Hungover at Whitney
Whitney Biennial 2008
Whitney Museum of American Art March 6, 2008 – June 1, 2008
Maybe it had something to do with the unfair expectations generated by a show that claims to be “the most important survey of the state of contemporary art in America today”; maybe it was the crapulent residue of opening night festivities, which still hung about the galleries (and about my head) in a thick miasma; maybe it was the throng of half-enthused, half-baffled viewers ejaculating inanities to one another and laughing, or sighing, or groaning with demonstrative relish; or maybe it was the sneaking suspicion that most of the artwork on display seemed less a diagnosis of the culture that has produced this unbecoming biyearly spectacle than a vaguely complicit reiteration of the futility of resistance; whatever the case, on my first (sober) appraisal of the 2008 Whitney Biennial, a single statement seemed set on continuous repeat in my head: “wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” Nor, under the current dispensation, went my silent refrain, can it be redeemed in art.
As I painstakingly made my way through three floors of what the curators have appropriately deemed “calculated messiness,” my initial impressions would be, by turns, affirmed, challenged, and, in one or two remarkable instances, triumphantly overturned. This is the friable substructure that supports contemporary viewing: we find ourselves grasping desperately for a final prejudice, a glimpse of hope in a world of shattered idols, knowing that at any moment the last vestige of terra firma might slip away, sending us headlong into the abyss. Or maybe that is just the hangover speaking from its freshly dug grave. “We must seek the true by way of the correct,” writes Heidegger, and if there is one thing correct about my initial reaction to this year’s Biennial, it is that the subtitle of the book from which my pessimistic mantra was drawn (Theodore Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life) makes a perfectly suitable summation of the exhibit—one which the curators themselves would likely embrace.
At the material level, a significant portion of the work featured in the exhibit—from Ruben Ochoa’s uprooted chain link fence to Mika Tajima’s bizarre pageant of shifting mirrors and distorted audio—pursues an aesthetic of fragmentation, disjunction, or, in the case of Walead Beshty’s safety laminate-encased, fractured glass boxes (an allusion to Duchamp’s damaged-in-transit The Large Glass?), just plain brokenness. Emotionally and figuratively, most of the rest of the featured artwork alludes in one form or another to what the curators refer to with vague foreboding as “our uncertain sociopolitical times…what feels like a transitory moment in history.” Leslie Camhi, writing in The Village Voice (“Farewell Dear Empire!” Vol. LIII, no. 11), situates that transitory moment at the Last Days of American imperial reign, though it might be more fitting to think of the Whitney Biennial as indicative of a cultural landscape that has grown so fat by self-cannibalization that its guts have burst open splattering the walls of the temple of art with a feculence regurgitated so many times over that we can no longer trace its origin. This is the impolite way of saying that the paradigm shift begun in the aftermath of high-modernism has reached its apogee and is now bumping against an evolutionary limit beyond which it is anyone’s guess what genetic mutations await us. Heaven or hellfire, it ought to be an exciting period to witness.
Unfortunately, too much of the work currently on view at Whitney is neither utopian nor apocalyptic, but merely entropic. The last thing we need at this (dis)juncture is another outsized monochrome canvas enabling us to examine painting as “a historical object” as the wall label to Olivier Mosset’s Untitled (2007) would have us do. Nor does the nearest approximation of this work’s antithesis, a room-sized installation of collector’s items from Bryan de Palma’s fabulously dated Scarface, provide an enlightened vantage either on Modernism or on the consumer hegemony the work is aimed at critiquing…? diagnosing…? endorsing…?
It is somehow fitting that, in an exhibit so contemptuous of painting, we should be greeted upon exiting the second floor elevator with Mary Heilman’s garish slacker abstractions. Like the lackluster installations by Joe Bradley two floors up, speciously anthropomorphized by their childish titles, these works offend by imagining themselves exempt from the trappings of their minimalist counterparts simply by virtue of doing poorly what the latter finesses. More unnerving, still, are the photorealistic paintings of Robert Bechtle in which the ambiguous motivations behind his depictions of “California leisure class iconography” are meant to compensate for the embarrassing fact that the painter is predisposed toward rendering works in a style innocuous enough to be hung in the homes of those depicted.
Credit figures like Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly for creating an insuperable anxiety around the procedure of signing one’s name to anything that begins to resemble the agonizing sincerity of their High Modern forebears. It is less Modernism proper with which the artist of today ostensibly contends, but those early post-Moderns who, exiled from the province of subjective genius, succeeded in inverting the game of art by denuding its unwritten rules. In a Baudrillardian twist, the shadow has replaced the monolith, and all its consequent elaborations seem like, well, shadow play. Perhaps this is why, with knee-jerk extremism, some contemporary artists seem destined to flee for either the low road of originary source-seeking or the high road of abstruse, free associative allegorizing. The latter approach is most clearly manifest in the work of Phoebe Washburn whose mad-scientist’s laboratory of bubbling Gatorade-filled fish tanks articulate a parable so prosaic it makes Duchamp’s aforementioned work seem like a knock-knock joke. The former approach is typified by the discourse surrounding ‘the abject’ and informe, the contentiously debated parameters of which could easily be extended to include the Biennial’s Jedediah Caesar. “More interested in materials themselves than in constructing sculptures with them,” Caesar has taken it upon himself to invent a new medium out of resin, pigment, and just about any bit of detritus he can otherwise toss into the mix. The result is a sort of monumental pâté, its own curious visual feast, but more than a little stomach turning.
