76th Whitney Biennial

Stephen Squibb

March 23, 2012
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
March 1–May 27, 2012

Partial, relaxed, and idiosyncratic are not typically positive associations for large survey shows. But these have been multiplying recently, and perhaps that is why that most venerable of panoramas, the Whitney Biennial, finds itself relieved, a little, of its historical pretensions towards completeness. Any survey is just one of an infinite number that could have been, after all, but it’s rare that curators are secure enough to start with that knowledge rather than resort to it as an excuse after the fact. The 2012 Biennial is so blessed—Thomas Beard, Ed Halter, Jay Sanders, and Elisabeth Sussman are to blame—and the result is a wonderfully open, strange presentation. Other editions have contained a larger selection of more successful works, but I’ve never before left a biennial so keen to return, or found myself wishing that the Whitney weren’t quite so far away.

The chief reason is that so much of the work is spread out over the run of the show, appearing only at specific times. Thus, as you have perhaps heard, almost the entire fourth floor is given over to a large performance space to be inhabited by various artists in various ways. And if the show has a signature, then it is surely the decision to devote so much space to a shifting and inconclusive mandate. I have seen the space set up two ways now: covered over with large renderings of the Whitney’s architectural schematics for the opening, under beautiful theatrical light, and post-opening, even less embellished, with artists huddled in discussions on stadium seating—and both encounters have made lasting impressions. The Whitney, we are reminded, is a remarkable building, and, even without a performance in progress, sitting and watching other people enter, exit, and move around feels like a rare privilege. No one should complain if this becomes the standard for all future biennials; not only does it let the entire edifice breathe, but it elevates performance to its rightful place alongside the other media, giving young artists a space worthy of aspiring to, at the heart of something important.

Both choices—building a theater on the fourth floor and saturating the entire calendar, start to finish, with more or less singular events—are characteristic of the show’s polite refusal to show up, in toto, in any one time, place or work. Walking around, we are constantly confronted with evidence of events just missed, in process, occurring later, elsewhere or otherwise: Lucy Raven’s player piano, The Red Krayola’s on-again, off-again skype chats with museum visitors, Oscar Tuazon’s elaborate set for K8 Hardy’s fashion show, Wu Tsang’s dual-purpose green room, and Dawn Kaspar’s THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT, which has the artist installing herself along with her entire studio on the third floor. Clearest in this respect is Georgia Sagri’s effectively sub-titular (for the whole Biennial, that is) working the no work, a half-performance, half-installation that works, or doesn’t, equally either way, as both. Under the most general auspices of “producing a book,” Sagri (who, full disclosure, is a friend and occasional collaborator) has brought together sets, costumes, bits of technology, and active conversations that persist in the space as objects and images in addition to providing raw material for her weekly performances. These are themselves unfinished, surgical procedures; operations designed to pull apart the vocabulary of contemporary labor piece by piece. Thus, taking off from her own “work” as a performance artist, Sagri wears clothes printed with the image of her naked body as she engages in precise acts of (apparently) mindless passion, self-recording and re-recording, presentation and re-presentation. As with the show’s larger declination of monumental status, Sagri’s is not a direct, abstract negation, but something more local and pleasantly insidious, prioritizing multiplicity and illegibility rather than affirmation or denial.

LaToya Ruby Frazier is coming from a very different place, but her photography is similarly resistant and penetrating. Asking after the possibility of self-portraiture along myriad lines, now overlapping, now concentric, Frazier’s photos constantly include too much, frustrating our natural inclination to reduce them to a more familiar category of political denunciation. The longer we look, the more we find ourselves vibrating back and forth between the impossibly complicated and the devastatingly simple. One example: Frazier is from Braddock, PA, a former steel town laid waste by deindustrialization. It is also the place where famed Whitney alum Ryan McGinley shot parts of his execrable “Go Forth” campaign for Levi’s denim. Frazier reshoots McGinley’s copy, and emblazons it with direct reference to the recent loss of an important local hospital: “How can we go forth if we don’t have health care?” It is a straightforward question but a vertiginous critique, and certainly the only one I’ve encountered spanning the health care lobby, institutionalized racism, spectacular capital, tidy narratives of white working class decline, and, you know, Ryan McGinley. And that’s only one photo.

