An ambitious endeavor, Exit Biennial: The Reconstruction is the first of five Biennials planned for the decade to highlight Exit Art’s transformation from an offbeat SoHo gallery into a major venue for emerging art. The inaugural biennial is a spectacle of 34 site-specific installations and performances, rivaled only by the new space itself, the curatorial theme of the show. The new 11,000 square-foot space is delineated by chain-link fence, creating a camp, X-ray-like feel and immediately setting the exhibit in a political context. Visible beyond the entrance are a café, offices and the exhibition area. The layout and $10 suggested donation raise the ante on the expectations for the exhibition, composed of a group of emerging and relatively unknown artists.
The most notable failures in the Exit Biennial are the ones that are the most polished, a testament to the experimental, open-ended nature of the majority of the work. Frantiska and Tim Gilman’s exquisitely crafted, scaled down house, which hangs from the ceiling of the gallery, inspires momentary awe. Upon close inspection, however, the piece offers few revelations; it is little more than a meticulously recreated home, upside down. Anne Rowland’s concrete and wood platform is also a physical dwelling that on paper seems like a good idea — the reconstruction of a part of her childhood home. The work is unfortunately a dull little crawlspace with absolutely nothing distinctive about it; there are no particulars that make crawling about in the dark with a flashlight all that rewarding.
On the other hand, the show features other types of habitable spaces that engage ideas of home, sanctuary, and identity in ways that are aesthetically and critically interesting. Jenny Pollock’s “Situ Sanctuary,” for instance, takes up these issues in a politically charged, interactive installation which provides a hiding place inside the gallery. Initially it appears to be a video monitor installed in a column surrounded by documents on illegal aliens, but the column opens to reveal a ladder inside. The uncomfortable climb leads to a hiding place in the connecting beam that has its own surveillance equipment. Pollock’s sanctuary is also a stunning piece of facsimile, easily mimicking the real columns, and the hiding place blends into the periphery of the ceiling. The broader political implications of the necessity of such a hiding place offer a unique vantage point on what constitutes safety and security in Patriot Act America.
With less sophistication, but not without effort, Kate Gilmore constructed a hanging shanty out of materials she dragged into the gallery from around Hell’s Kitchen. The gathering of the materials is documented on several old televisions. The shack itself is suspended from the ceiling so that, upon entering, any movement causes the floor to rise or fall, undermining one’s sense of balance. Gilmore’s house is site-specific, ongoing, and performance-based, unlike the Gilmans’ house, which feels already finished, a victim of its high-production values and narrow concept.
Although Jesse Bercowetz, Matt Bua, and Ward Shelly’s “Sweatshop” involves performance, the ramshackle fortress-factory is the most substantial aspect of the piece. The three artists have transformed labor politics, global trade, hipster signage and Paul McCarthy’s character driven performances into a B-movie, junk sci-fi wonder. The trash palace is loaded with information, from commercial advertisements to mock revolutionary propaganda, like a poster proclaiming “Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers.” The entire work is a day-glo menagerie of imagery and narrative drive, an art sweatshop run by three oddly outfitted characters making foam dolls. Its biggest flaw is the obviousness of its influences from Paul McCarthy and Thomas Hirschorn. Nonetheless, this is one of the most spectacular and ambitious works in the exhibit.
There are many sculptural objects in the show that involve some level of interaction, yet many of the pieces are unresolved or are bland in the larger context of the exhibit. Larry Bamburg’s pickup truck submerged in yellow is intended to be a fake aquarium, but looks like a pickup submerged in yellow paper. The collaborative group Team TAG presented a changing sculpture made of mist, but it appeared to be a hanging wooden and latex sculpture. This didn’t exactly match up with the press release and seemed like a stand-in for something interesting that never materialized. Markus Wetzel’s “Concrete Island” is a small and undemanding model island set on the floor of the gallery that is supposed to look like it is rising out of the water, but the illusionism is unconvincing.
