Spending Friday at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial was like spending an afternoon watching YouTube, except the Whitney’s installations were of a lower production quality and were vastly less meaningful — even when shouting their relevance at full volume. Room after room showed video after video in the show billed as the art world’s statement of what’s happening now, a statement, the Whitney will tell you, it has been making for over 75 years.
But this version of the Beinnial is about yesterday not about today, or tomorrow. Missing is any sense of the new movement that’s rapidly coloring our aesthetic, the post-postmodernism movement (we are going to need a better term eventually). It’s been forming in literature, and is influencing the visual art world, probably leading it, after building for nine years or so now, but you would never know it from visiting the Whitney. The 2010 Biennial is not about what’s coming, it is about more of the same, but louder and more self-absorbed.
From a curatorial perspective the inward looking intransigence of the show is very apparent, not just because of the cramped space in the museum’s galleries, but at the level of the artist’s works as well. The works present a confusing mix of medium and execution, bizarre adoption of pre-pop cyber culture tools, a profusion of text used for annotation (text not as good as that produced by the lesser of our contemporary poets), the use of a subject mater pallet composed of overt screeds denouncing all the usually suspects, the West, Culture, militarism, capitalism, and a relentless demand to wallow in political points of view that my writing professors would have kicked my ass over if I had included them in my work, calling them “visible ax grinding.” Add to this the ironic repetitions of tropes like celebrity portraits, and before long you have a show screaming out: “I Am Relevant!” — which when the claim is made with such force has to be depreciated for what it is, a realization that we are at the dying end of an aesthetic trend.
I’ve grown used to these collective confusions from the Whitney, it’s part and parcel of the place, but this year it seems especial out of touch. The Whitney has long been buffeted by a board not sure of its purpose, tending to swing at one time from the role of promotor of art held in their patron’s personal collections, to the promotion of artists represented by their gallerist connections, all triggered by a leadership ADD from ongoing pitched warfare over money and real estate; some kind of domestic strife or outright divorce is always brewing in the staff offices. The contrast with the overtly commercial Guggenheim is telling. The Guggenheim’s surrender to commercial marketing has allowed it the freedom to make broad connecting statements about artistic movements, often separated by hundreds of years, in vastly different genres, such as fashion, industrial design, and conceptual performance, as well as traditional visual art. While the Guggenheim connects the dots, the Whitney seems, increasingly, to be a splatter, a hastily hurled ink stream squirted against one of its raw concrete walls.
Perhaps graffiti is a better metaphor. It feels like the 2010 Biennial is spray-painted on, hastily executed politico-gangland art, defacing as it splotches. But graffiti was yesterday three decades ago, if it ever was anything, as are the poorly constructed art pieces in the show. Besides concerns that the works could collapse or disintegrate at any moment, there is a sense of looking back and looking side to side, trying to pick up street cred from the slicker mediums of web 2.0, and not doing a very good job, which beg’s the question “so who’s leading the art world here, you or us?” — the “us” being those working in the vast world of electronic media. (This makes the Tim Burton show over at the MoMA even more referential.)
The profusion of crinkly short form video in the Biennial is the most obvious example of this, but crumbling Styrofoam sculptures, and news magazine stylized photos of war injuries and horrific human mutilations heightened the sense of self-absorption, the feeling of artists worried about the viewer getting what they have to say, so much so that the volume cannot be raised high enough. Twice I simply closed my eyes, refusing to let in the screeching of all this insecurity, all this demand for attention. When I forced my eyes open and tried to let in the aesthetic I realized that it just wasn’t there. What is there is all on the surface, like a Maoist propaganda poster, or a toothpaste ad.
To cement the self absorption, in case you missed it, the Whitney is running a fifth floor exhibition reviewing the prior seventy-five shows. There is nothing more damming to relevance than paying for your own birthday party.
Certainly in isolation there are works deserving of the mission of the Biennial. I saw fabulous executions by Tauba Auerbach (Untitled Fold Painting III) and David Adamo (Untitled). I lost myself in deeply moving miniatures by Lesley Vance, and in Josh Brand’s work (Vertical Red White Light).
But others, some that have been publicized for their shockingness, are here again. Stephanie Sinclair’s journalistic work, and Nina Berman’s photographs (Marine Wedding) — which surround Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ construction (Couch For A Long Time), like we wouldn’t get it otherwise — are just horrifying; nothing more, just horrifying. They would not be as condescending if not for their exploitation. As news they may be relevant, even poignant, as art, no way.
No piece screams its demand for meaningfulness more loudly than Sharon Hays’ work (What Interest Does the Women’s Movement Have in the Homosexual Question), a running visual installation, isolated in its own room, projecting film on teetering plywood that could collapse at any moment, except perhaps Marianne Vitale’s video (Patron) which is a intimate denouncement of the viewer, presented before a single chair, for even having shown up at the show. There’s room after room of this stuff. One room is a video of Kate Gilmore trying to get out of room she’s been walled into, which was how I felt by time I got to her piece. Three floors of people screaming at you, or threatening decompose before you, like Huma Baba’s work (My Skull Is To Small), and before long you ask yourself if there is anything real being said here, except that, regardless of the eroding intellectual support of their collapsed philosophical underpinnings, that these experiences are “Important.”
Another example: One of the show’s non-works is by Michael Asher. His proposal is to have the Whitney open continuously to the public twenty-four hours a day for one week. This is his “art work”. The Whitney accepted his proposal but then, in their own words:
“Note: The duration of this work has been shortened from the artist’s original proposal. Due to budgetary and human resources limitations, the Museum is unable to remain open to the public twenty-four hours a day for one week. As a result, this work has been shortened from seven days to three days.”
Now there’s a statement for you, but it’s not about the aesthetic.
The post-postmodernism aesthetic that’s not on view at the Whitney speaks to the core human values of individualism, personal responsibility, personal ability, and self-reliance; contribution to all from the contribution of one. It’s an aesthetic and movement of possibility not denigration, and it seeks less attention for the sake of attention than value in doing and having done. It is based on a philosophy of reality, and an aesthetic of the well crafted solution. It is sleek not crumpled, efficient not confused. This is almost diametrically opposed to everything on three floors of the Beinnial, even if it’s open for three 24 hour days.
I’m going to go back to the Biennial, maybe in the wee hours of the Asher show, to try and figure out if I’m missing something. My sense is that I am not, that the reverberation I felt from the show’s overall zapping hum is the correct one, that of an end coming to an aesthetic era, that the politics and philosophy of two generation have hollowed out, and like creaking installations of super eight movies, is getting ready to implode into a new era, and that none of the new era is on display at 75th Street.