Elsewhere on the same floor, Joanna Malinowska gets under the skin with three cheap gags in rapid succession. The first, a really hideous assemblage of fake tusks a la Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, then a supercute TV-set video wherein the artist ingests fermented yucca and hallucinates up Hugo Ball and Joseph Beuys. The title of the latter is This Project is not Going to Stop the War./Journey to the Beginning of Time, and then, just as we are getting really self-righteous, she drops Horse Nation on us, an original Leonard Peltier painting so ungodly kitschy and vivid and fantastic that we can almost hear Malinowska apologizing sweetly: I’m sorry, which kind of serious person did you say you were again? The whole thing is like losing at chess in under a minute: you’d be angry if you weren’t so impressed. Thankfully, Werner Herzog’s turgid masterpiece, Hearsay of the Soul, a four-channel sensorium massage is nearby with dignity to spare.

Pretty much the entire screening series is worth the voyage, suggesting that maybe the good folks at the Whitney should just keep the moving image under Beard and Halter’s jurisdiction for the next two decades or so. I’ll mention two: Jerome Hiler, whose Words of Mercury is pretty like a coral reef built from sunshine, and Michael Robinson, who is so good I can think of three more of his that should’ve been screened but weren’t, but not which of those shown I would’ve cut to make room.

Other curatorial coups involve the sculptures of Michael E. Smith, which are spread over multiple floors and punctuate the installation to great effect, including, in one of the best moments, an oddly modified work glove carrying on a tragicomic dialogue with a fourth floor window. Also Nick Mauss, who’s Curtain, Crush, Desire finds him playing dress up with the Whitney’s own permanent collection, as he curates his own mini-exhibition in an edifice of his own making. It’s the sort of idea that, done wrong, leaves you feeling poorly for everyone involved; as it stands, I was pleased to the point of being legitimately curious why no one had thought of doing it before.

I struggled with two crowd-pleasers. Sam Lewitt’s Fluid Employment—wherein the artist has ventilators set up to blow on ferromagnetic liquid poured bi-weekly over plastics and other magnets—felt incomplete. As the air hits the liquid it shifts perceptively, creating a movement that’s just distracting enough to attract focus without much beyond. It felt like a sketch or teaser for a larger, more thought out, and potentially quite compelling work. The same cannot be said of LAST SPRING: a prequel by Gisèle Vienne with Dennis Cooper, Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg, which stands as a cautionary tale about the dangers of over collaboration. No doubt there is some version of the animatronic-child-talking-about-evil-with-a-hand-puppet installation that makes perfect, even revelatory, artistic sense, but the world is still waiting.

Painful, in a profoundly different way, are Cameron Crawford’s making water storage revolution making water storage revolution and his Sick Sic Six Sic ((Not) Moving): Seagullsssssssssssssssssssssssssss., 2018 large abstract sculptures that examine the relation between labor and utility, in the first case, and labor and mourning, in the second. By spending an extremely long time producing objects that are both dysfunctional and aesthetically unappealing, and then joining these together to make unsettling, physical pastiche, Crawford pursues the line dividing reasonable from non-reasonable behavior—what makes sense as an act of grief may or may not make sense as work, and similarly, what works as art may do so nowhere else. Drawing our attention to a different set of filters, John Kelsey’s Depesrsion, Impoetnce, finally, highlights the persistence of the human amidst the virtual combat of machines. The two words are misspellings designed to avoid spam filters yet remain legible as concepts, and Kelsey deploys them as titles for poems assembled from junk messages alongside the names of their senders and beneath the eagle that served as the Whitney’s insignia until the 1950s. Which of these still scans, Kelsey asks, and for who, when? Before you read the wall text? After? Never mind differance: now we live in a world where signifiers like “depression,” and “impotence,” needn’t even show up to have an impact. The best thing about this Whitney is its own, corresponding refusal—you can’t read it right away. It’s not that kind of show, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate exactly what it is that’s going on.

Performance, Film
Biennials, Curating

Stephen Squibb is intimately familiar with the highways linking Brooklyn, New York with Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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