Between Emergence and Reflection
The Whitney Biennial 2010
Every two years, the Whitney Biennial offers an overview of current trends in contemporary American art. In this year of recession, a highly reduced and spare presentation awaits the viewer. A survey by Oliver Koerner von Gustorf
||In his speech during the press preview of the Whitney Biennial, Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum, said that he's very grateful to Deutsche Bank for the carte blanche. Not only because the bank has sponsored the most important event in contemporary American art for the third time, but especially because up until the day of the opening, it's never foreseeable exactly what will ultimately be shown.
Indeed, the Biennial's friends and critics alike consider it to be a barometer not only for current trends in American art, but also for the social sensibilities that it reflects. The fact that this view can be highly subjective and is heavily colored by the perspective of each respective curator has given the Biennial its own special status. As a kind of Oscar for the American art world, it's also "the show that everybody loves to hate." New Yorkers traditionally have a kind of love/hate relationship with their Biennial. Yet despite all the polarization, it offers an accurate assessment of the moment whether one likes it or not. In this vein, the dark, shiny, gothic flair corresponded to the hedonistic way in which the feverish art market embraced rock culture and subversive lifestyles. In 2008, when people were longing for an end to the Bush era, the Biennial had the character of a conceptual construction site, offering politicized works, "Scatter-Art," overflowing assemblages and sculptures made of recycled materials—a clearly anti-monumental, unheroic statement that not only filled the museum, but also the neighboring Park Avenue Armory.
And now for the 60th anniversary of the Biennial, we have the recession version of 2010, the year in which the hope invested in Obama as an almost messianic figure has receded alarmingly. America is currently in a kind of state of suspension somewhere between sobriety and a demonstrative optimism, in search of a "common sense" that can be used to deal with urgent problems. And while debates over the reform of the health care system further divide the nation and posters for the new HBO comedy series How to Make It in America — a title that is not only meant ironically—plaster the streets, this year's Biennial also seems caught in the gap between a sense of emergence and reflection. The era of spectacle is obviously over. Not only the laconic title 2010 seems pared down; while for the first time in the show's history more women are taking part than men, the curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carricon-Murayari have cut the number of artists down to 55, half the amount of 2006. This has created space this year for works of art that are presented in a more solid, museum-like manner.
In anticipation of the Biennial, the exhibition Collecting Biennials on the fifth floor of the Whitney offers a look back over the 60-year history of the show, demonstrating with prominent examples from its own collection how the controversial Biennials of the past have helped write American art history—with artists such as Matthew Barney, Philip Guston, Eva Hesse, Edward Hopper, Mike Kelley, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol. "We curated the collection as a Biennial, and then applied this idea to the Biennial, curating it as a collection," writes Francesco Bonami in his foreword to the catalogue, which is astonishingly lacking in theory. In contrast to earlier Biennials, the aim was not to overload: the museum itself and the traditional events are program enough. And so there is no overriding theme, no coherent visual "narrative"; instead, we are presented with a sequence of respectably installed white cubes spotlighting from room to room what the American art scene is currently involved with. And this is above all a return to historical movements and aesthetics: geometric and abstract painting, performance, dance, Minimal, Fluxus—the politicized art of the sixties and seventies.
If the Polish artist Piotr Uklanski installed a steel sculpture of a clenched fist in Socialist Realist style as a historical East-West reference in front of Mies van der Rohe's modernist temple, the New National Gallery in Berlin, he's created another kind of trademark altogether for the Whitney Museum. His wall-sized work Untitled (The Year We Make Contact), 2010, greets visitors to the 4th floor with a veritable heap of jute, hemp, macramé, and pigment—a brownish pile with a huge red spot in front that looks as though it had just been squeezed out of a gigantic tube. The abstract composition is an homage to the expressionist stage designers of the Polish avant-garde of the fifties, and like so many other things in the show, it is a reflection of past failed utopias.
In Europe and the USA, more and more artists are investigating the modernist legacy and possibilities for recontextualizing the formal vocabulary of abstract, minimally reduced art and charging it with contemporary social and personal references. This can also be observed at the Whitney, where a generation of young conceptual painters enters the picture: for instance Tauba Auerbach, who photographs white noise on TV sets and digital grids and then translates these into abstract compositions on canvas. Or Sara Crowner, whose paintings, reminiscent of Op-Art, are sewn together like patchwork quilts and border on craft. An extraordinary discovery is R.H. Quaytman, whose silvery, shimmering works covered with diamond dust and geometric lines and layers combine photography, oil painting, and silkscreen. For her series Distracting Distance, Chapter 16 made for the Biennial, she reenacted Edward Hopper's painting A Woman in the Sun (1961) together with the New York performance artist K8 Hardy. She superimposes some of the details with grid structures of media imagery and architectonic elements of the Whitney Museum to create reduced abstract compositions. Quaytman's work, which oscillates between painting and montage, is as seductive as it is puzzling. Her sampled aesthetic contains echoes of a variety of references: the spirit of Warhol's Factory, the screen dots of Polke, the modern utopias of the Russian avant-garde, the graphic look of underground magazines and fanzines, the current debate on formalism. In this respect, despite their beauty Quaytman's works seem relatively hermetic: art about art and the artist.
