The 2002 Whitney Biennial: The Whitney Museum of Art

For a grueling day at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, a friend and I ventured into Central Park in search of Brian Tolle’s “Waylay” (2002). Other works in Central Park, such as Roxy Paine’s steel tree, “Bluff” (2001), and Kiki Smith’s slick mythic creatures, “Sirens” (2001) and “Standing Harpie” (2001), are relatively easy to find, but “Waylay” is less obvious. When we finally found the Bow Bridge on the lake, we leaned over the bridge’s railing and even walked down among the trash-littered cattail to peer up beneath it, and saw nothing. Irritated and ready to leave, we consulted the program guide for the Whitney Biennial in Central Park, and learned that “Waylay” consists of scattered splashes and disturbances in the water around the bridge. “Waylay” is most compelling in the moments before one has figured out what it is, when the eye is scanning the water, pausing over every interruption in its glassy-green surface, every bubble, eddy, and splash, trying to decipher what is in the piece and what is not. “Waylay” provokes a bewildered, restless form of looking, pulling attention toward the water’s centerless fluidity, the glimmers of light and undulating shadows, the densities and transparencies. Ephemeral and site-specific, “Waylay” explores the properties of matter and perception, and Tolle’s quickly disappearing splashes push the nature of mark-making to its irreducible and nearly formless limit. In the end, “Waylay” is one of the few pieces in the 2002 Whitney Biennial which is sufficiently resonant and mysterious to be worth thinking about. 

Brian Tolle, "Waylay," 2002. Mixed media. Photo Aaron Diskin. Courtesy Public Art Fund.

The Whitney Biennial has always pretended to be a broad survey of the state of art in America, but until recently it has been more of a survey of the art scene in New York. One of the assumptions behind the Biennial, and indeed behind the mandate of the Whitney Museum of American Art itself, is that there is a distinctive phenomenon called “American culture” and “American art” which can be represented in a survey. Yet the globalization of the art world, combined with the erosion of whatever was left of the traditional boundaries of the concept of art, make the idea of such a survey a daunting, if not pointless, task. When, in his pompous, post-September 11th introduction to the exhibition, chief curator Lawrence Rinder writes that “what is American art, what is an American artist, and what is a museum of American art have taken on a keen and tragic importance,” he is clearly aware of this conundrum and of the need to move away from a centralized, institutional conception of American and American art. One of the curators responsible for the 2000 Biennial and also for last year’s BitStreams exhibit of digital art, Rinder has responded by fashioning a 2002 Biennial that is broadly populist, shunning flashy names in favor of a disparate array of practices: The current Biennial boasts of being the largest since 1981 and also includes the largest representation ever of sound art, performance art, architecture, and internet art. Rinder’s approach is not without justification, for there has always been a sense that the most inspired moments in American art are to be found, not in the commercial mainstream, but in eccentric visionaries like Albert Pinkham Ryder, Joseph Cornell, Forrest Bess, Alfred Jensen, and Henry Darger. Nonetheless, although Rinder and other Whitney curators traveled far and wide in search of art, the work that is actually in the show is for the most part neither eccentric nor visionary, but predictable, earnest, banal, and strangely idle. 

From the fourth floor of the Whitney down, the 2002 Biennial is organized into three categories: Tribes, Spaces, and Beings, respectively. Tribes is an interesting term, for it does not so much denote a traditional community as a cluster of individuals variously interconnected, and might be used to explore the mobile, discontinuous collectives that form much of contemporary social life. Unfortunately, the concept of the tribe is pursued with hipster literalness in Ari Marcopoulos’s photographs of an international snowboarding team. While the images are energetic, even dizzying, they never go beyond the superficial promotion of hip youth style. Janine Gordon’s photographs are competent and derivative, but at least the nine-panel “I’m a Human Bomb” (2001), congested images of half-naked, inebriated men in the frenzy of a rock concert, effectively evokes the orgiastic male violence which has often fueled rock culture. Set against a background of lush rainforest, Chan Chao’s photographs of monks and young rebels in Burma are poignant.  In “Trin Taw Liang, January, 1998” (2001), for example, a teenage girl dressed in what looks like a Girl Scout uniform stands in the foreground, and behind her is a smoldering jungle camp. The image gives one the sense of the sacrifice of innocence and youth in what has proved a costly and perhaps hopeless guerrilla war. The three photographers in Tribes all work in a documentary style, and their formally unchallenging images would be better served in a glossy magazine with an accompanying article. This is not to say that documentary photographs have no place in an art exhibition. The great Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s panoramic photographs of open-pit mines and refugee camps are terrifying Boschean apocalypses. 

