Tuesday, March 11, 2008

biennial 2008

Complaining about the Whitney Biennial (http://whitney.org/biennial) is as New York as griping about how your neighborhood isn't what is used to be or about the proliferation of Duane Reade's, Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks on every block.  

Angry Dog Barking at Whitney-Goers 
(dog, electrical van, plastic cones, 3 hours - unplanned site-specific installation)

And true to form, while I haven't caught the Park Avenue Armory section (a new feature) of this year's show yet , I did find the work at the Whitney to be lackluster overall.  There are a lot of large pieces this year, but the number of artists represented is significantly smaller than in previous years (from over 100 in 2006 down to 81)and there is also almost no painting.

My ideal biennial is a rousing, overflowing, reckless affair, with art spilling out every old which way (like Chris Johanson's wooden streetscapes in the stairwells in 2002), including sound art and internet art, defying easy summaries of the state of contemporary art in America and surprising me at every step.  For this reason, 2002 was a great biennial (http://www.whitney.org/2002biennial/index.shtml), and I still have in my mind Roxy Paine's aluminum tree, Trenton Doyle Hancock's wall-size graphite tree, Karin Campbell's open/closed eyes, Stephen Dean's Holi festival video, Vija Celmins' spiderweb, Chris Ware's comic art, Robert Lazzarini's warped payphone, and Tim Hawkinson's self-portraits, to name a few.  

This being said, I find my memory of any specific biennial becomes rather blurry over time, and in my head they all meld into some kind of super-mega biennial composite of all the biennials I have seen, 2002's works placed beside Yayoi Kusama's firefly room and Eve Sussman's live action recreation of Velasquez's "Las Meninas" from 2004 and Paul Chan's haunting shadow show of floating bodies from 2006 (I could add dozens of other artists/works to this list).

Among the works that did work for me this year:  

* Lisa Sigal's strange little room "The Day Before Yesterday and the Day After Tomorrow" (http://whitney.org/www/2008biennial/www/?section=artists&page=artist_sigal ) with its decaying wallpaper, peeling paint, cracked lathe and plaster, and slits in the back wall through which one can glimpse tiny alcoves.  There is a nostalgic feeling of an abandoned apartment (shades of Christian Boltanski) and of discovering lost secrets, and it reminds me of my time in a crumbling squat when we painted on the walls and were kept up at night by the scurrying of the mice.

(Like the Sigal piece, space/place and architecture seem to be preoccupations this year: William Cordova recreates the police informant floor plan of the Chicago house of two Black Panthers, infamously burned by the cops in the 1969; Adam Putnam creates an optical illusion of hallways and doors in a dark room; Mika Rottenberg constructs a goat cheese shanty tended by long-haired maids; Charles Long works through/with found items and shapes (bird droppings) from the L.A. river...)

* Jedediah Caesar's resin works (http://whitney.org/www/2008biennial/www/?section=artists&page=artist_caesar ).  The  large block in the middle of the show has a beautiful drippiness with stalagmite-esque hollows and crevasses, while his wall-mounted polished resin squares show off cross-cut detritus and urban junk like millennia-old fossils.

*Ry Rocklen's box-springs spangled with carpenter nails (a bedtime version of Eva Hesse's Ascension).

* My friend L. loved Julia Meltzer and David Thorne's video "Still from not a matter of if but when: brief records of a time when expectations were repeatedly raised and lowered and people grew exhausted from never knowing if the moment was at hand or was still to come" (which is, you have to admit, a great title), a (on first blush) straightforward arab-language video-blog narration (with subtitles) of tragedy, frustration and life quandaries that engages you with its sense of seriousness, but remains utterly inscrutable, it being impossible to fully comprehend what the heck he's going on about.  Which, I guess, says (among other things) a hell of a lot about US-Arab relations today.

addendum - I think that Holland Cotter's review of the show in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/07/arts/design/07bien.html ) captures the mood pretty well -- "uncharismatic surfaces, complicated backstories", "low-key", "questioning", collaborative -- and is correct about the prevalence of narrative (especially via film/video).  I also appreciated the observation that this biennial (unlike 2002, for example) is not a repeat of works from the year's galleries, but instead a place for newly commissioned works (although, is this entirely a good thing?).  I would hesitate however to extrapolate from this show to a description of contemporary art as "lowered expectations" or "recession-bound": just chalk it up to the biennial being a highly-selective idiosyncratic curatorial snapshot.