This also characterizes many of the positions at the Whitney Biennial: a difficulty, despite the political bent, in developing clear approaches to social themes; in finding a committed, perhaps even provocative voice that makes the reference to current everyday realities palpable, also to people outside an art context. One could call the 2010 Biennial "creepy" and "optimistic," declared Francesco Bonami, "creepy because there is this apparent calm, like the first chapter of a Stephen King novel in which everything looks normal, but you know it's not." Indeed, in this respect, the Whitney resembles a museum spook house—the sense of artistic upheaval and criticism doesn't seem like it's from today, but like an echo from better times. Numerous dance and performance videos conjure the spirit of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, such as Jesse Aron Green's Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik (2008), in which seventeen dancers move according to the directions of a medical book from 1858, or Kelley Nipper's dance performance Weather Center, inspired by Mary Wigman.
The popular We Love America, and America Loves Us by the artists' collective The Bruce High Quality Foundation is also inspired by a work from the seventies, Joseph Beuys's performance I Like America and America Likes Me, in which he rides in a dilapidated ambulance from JFK Airport to the René Block Gallery to shut himself inside for three days with a coyote. In a reference to the Beuys work, the collective installed the very same Cadillac Miller Meteor, which also played a key role in the '80s film Ghostbusters. Inside the ambulance, a video montage is projected onto the windshield: a cut-up covering several decades of American media history that blends documentation of the Beuys performance with Hollywood films, comedy shows, news coverage, and YouTube clips. The soundtrack to the mix consists of a woman's voice speaking of America in a poetic monologue of farewell, as though she were speaking of a lost friend, a former lover, or like a parent who has abandoned her child. The outside view becomes the inside view, the retrospective becomes introspective.
"Yes we can" has turned into "Yes I can," Bonami writes in the catalogue; and for many artists, when it comes to founding new communities in this historical moment of 2010, for many artists the point of departure will initially be their own private state of mind. This isolation can also be felt in the exhibition. One walks through bright white cubes, past works that are abstract or transcendent, for instance Pae White's monumental photo work Still Untitled (2010) depicting billowing smoke, while the filigree opulence of Charles Ray's floral ink drawings is overwhelming. In another room, one suddenly encounters Stephanie Sinclair's photo series Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help (2005), which shows images of seriously wounded Afghan women who have set themselves on fire in their desperation over an impending forced marriage. The few works that openly address war and violence stick out like shockingly sore thumbs in the exhibition choreography. These are always of a photodocumentary nature, such as Nina Berman's series Marine Wedding (2008), parts of which have already appeared in magazines like People and Stern. The works show the everyday life of a marine who has returned from Iraq; his face has been completely destroyed by a bomb. The series documents the wedding of the deformed man as well as the subsequent alienation from his high school sweettheart, who divorces him after only a few months.
In the exhibition concept, works this forthright are the exception. Sharon Hayes, whose work is in the Deutsche Bank Collection, explores the construction of sexual and gender identity and the articulation of political protest in her video installation Parole (2010), while Josephine Meckseper is one of the few artists to offer a partisan commentary on prevailing conditions. In her video Mall of America (2009), she submerges images of a shopping mall in the patriotic colors red and blue, accompanied by an eerie soundtrack. The camera travels along endless shelves of stuffed animals, special offers, discount signs, cheap trinkets, and fast food. Then it focuses on TV screens playing news coverage; a store mannequin in a uniform; a flight simulator for military pilot practice. Signs with the desperate demand to "Look at me," smiley faces on helium balloons, the facades of "Dollar Tree" and "Pizza Hut": Meckseper draws an oppressive and disconcerting image of a culture crippled by consumerism and violence.
More polemics, a bit more pessimism and courage to fail might have done this well-tempered show some good. While an increasing number of people are confronted by massive economic, social, and psychological problems, the Whitney Biennial offers little more than melancholy—but no anger, no rebellion, and hardly any direct references to current events. The decision to let the art speak for itself, to propagate no trends and to place the individual work above an overriding curatorial theme might well attest to the earnestness, credibility, and artistic quality at hand. Yet even if this new, crisis-related reserve at the Whitney Biennial offers a composed and respectable veneer and has even rehabilitated it the eyes of certain critics, it’s not really inspiring. Looking at this exhibition, it seems as though contemporary American art had fled into the reclusiveness of the museum to await its sainthood in the most politically correct manner possible and without offending anyone. It looks like we should shelve our utopian visions for the time being. If the Whitney Biennial really is a reflection of a cultural atmosphere, then we can expect extremely pragmatic times ahead.