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Rehearsal for a review of the 2012 Whitney Biennial

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Omnipresence, Overdrive

Elisabeth Sussman at the media preview (speaking for herself and co-curator Jay Sanders): "We share a common problem. We know exactly what we want to do, and we want to do everything all the time.”

Everything is just about as hard to do as Nothing. Together they form a daunting dialectic, a binary of either total presence or total absence, total immersion or total negation, the one essentially necessitating its opposite. It seems a reasonable starting point for the alternate filling/emptying of a museum with images, sounds, light and action. With an emphasis on exploration and process, on film programs for each artist screened for one week, dance companies in residence for two weeks, itinerant musical and fashion performers, a polymorphous pursuit of recombinant activity, the 2012 Biennial exists on the heady continuum of Be Here Now/Be Here Never/Be Here Always. It's the Baba Ram Dass of exhibitions and would happily Catalog the Whole Earth if you let it. With artwork that generously bleeds into realms of the organic, the scientific and the encyclopedic, this Biennial is also the closest in recent memory to connote a contemporary Wunderkammer.

If one artist's oeuvre were chosen to signify the gestalt of Whitney 2012, it would be the various contributions of Lutz Bacher. Her Celestial Handbook, 85 framed black/silver pages from a book illustrating galactic phenomena, is distributed throughout the museum, even in the stairwells and the lower level, an object lesson in omnipresence. Her aleatorically sounding Pipe Organ, an old Yamaha synthesizer surrounded by projectile "fingers", pulls mournful drones out of its innards through a robotic algorithm that references issues of randomness, artificial intelligence and odd science. And her fourth floor performance piece, scheduled for late May/early June, conflates the release of hundreds of baseballs (each will find its proper resting place) with a he said/she said soundtrack conversation behind a film that fades from black to white to black, much like the Whitney's own webpage. Talk about symbiosis.

By now it is no secret that the cavernous space of the fourth floor has been transformed into a 6000 square foot arena for performance, outfitted with stadium seating, a fenced-in action area, a lattice walled waiting room, and - at least during the press opening - a blue neon portrait of a woman, and a female dancer wearing a horse's head. These are the trappings of choreographer Sarah Michelson's current commission. The space will be reconfigured for each successive performance residency. Next up: WHO's ZOO, a four week dance project by Michael Clark's London based company.

Transcience, A.D.D.

This edition of the Biennial is blessed, or afflicted, with a magpie eye for the transitory, for actions that are scheduled to come and go during the course of exhibition. It shares a morphing, "Artist is Present" aesthetic with the recent Greater New York outing at P.S. 1: artists inhabiting sculptural installations, performing pristine, theosophic, ritually repetitive actions, the precious ephemera of "now you see it, now you don't". Attention Deficit Disorder is probably a job related malady, not just for the current Biennial curators but for the entire profession. But it certainly is contagious, a condition readily transmitted to the audience.

The contributions of many of the featured film and video artists that pique my curiosity - the dance inflected work of Charles Atlas, a 75 minute video by Vincent Gallo, the high definition Detroit videos of Mike Kelley (to whom the 2012 Biennial is dedicated), the campy, hothouse, homegrown productions of George Kuchar (the other Biennial dedicatee) - are not yet available for viewing. They are programmed for later in the exhibition. The parable of the blind men and elephant somehow comes to mind. Go to the Whitney one day and it might feel like a wall (the elephant's flank). On another day, a tree trunk (leg). On another, a fan (ear) or a snake (trunk). The implicit model for an enthusiastic audience makes repeated visits mandatory to fully encompass the true nature of the beast.

Let's Rehearse

This tendency towards the incomplete, the unfinished, the continually morphing, is accentuated by a penchant for viewing performances as rehearsals: by Michelson, Clark and various successors on the fourth floor, including downtown "total theater" director Richard Maxwell. The idea of a series of residencies, each transparent to its particular working process, each with a daily series of open rehearsals that will be visible to the public and might even incorporate public participation, and which will then lead to a final schedule of performances, favors process over finished product, existence over essence. It favors the ungainly and the evolving, with an emphasis on "old, weird America", a quote attributed to the Sussman/Sanders team.