Tribes inevitably points to street spaces, graffiti, and popular culture. One of the exhibition’s highlights is “Main Drag” (2001), by Margaret Kilgallen, who died of cancer last year. “Main Drag”'s big, goofy, movie-set walls are clunky and cartoonish, and the drawings on scraps of paper pinned to the wall, one of which is of a tree of life, are quietly devastating. The cobbled-together tower set off on the floor is made intimate by the bars of soap spilling out of the bottom. For all its bold scale, the drawings and soap bars make “Main Drag” small, private, and melancholy. While Christian Marclay’s “Drumkit” (1999) is slick and overproduced, the “Destroy All Monsters” (Mike Kelley, Carey Loren, and Jim Shaw) psychedelic poster tributes to MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and the White Panther Party are more than welcome. These are fun, throwaway pieces, and Mike Kelley, like Bruce Nauman, has done nastier work which reflects the implosion of 1960s summer-of-love aesthetics and politics. But the presence of “Destroy All Monsters” makes a not entirely nostalgic point: that in a basic way, making art is about fun, partying, irreverence, and experimentation. This is brought home again by the totems made by the Providence, Rhode Island collective, Forcefield. Installed in an eerily black-lit room, and accompanied by a cacophony of buzzes and clicks, Forcefield’s “Third Annual Roggabogga” (2002) consists of one-eyed pyramids, noodling cone structures, and figures with shaggy headdresses built out of discarded materials and yards of brightly patterned, hand-knitted fabric. “Third Annual Roggabogga” spoofs new age mysticism, but it also has the festive, homemade beauty and excess of African and Haitian shrines. Ivory Coast-born painter Ouattara Watts’s work, on the other hand, is marred by its reliance on the big, sensuous, 1980s style of artists like Julian Schnabel and Antonio Tàpies. The sculptural aspects of Watts’ canvases are more interesting when isolated from the expanses of ochre stucco and loose snake forms. In “Face of God” (2000), battered photographs of African fetishes are hooked up to jumper cables, brass canisters, and cymbals, and in “Creation of the World” (2001), a row of photographs of skulls and ritual dancers sit in a row above a skateboard rigged with jumper cables. For Watts, the damaged images of the gods and traditions are inked to the present by crude, improvised means.

The concept of Spaces is usefully ambiguous, for it simultaneously suggests inner space, cyberspace, physical space, and the lived, social space of cities and homes. Not surprisingly, Spaces is the section of the Biennial in which sculpture, installation, and architecture are most prominent. Tim Hawkinson’s massive, moaning lung installation at the Ace Gallery was one of the most dazzling exhibitions thus far this year, but the smaller sculptures included in the Biennial are by comparison minor and anecdotal. The anamorphic skulls, fabricated from real bone, which hung from the ceiling in the BitStreams exhibition were creepy and richly allusive, but Robert Lazzarini’s anamorphic phone booth, “payphone” (2002), confirms one’s worse fears: that Lazzarini’s work is clever and gimmicky, its impressiveness a matter of virtuoso fabrication. Javier Cambre’s “Habitat en Tránsito: Piñones (In Situ” (2001) is a hybrid of performance, conceptual installation, and shanty architecture. Cambre sawed in half a kiosk on a working class beach near his native San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is under threat from resort development. He then transported half to New York, and completed both in an improvised, modernist style, the clean, angular white walls attached directly to the crumbling shanty. Although the ironies are sharp, Cambre also manages to create a single structure out of discordant parts: the geometry of the modernist renovation is imperfect and handmade, and from its arched ceiling a hammock is suspended, suggesting that this is more an ad hoc shelter than anything else. Cambre appears, however, more interested in the political contradictions than in the formal issues of makeshift kiosks and shanties, and so his work remains less inventive and rigorous than Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrc’s investigations of the aesthetics of shanty architecture. 

