposed internationally
circulating artists, familiar from biennials worldwide, with others who
had not shown in museums before (but don¹t lack gallery representation).
At the same time, a topical show like this biennial cannot be
simultaneously a signature survey, and the decision to turn "Day for
Night" into a thematic exhibition was fortunate given that the  concept
of the Biennial as national survey has outlived itself.

And then there¹s a broader set of definitional and technical problems:
the media art scene, for instance, is still only awkwardly incorporated
in such museum spectacles. If one holds this biennial to its expressed
mission of being the "signature survey measuring the mood of
contemporary American art" as its website states, then one may wonder
why a significant part of the contemporary art landscape is left in the
dark: digital art, or what some call "new media art." The show
highlighted video works (32 artists featured videos) and demonstrated a
strong focus on photography (17 artists working in that medium were
included). Is the demand for inclusion of new media art unfair as the
inclusion of computer-mediated work was so clearly not the set goal of
this exhibition? Are conferences, media art festivals or art +
technology spaces such as Transmediale, the Subtle Technologies
Festival, the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts (ISEA), or the Beall
Center at University of California Irvine the only venues in which
computer-mediated artworks can rock out, isolated from the rest of the
art world? Or do "new media" simply need new venues? The problem is
amplified by commentators who, like The New York Times' Carol Vogel,
don't acknowledge the existence of anything but traditional media when
stating that "There will be a fairly equal representation among mediums:
painting and sculpture, photography, film, video and performance."

The relative absence of new media art is striking for two reasons.
First, the contemporary experience of those visiting this exhibition is
deeply enmeshed with technologies and the Internet going far beyond TV
or cinema screens. In 2006 it is hard to ignore the wealth of cultural
production in the field of new media. The current explosion of art
projects dealing with social networking (Golan Levin, Chris Barr),
information visualization (Casey Reas, Lisa Jevbratt), or situated
locative technologies (Julian Bleeker) is impossible to overlook.
Second, the Whitney has a history of committing to computer-mediated art
practices. In 2001, the museum put on two exhibitions: "BitStreams" and
"Data Dynamics." The Whitney Museum also features the "Artport" website,
a hub for "new media art," which is programmed by Adjunct Curator of New
Media Arts Christiane Paul. The larger question is why able curators
like Paul are not more central to institutions like the Whitney. They
should be at least consulted when curating high-budget exhibitions that
set out to represent the American contemporary cultural landscape.

It isn't interesting to say the Biennial is not a good survey. But it is
worth noting that we are so painfully aware of this fact these days. In
the not-so-distant past artists not from New York had a terrible time
getting into the show. This year there's a cracker from Texas, lots of
work from California, photos from the Midwest, etc; the curators are
both European and the linchpin exhibit, Pierre Huyghe¹s
film/installation on the groundfloor, is by a Frenchman. Another, more
probing question to ask about these exhibitions is to what kind of
cultural capital a show like the Whitney Biennial bestows on works, be
they single-author objects or collaborative and multi-author projects,
and how does that capital get used? To what degree do we need empathy
and shared insight into particular art discourses--that is, accumulated
cultural capital--to "appreciate" the aesthetic when we see it? And more
broadly, to what extent is the aesthetic itself as a category begging
(yet again) for redefinition--or, perhaps more to the point,
revectorizing? Will Deep Dish Television suddenly acquire cultural
cachet and a fat endowment? We doubt it, but if it did it might be a
useful thing, beautiful or not.

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