If the cast-off tenets of bygone artistic eras manage to weave their way back into contemporary discourse it is in part because the viewing public is generally better acquainted with canonical works from before the first half of the 20th century than they are with works created after 1960, Warhol´s Pop portraits notwithstanding. This, despite valiant efforts to ‘educate’ the masses. More than a few hapless adult viewers (though probably far fewer children) will be surprised to read in Mathew Brannon’s Family Guide to the Whitney Biennial that sometime back in the 60’s the “rules” of art were expanded. “Now,” writes Brannon, “cool people think that anything can be art!” Even, apparently, the outlines of bird-droppings hypostasized into three dimensions through an amalgamate medium that includes papier-mâché, plaster, steel, synthetic polymer, river sediment, cigarette butts, duct tape, feathers, broken light bulbs, twine, bottle caps, and, for all any of us know, bird droppings themselves. What struck me most upon entering the room in which these ungainly creations are exhibited was not so much the actual sculptures as peoples’ reactions to them. Time and time again I overheard comparisons to Giacometti, usually from a slightly more receptive viewer trying to convince her disgruntled spouse that “this crap” was, indeed, worth the price of admission. Observing that these works take up a prime gallery on the fourth floor of the exhibit, it occurred to me that Charles Long’s sculptures (wittingly or not) play a strategic role in ushering nonplussed viewers on to the rest of the exhibit. That these uncompromisingly debased sculptures are being used to prop up interest in contemporary art through an egregiously misguided comparison to a Modernist master presents a startling irony. That the superficial comparison to Giacometti found its way, unqualified, into a New York Times review of the exhibit is less surprising.
This cringe-worthy conspiring of ingenuousness and irony is in no way at odds with the general sentiment expressed by much of the artwork on display. Indeed, many of the better works from the Biennial manage to translate the most jarring, socially awkward juxtapositions into subtle commentaries on the human condition. One such work is Edgar Arceneaux’s The Alchemy of Comedy…Stupid, a multimedia installation that untangles the manifold dimensions of personal experience that find their sublimated expression in comedy. Presenting the stand-up acts of David Allan Grier on multiple screens and stages interwoven so as to create alarming discontinuities between audio and video, the installation manages to sustain a disquieting timbre, unfalteringly treading a razor’s edge between laughter and tears. Received ideas are elaborated into hysterical absurdity, “retard jokes” fall flat, and comedic catharsis is degraded into painful repetition and sadomasochistic yearning. Just as Grier is leaving the stage for the last time, the frame freezes, and it is impossible to discern whether the face before us has hardened into a smile or a grimace.
Given the role that popular cinema plays in upholding a status quo of cultural consumption antithetical to the aims of most contemporary art, it is fitting that some of the finer works on view should enact their purported “modes of deconstruction” by harnessing the manipulative potential of moving images. Another remarkable video installation, Omer Fast’s The Casting unfolds on shifting diegetic fronts and yet manages to sustain a continuous dramatic tension as it relates to us the disparate personal narratives of an Iraq War veteran. There are several other noteworthy video-based works on view including Javier Téllez’s Letter on the Blind, a prolonged meditation on the power of touch, and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, an expansive, eye-opening documentary about Hurricane Katrina, which, bedridden two summers ago, I had the pleasure of watching at my leisure, but which no casual visitor to Whitney is likely to sit through in its entirety.
An exciting daily program at the Museum’s second floor screening room will also be on view throughout the course of the Biennial’s run. When I arrived here, happy to finally take a seat after several hours of wandering through the galleries, a fascinating film by director Amie Siegel was on view. examines the social and technological implications of Stasi surveillance in East Germany. At one point in the film, we witness the uncharacteristic photographic experimentations of a Stasi operative who, broken away from his companions, and with nobody to spy on, begins to focus his video lens upon the abstract arrangement created by the sun’s positioning between two street lamps. Emphasizing the strangeness of this extenuating aberration amid the nefarious techno-gadgetry of totalitarianism, the narrator tells us that this moment of artistic inspiration continues for no less than ten minutes. I could almost have begun to think that art in the technological age did have the power to redeem “wrong life” were it not for the memory of holocaust testimonials in which Nazi death camp guards whistled Bach to themselves while sending prisoners to the gas chambers.
By the time I made it over to the Park Avenue Armory, most of the visitors had cleared out, and I felt not a little like Harry Belafonte, wandering through deserted rooms in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Ronald Macdougal’s 1959 film The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which is on view each afternoon upstairs as a part of the Walead Beshty’s “24 Hour Cold War Slumber Party.” In the film, Belafonte’s character overcomes devastating loneliness and the psychopathic jealousy of one of the few other humans he encounters in order that mankind may emerge redeemed. Again I was being urged to consider the notion that “wrong life” could, in fact, be righted. Then I remembered this was Hollywood, and another quote from Adorno’s book drifted into my mind: “the total interconnectedness of the culture industry, omitting nothing, is one with total social delusion.” Needless to say, the illusion shattered.
DAVID MARKUS is last child of Generation X. A disaffected critic and belle-lettrist, he resides in NYC.