In Stephen Dean’s ecstatic video projection “Pulse” (2001), revelers at the Holi festival in Uttar Pradesh, India, hurl handfuls of bright pigment into the air, smear pigment over their faces and bodies, and writhe in a muddy sea of color.  Accompanied by bursts of drums and bells, “Pulse” is not a documentary but rather a meditation on the absorption of the physical and social body into delirious, proliferating beauty. Ecstatic in a different way, the fragmented geometric shapes on Rosie Lee Tompkins’s patchwork quilts at once evoke America’s rich home craft tradition and geometric abstraction. But unlike much geometric abstract painting, the shapes on Tompkins’s hanging quilts bend and wrinkle, and they are also tactile and intimate, something one might crawl under on a cold night. Anne Wilson’s “Topologies (3-5.02)” (2002) is an intricate arrangement of scraps of found black lace on a long wooden table. Wilson dissects the lace into fragments, webs, and clusters of threads, and the drawings she creates resemble urban maps or models of the nervous system. But however abstract and diagrammatic “Topologies” may be, the viewer constantly returns to the delicate and allusive character of the old lace with which she works.

When it comes to painting, the choices in Spaces, as in the rest of the Biennial, are at best unimaginative. Lauretta Vinciarelli’s series of watercolors, “Luminous Void Volume of Light” (2001), in which rectangles float within rectangles in deep, blurry, light-suffused volumes, are attractive but embody a crude conception of both geometry and light, and John Zurier’s warm, monochromatic abstractions imitate Robert Ryman without any trace of Ryman’s subtlety or his refined attention to material and structure. Vija Celmin’s lyrical gray web paintings are masterful, but they are small, there are only two of them, and they are poorly hung. The only interesting painting in the show is not made of paint—Vera Lutter’s eerie “Friedrichschafen, Harbour, August 22-23, 1999” (1999).  Lutter set up a camera obscura, focused the image of the harbor on Lake Constance for two days on a sheet of photosensitized paper, and then blew up the negative. The result is a ghostly, time-lapsed image, the ship workers transparent blurs, the contrasts between deep, swarming black and metallic silver stark. Whereas Gerhard Richter’s gray photorealist paintings create photographic effects, the surface of Lutter’s images have the physical presence of oil paint loaded with lead and aluminum. 

In a Biennial that is cloyingly polite, one of the few uncomfortable pieces is Hirsch Perlman’s series of photographs of the remains of private performances, which is in the section of the exhibition entitled Beings. Almost every day for the past four years, Perlman has gone to a room in Los Angeles where he alternately creates and violently destroys  figures made from the remnants of cardboard boxes, then photographs  the results with a pinhole camera.  The images are dingy and claustrophobic, the figures comic and sinister, the room trashed.  Perlman’s pieces are reminiscent of the aftermath of Paul McCarthy performances, but whereas McCarthy’s work is expulsive and cathartic, gooey ketchup and raw ground meat slathered everywhere, Perlman’s has a dark, private, rudimentary ambivalence. Perlman’s work is the solitary underside of Beings, but Beings is cluttered with weak work and glaring curatorial failure.   The metaphors of womb and entrapment in Peter Sarkisian’s “Hover” (1999) are confused and shallow, and Julie Moos’s pairings in her “Friends and Enemies” series have a deadpan fashion aesthetic that has no emotional resonance; there is nothing at stake here, the concepts of “friend” and “enemy” vacuous expressions of style. On the other hand, Judith Schaechter’s stained glass light boxes bring the show back to one of its strengths—a refreshingly literal relationship to materials and the homemade. In “Pale Oval” (1999), a girl sits on a lawn among trees behind an oval window as though inside a paperweight, framed by patterns of descending black limbs, and in “Bigtop Flophouse Bedspring” (2000), a circus of birds and animals swarm. As with Rosie Lee Tompkins’s quilts, Schaechter’s work might be in a crafts fair or even a yard sale, and yet they are also precise and sophisticated. 