The exhibit includes three wall pieces. Christian Tomaszewski’s “Made in USA” is a large mirrored wall with the title on the lower right corner. It reflects both the viewer and the rest of the gallery, raising age-old questions of vanity and egotism that are not wholly compelling. Lynn Koble’s “Porta-Wall,” a faux brick wall on wheels, is supposed to have a sound track exhorting visitors to move it, but the sound was off during two visits, and the piece is too literal for its own good. Koble might have learned from the architectural setups of Jason Middlebrook, who uses faux architectural elements to alter the perception of a space. The Jell-O wall by Lisa Hein and Bob Seng excels as both a temporal sculptural form and a hilarious gesture that borders on the sublime. The Jello-O wall began as a really big Jell-O mold, and has degenerated into a hollowed out lattice, dripping grotesque colors. It addresses mortality and time using very simple means that, despite their inelegance, manage to be profound in ways that Tomaszweski’s and Koble’s pieces are not.
Two formally related installations that explore different questions of race and politics are Mariam Ghani’s “Kabul: Reconstructions” and Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz’s “Rican-struction.” These adjacent rooms recreate habitats, but unlike the other rooms in the show, the objects themselves are less important than the subjects presented. Ortiz’s stereotypically Latino room is actually the setting for a beauty salon, where the artist offers Latino makeovers; Ghani’s U.N. relief tent is only a shell that houses videos of Kabul and a collaborative website that features the work of several other artists. The elaborate settings are essentially frames for the real pieces presented or performed inside. Ortiz’s use of the term “Rican-structions,” used previously by Latino artists and musicians, like painter Juan Sanchez, is an appropriation with a feminist agenda. Ghani’s piece is available on the web at www.kabul-reconstructions.net and provides an alternative perspective on the overshadowed events in Afghanistan.
Sunsook Roh’s performance installation, “I Will Sanctify Your Path,” is a wall of paper strands over sharp looking objects, which Roh walked through while reciting a poem. The installation itself is rather bland, Roh scheduled only four performances, and the accompanying video of the performance is not illuminating. While there are very few pure performance pieces in the show, Rob Andrews could be seen cleaning the floor of the space with a toothbrush, and Drew Heitzler could be found scraping paint off the gallery window in his video loop “Artworker;” neither work really seems all that necessary or different. Monika Goetz filmed herself walking about the gallery from the perspective of her cane at different points in the show. Watching a blind person navigate a space certainly offers an alternative perspective, but it cannot possibly convey the subjective experience of being blind. In their "food cube" "Untitled (Bread and Butter)," J. Gabriel Lloyd and John McGurk doled out food to passersby outside the gallery, part act of goodwill and part interactive sculpture. But during the show the cube sits dormant and anonymous in the front entrance.
Of the performances, Alessandra Lee Michelle Torres’s complex, exhibitionist work “Body Language” was the most affecting. Torres herself squeezed into an incubator ordinarily used for premature infants, but of course her nude, adult body has none of the innocence of a newborn. Although Torres wore a mask to create the illusion of obliviousness, she was still markedly self-conscious. The fact that she remained inside the incubator for seven consecutive days inevitably evokes the stamina work of Marina Abramovic, but to what end? Trying to recreate the experience of living in an incubator is a fantastically impossible task. In a further complication of the subject/object relationship and the work’s ambiguous eroticism, the artist set up a pair of gloves and invited the viewer to touch her prone body. Torres’s performance was equally about vanity and exhibitionism as Abramovic’s recent performance and installation. The work certainly raises questions about scopophilia and the male gaze, but these received ideas regrettably overshadow the piece’s deeper theme — the personal exploration of a time before memory and consciousness.
Jade Townsend’s dark sense of humor provided a laugh and a wonderfully absurd take on the exhibit’s theme of reconstruction. His installation “Jonny” is a cringe-inducing accident scene, with the limp body of a construction worker splayed at the base of a fallen ladder and damaged pieces of sheet rock. A cup of coffee sits atop the still-playing radio amidst tools and materials. Although the Camp Kill Yourself collective routinely tosses dummies onto moving cars and off overpasses to shock motorists, Townsend’s work is much more elaborate and well conceived in its melancholy mood and pitch-perfect reality.
Exit Biennial: The Reconstruction is less an institutional biennial than an anti-biennial that has found an institution with a sense of humor and playfulness. The exhibit works without becoming a parody of the theoretically draining seriousness of Berlin and Venice. Given that this was an open call for space/performance proposals, there are definitely works that do not successfully execute the artists concept, or were poorly conceived in the first place, but the exhibit shows an admirable and open-minded populism in giving over such a magnificent space to so many new faces. The flaws, failures, and successes taken together reward the viewer, and make it more like going to a carnival than visiting a gallery. Someone selling popcorn and cotton candy wouldn’t really be out of place.