Two notable examples: Dawn Kasper's THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT is an immersive environment, essentially the contents of her apartment/studio dumped into a Whitney gallery, where she will conduct a "three month durational performance", continually tweaking and tinkering with the installation and conducting her life in the museum. You know the drill: life/work/art all in one place. There are piles of books, clothing, CDs, electronics, tools, bags of stuff, even a bed. Whether this is being posited as a meditation on homelessness remains to be seen, although Kasper will reportedly need to find alternate accommodations: there will be no overnight stays in the museum.

Sequestered in her own playroom on floor 5M, artist/provocateur Georgia Sagri literally occupies her own body by wearing costumes printed with images of her pink nudity. Quite a Dadaist trick, this purposeful confusion of layers. Sagri records and plays back her voice via computerized time delay, lip synching and walking in place in slow motion, scattering specially printed pillows, otherwise interrogating and inflecting the space with diagrams, proposals, moral and physical conundrums. In a sense, she plans to Occupy 945 (the Whitney's Madison Avenue address) in a strategy familiar from her infamous Occupy 38 action last September, when she briefly took over Artists Space (at 38 Greene Street in SoHo) with a splinter group of activists spawned during those heady days of the #OWS encampment at Zuccotti Park. At the media preview, as she worked the room, Sagri coyly but determinedly avowed that she was not performing for the press, merely rehearsing. Again, that R word.

The idea of performance qua rehearsal, exhibition qua rehearsal already seems so well established as a meme for the 2012 Biennial that I decided to adopt the mantle myself, and told various people at the Tuesday VIP opening that I was not really there in any real or final way, that I was merely rehearsing my presence. Similarly, I would ask you to approach this text as a rehearsal for a review, one which might never in fact be fully written. After all, the process, the "becoming", is everything. Getting there is all the fun.

Re-use, cooperation, collaboration

Artists, a convivial bunch, often work together, and the Whitney encourages this sort of cooperation. So designer/artist Oscar Tuazon's modular installation of walkways, ramps, doors, stairs, glass panels and metal frames, currently installed in the Lobby Gallery, will be disassembled and reconfigured on the fourth floor for K8 Hardy's runway fashion show in May.

Similarly, L.A.-based drag artist Wu Tsang's Green Room recapitulates the look and feel of The Silver Platter, a downtown dive bar that caters to LGBT Latin teenagers. With video projections that document the transgendered lifestyle, decked out in red vinyl and garish lighting, it is a funky, murky cocoon that flaunts its tranny glamor, but also functions as a real green room, a hangout for museum audience and performers that is next to the dancer's prep room on the fourth floor.


The spirit of cooperation is further evinced in a series of side projects, mini-exhibitions that have been assembled under the larger curatorial umbrella. Artist Robert Gober, who previously curated an entire floor of Charles Burchfield for the Whitney, has diligently researched and assembled a room of artwork by Texas bait fisherman and outsider artist Forrest Bess, a strange, reclusive type who showed his abstract paintings with the Betty Parsons Gallery, recorded his mystical visions, subscribed to Jungian theories of gender, and actually performed auto-surgery to render himself a quasi-hermaphrodite. A mesmerizing mini-show: transcendent, gnarly, visceral and utterly convincing.

Artist Nick Mauss has also sub-contracted the curatorial process to create his own mini salon. Framed by his construction of a baroque interior, in wood and velvet, of an ochre wall with moldings, lintels and working double doors, he has installed a slide show of images, together with work from artists as diverse as Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Ellsworth Kelly, May Wilson and Andy Warhol.

There's not much painting in the 2012 Biennial, but most of it is concentrated on the third floor, and the relative dearth of painters allows each artist a fuller, more expansive display. As I surveyed three walls with 35 of his modestly scaled, brightly colored, impeccably composed geometric abstractions of oil on canvas, my aesthetic enjoyment was combined with the sly realization that it was a very, very good day to be Andrew Masullo. But in the very next gallery, not to be outdone, Nicole Eisenman's cheek-by-jowl installation of 45 monotypes and several neo-expressionist canvases also made a strong statement.