Beings also contains three strong video installations. In one monitor of Omer Fast’s two-channel video “Glendive Foley” (2000) is a series of images of ordinary houses in Glendive, Montana, and on the facing monitor is Fast himself, in the studio, obsessively making the “foley” sounds which accompany the video—birds chirping, wind in the trees, a passing car. Born in Israel, Fast emigrated to the United States as a teenager, and his use of his body to mimic the sounds in an ordinary, small American town represent an often grotesque effort to master a fantasy version of Americanness. Like “Glendive Foley,” Lorna Simpson’s “Easy to Remember” (2001) relies on the relationship between image and sound. The piece consists of the projection of 15 close-ups of the lips of black singers humming the melody of the Rogers and Hart tune of the same name, which was also made famous in a powerful version performed by John Coltrane. The lips are beautiful, sensuous, individual, and forward, as though directly contesting degrading parodies of African Americans, and the melody is hummed softly, not sung, so one gets the sense of a slightly halting and reflective effort to remember. The longer one listens to “Easy to Remember,” the less synchronized the voices seem, and the more one realizes that it may be easy to remember, but it is harder to give voice to. 

Jeremy Blake’s “Winchester” (2001 – 2002) is one of the most memorable pieces in the current Biennial. It opens with a stuttering, blurry, black-and-white image of the Winchester house, the spooky mansion in San Jose, California to which Sarah Winchester, heiress of the Winchester gun fortune, obsessively added rooms, false doors, and stairways to nowhere in an attempt to thwart the phantoms of the people killed by Winchester guns. The work is haunted by strange, drifting presences, and as the image washes out, it is invaded by bright colors, morphing flower patterns, and biomorphic shapes. “Winchester” moves from the gothic sinister of early silent film to the hallucinations of acid rock concerts, striking a balance between the ironic and the kitschily visionary. 

And then there is the sound and Internet art, both of which the Whitney curators point to as among the innovative features of the current Biennial. In “Delusional Situation” (2002), Marina Rosenfeld and her “sheer frost orchestra” performed on guitars with nail polish bottles and then went through an elaborate process of replaying, editing, and dubbing. The result, played on the excellent sound system in the room in the Whitney lobby devoted to sound art, is a sonic space of clicks, scratches, crackles, and twangs which at moments resemble the inner workings of a mysterious machine or the amplified operations of matter.  Stephen Vitiello’s majestic “World Trade Center Recordings: Winds after Hurricane Floyd” is especially haunting. During a residency at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in 1999, Vitello attached microphones to the windows of his studio on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center. Excerpted from those recordings, in the current piece one hears the rush of winds as well as the creaking and groaning of the building’s structure, giving one a sense of the skyscraper’s fragility, its relative smallness compared with the sweeping force of the winds. In “[collection]” (2001), Mary Flanagan has written software which culls images, symbols, and text from the user’s hard drive, generating an ongoing dance of fugitive bits of one’s buried, digital life. Flanagan is interested in the accumulation of information that characterizes the digital age, but her piece, while briefly amusing, offers little in the way of either analysis or visual depth. Lisa Jevbratt and C5’s “1:1” (1999 – 2001) is more compelling and sophisticated. Jevbratt creates visualizations of web protocol addresses and movements through them.  The images range from simple, color-coded geometric mazes, to arrays of ephemeral traces, to dense, compacted streaks of color. Similarly, Benjamin Fry researches the visual representation of complex, dynamic bodies of information. “Valence” is a program Fry designed which maps information onto three-dimensional drawings, and he has applied this program to biological systems, web traffic, philosophical texts, and novels. The most interesting of these is the application to Mark Twain’s novel, Innocents Abroad (not included in the show but available in a simplified version online), in which one can watch Valence “read” the novel, gradually turning it into a dense glob of curbing lines connecting random words. Unlike Flanagan, Jevbratt and Fry directly explore the relationship between information and the visual. 