And just a bit further on, next to one of Marcel Breuer's trapezoidal windows, Jutta Koether has arranged four paintings mounted on glass panels in a creche-like enclosure: The Seasons I.


Part of the "old, weird" emphasis of this year's survey permits craft, or "crafty looking" work, to come front and center: in the embroidered conceptual samplers of Elaine Reichek; Tom Thayer's room of delicately wrought paper puppets and detritus from his sets; ecologically redolent constructions of string, muslin and monofilament by Cameron Crawford.

Also in Kai Althoff's huge, diaphanous room divider that bisects the large gallery on the second floor. And even in Sam Lewitt's science fair project run amok, his nightmarish model of a depraved, otherworldly landscape composed of toxic, ferromagnetic liquid agitated by a fan.

In a category all by himself, and housed in his own separate room, is German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s Hearsay of the Soul, a five channel digital video featuring enlarged images from the landscape etchings of 17th century Dutch printmaker Hercules Segers, against an elegiac soundtrack of an aria sung in the Wolof dialect of West Africa and a solo cello composition by Ernst Reijseger. Herzog is a surprise entry into this year's Biennial, as his province seems more film than art, although his contribution to a New Museum exhibition could have precipitated the Whitney choice. And while his celebration of Segers as an original modernist might at first feel precious and obscure, the brooding, solemn conjunction of image with music, and the intimations of incipient globalism through the early European colonization of Africa, make for an emotionally arresting and intellectually intriguing Gesamtkunstwerk.

The young and the hip

In addition to including art from Herzog and from the Brave New World of Detroit, where rents are low and artist/pioneers stake their claim to giant lofts amid picturesque vistas of urban decay (as per the conventional narrative), the curators have typically mined a lot of energy from New York, especially from the young, hip galleries of the Lower East Side and their fellow travelers in SoHo and uptown. Particularly favored this year are Miguel Abreu (with Lewitt and photographer Liz Deschenes), Canada (sculptor Joanna Malinowska), Reena Spaulings (K8 Hardy), AZPC (Lutz Bacher), Clifton Benevento (Wu Tsang), Feature (Andrew Masullo) and Murray Guy (Moyra Davey).


Finally, a bit of bean counting. The number of artists/artist groups in each Biennial is frequently analyzed as some indicator of the state of the nation, the strength of the economy, or the particular puissance of the art market. Even though everyone knows this is nonsense, and that aesthetic concerns are (supposed to be) at the forefront of the selection process, the ingrained hedging is endemic to the art punditocracy.

If there are 100 or more artists in a particular year's survey, whether at the Whitney or in auxiliary venues that have been drafted for the cause, this is deemed notably robust. Smaller rosters are parsed as secret harbingers of incipient disaster.

This year, the Biennial has 51 participants, a modest figure by any recent standard. But the effective number is even lower, since the contributions of many artists are not yet visible, and will only become part of the exhibition for a single week of screenings or a fortnight of performance. On any particular visit to the museum, there are fewer than forty exhibiting artists.

How to account for the relative sparseness this year? Is the museum going broke? Is it merely retrenching, marshaling its resources to prepare for a planned expansion downtown into the brand spanking new Renzo Piano ocean liner at the foot of the High Line? Or is this strictly an aesthetic decision by Sussman and Sanders? Have they chosen a smaller diamond to polish and re-polish, so as to be better able to showcase each of its precious, shining facets? In the hands of the 2012 curators, is less in fact more?

Unknown Artists sent a message

Unknown Artists sent a message using the contact form at

Forwarded message:

Dear Artists in the Whitney 2012 Biennial:

We are concerned that your participation in the exhibition is serving to
whitewash some of the most egregious institutions operating in the world
today. We ask that you withdraw from the exhibition in protest and stand
with the 99%.

We made this video for you:

Unknown Artists