Spanning three floors of the Whitney’s main stairwell, Chris Johanson’s installation, “This is a Picture about the place we live in called Earth that is inside a place we call Space” (2002) is earnest and disarmingly playful. Whereas Johanson’s late San Francisco grafitti art compatriot Margaret Kilgallen’s installation is punctuated by moments of lyricism and melancholy, Johanson’s vision is exuberantly sunny: there are wacky cutout figures, tilting cartoon buildings, traffic jams of cars, and at the top a wild, radiating starburst. Johanson’s work is fun, but it is naïve, flimsy, without a probing or authentically ecstatic vision, and his lack of inventiveness and sheer formal incompetence is made obvious by his failure  to make use of the deep stairwell space—the painted two-by-fours extending between the floors are clumsy and static. Johanson’s work is emblematic of the “sincere” art Lawrence Rinder calls for in his introduction. “Even before the events of September 11,” Rinder writes, “I was convinced that there was little need for works that lack a powerful sense of conviction.  It has not been fashionable to speak of sincerity as an important attribute in works of art, yet today nothing seems more urgent than to know one’s own heart and to speak one’s own mind as directly and honestly as possible.  Perhaps beauty and irony are luxuries of peacetime.” Sincerity, powerful conviction, and a willingness to speak one’s mind may be virtues in both life and art, but they only result in significant art when they are achieved through mastery, passion, freedom, risk, and depth. We do not need certainties and straight talk from art. We need unanswered questions, dubious speculations, unsettling and reckless visions that leave us scorched and bewildered. 

The 2002 Whitney Biennial points in myriad interesting directions, but finally most of the work is hopelessly mediocre. I found myself wandering back through Central Park to get another glimpse of Brian Tolle’s “Waylay." Tolle’s work, such as his Irish Hunger Memorial project currently under construction in Battery Park City, is often intensively researched and monumental, but “Waylay” is subtle and perceptual. The spurts and splashes of “Waylay” are brief, anomalous incidents, and one spends most of one’s time contemplating their aftermath—vanishing wakes, drifting bubbles. Tolle’s piece not only troubles one’s perception of the physical world, but it also implies an “other,” at once subjective and mechanical, interrupting the ordinary, law-like flow of events. I also made my way downtown to Bruce Nauman’s video installation, “Mapping the Studio I (Fate Chance John Cage),” at the Dia Center for the Arts. “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)” consists of seven large wall projections of sections of Nauman’s studio at night, the viewer provided with rolling swivel chairs in which to move about Dia’s enormous ground floor space on the north side of West 22nd Street. The images are a crude, grainy green, as though shot by an old-fashioned fixed surveillance camera trained on scattered tools, buckets of plaster, heads, unfinished or abandoned projects. The sound is mostly a hissing, ambient noise, but soon one begins to hear the scurrying of mice and a dog barking outside. Mice nervously skitter into view, then pop back; a cat slinks through the cluttered studio, its eyes a swarming, phosphorescent white; the eyes of an animal smolder beyond the studio’s sliding glass door. The viewer is placed alongside the cat, the mice, and the strange animal outside, a creature in the alternative world of night, seeing things through an alien subjectivity. 

In "Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage),” the viewer peers into the secret life of things, and both the act of viewing and the things themselves become increasingly unfamiliar and full of unknown possibilities.  Neither “Waylay” nor “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)” is either sincere or insincere, nor do they express a powerful sense of conviction; neither piece allows for such simple categories.  They are open ended occasions for looking and thought.  Nothing currently in the galleries of the Whitney Museum compares with them.  Is thought, like beauty, a luxury of peacetime?  

Contributor

Daniel Baird

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