Yayoi Kusama, Fireflies on the Water
Part One: The Serious and Ambitious Catalogue
The three curators of the 2004 Whitney Biennial — Chrissie Iles, Shamim Momin, and Debra Singer — make an immodest claim in the jointly signed catalogue introduction. The current biennial, they write, suggests an art “sea change” as important as that delineated by the 1993 biennial (whatever that change was). The present change seems to have something to do with 9/11, corporate greed and dot-com collapse.
Alas, although I enjoy the new biennial a great deal, I don’t think this point is adequately demonstrated either by their text or their exhibition. All three, nevertheless, produced credible single-author essays, leading one to suspect that the introduction is a bit of an exquisite corpse (e.g., the surrealist parlor game in which one person draws the head, the second blindly draws the torso, and the third the feet). Notions from the invited essays also get thrown into the mix.
Tendencies discovered in their research include: “diverse approaches to process, narrative, materiality, abstraction, conceptual strategies, technology, and history.” Well, that pretty much covers it all; these characteristics could apply to any random sampling of art for the last 50 years.
Fortunately, further on in the essay nostalgia rears its head, apparently embodied by new art that references art of the ’60s and ’70s. This is related to the intergenerational perspective offered by including a significant number of works, as was once done in the dark biennial past, by “oldies but goldies.” However, mythmaking in the face of a “dangerous and alien” world turns out not to be all that intriguing; the so-called Goth sensibility even less so, if one can imagine such a thing. Mythmaking here seems to err on the side of the coy.
Singer’s essay, “The Way Things Never Were: Nostalgia’s Possibilities and the Unpredictable Past” is well worth reading. For some reason, I never knew that nostalgia was originally a medical term. Worse yet, it originates in the attempt to medicalize the not so inexplicable longing for home demonstrated by those in the military (which is probably not unrelated to the way homosexuality was made a disease). Cures for nostalgia involved opium and leaching. A certain Russian general’s corrective medicine was to bury the afflicted warrior alive.
Two faults intrude: Singer does not convincingly distinguish between what she sees as nostalgia in contemporary art and good, old-fashioned appropriation — or before that, art about art. Someone also must eventually account for some of these borrowings by placing the blame on art schools, where professors, often artists themselves, routinely demand that students cite their sources, meaning the slide images of post-1960 art the students have borrowed from. This gives a new meaning to the term “academic art.” Originality is suspect. The second fault is to use Svetlana Boym’s dreadful “restorative” vs. “reflective” dichotomy from her book The Future of Nostalgia.
But you should know that I do not speak objectively on the issue of nostalgia, since I find it akin to cheap sentiment. The only nostalgia I am interested in is The Nostalgia for the Infinite, which also happens to be the title of a painting by De Chirico.
The issue of ’60s and ’70s referencing also comes up in Iles’ essay, so I had better deal with some of the difficulties head-on. Robert Smithson, represented in the catalogue by his 1970 essay on the artist and politics, probably would have hated every last artwork in this biennial, so it is odd that he is referred to as a great hero for many of the artists on view, none of whom particularly exhibit Smithsonian traits. Then again, the dead can’t choose who will claim them as uncles or saints.
A much more telling inclusion is that of Jorge Luis Borges’ short tale “The Lottery in Babylon.” Everyone admires Borges, including yours truly. His paradoxical parables are of the one-size-fits-all variety, but we love them all. Borges, who of course lived and wrote during the period of the Peron dictatorship in Argentina, felt that repression and censorship were good for art, since they inspired creative subterfuge. I have always hoped he was being ironic, but I doubt it. That the politics demonstrated in the current biennial is disguised by nostalgia for the ’60s is, I fear, a sign of the general cultural repression. Sam Durant, for instance, makes drawings of ’60s demonstrations, possibly as stand-ins for current actions probably too hot to handle. Even Mary Kelly is represented by a projection of her brilliant piece done long ago that recreated a photo of a Parisian student demonstration in lint from her washing machine, thus distancing the political instinct through technology.
Also in the catalogue is an homage to Charles Fourier, a reprint of the English version of his 1806 “Table of the Progress of Social Movement.” ARTOPIA, of course, has long subscribed to his pre-Marxist theory of passionate attraction as a social principle, leading to utopia.
We are not going to have anything as unfashionable as even a simple utopian idea or ideal as long as timidity rules, yielding to the forces of censorship now apparently triumphant again. How else can we explain Wayne Koestenbaum’s mournful complaint in his perverse and subversive essay “Fag Limbo,” that not even the more obviously gay artists in the exhibition would come out to him. I myself wonder if, in the era of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” fear is still the explanation for the closet: fear, once again, that autobiographical honesty will jeopardize those highly mortgaged careers? Or that some time soon, in the name of the family and so-called family values, these quiet queer Americans will be forced to marry other gay men?
Writing about a group show that doesn’t have a clear-cut theme is always difficult, and the biennial has always been just that: a gigantic survey of whatever the appointed curators find of interest over a two-year period.
The curators are not to be envied the task of explaining their choices, usually guided merely by personal taste. Nevertheless, no matter how much I and others have railed against the biennials, the good done over the years far outweighs the persiflage and errors of aesthetic or political judgment. Some artists we have not seen before sneak in. New talent has always been the point, and, when established artists are included, so has significant work by old standbys. It is impossible to see every new artist showing in Chelsea or Williamsburg or, for that matter, L.A. or Houston. So the biennials are a kind of art world crib-sheet or tip-sheet. Even more important, the Whitney Biennial always stirs up a fuss and gets people thinking about art.
Part Two: And the Winners Are . . .
The bad news is that the biennial is too big; it sprawls all over Central Park, the 42nd Street Whitney branch, the Kitchen, and includes so many films, concerts, and video presentations that you would have to devote a major part of your life to seeing it all. Something for everyone is not always a good idea; more is not necessarily more. But, being charitable for once, perhaps this is an inevitable function of too many artists in too many cities working in too many media.
The good news is that this show’sintergenerational mix really works. The curators have even included the recently dead, I think a first. It is refreshing to see established artists along newcomers, and the reverse. For the art virgins, there has to be some transfer of prestige: What biennial were you in? Oh, you know, the one that had Robert Mangold, Kusama, David Hockney, Robert Longo, Alex Hay, Jack Goldstein (d. 2003), Richard Prince, and, in film, Stan Brakhage (d. 2003). Even Mel Bochner.
Being of a sunny disposition, I prefer to praise. Attack mode may make better reading, but who says that just because artists are now predominantly entertainers that critics have to follow suit?
I will resist giving grades. I will resist giving grades. I will resist giving grades. I will…
I will not give grades, but will give out the following prizes:
The Most Strangely Creepy and Oddly Moving Installation — David Altmejd for his Delicate Men in Positions of Power, an installation focused on a dead werewolf turning into crystals (I think) plus other mixtures of Sol Le Witt and Paul Tek (whose self-portrait Death of a Hippie is here deftly recalled).
Best Artist Name; Best Group Name; Best Collaboration; Wittiest Use of Technology and Appropriation — all five prizes go to Cory Arcangel/BEIGE for Super Mario Clouds, projected images and sounds from a hacked video game.
Best Fusion of Photography and Sculpture (and Best Title) – Dike Blair for his then, into, not because you have look for awhile to find the photo but because the low-lying geometric structure, which includes fluorescent lights, is super-elegant yet actually releases the light-box image from gravity.
Best Paintings by a Painter I Was Never Sure of Before — Two “black paintings” by Cecily Brown, because they somehow pull off the merger of almost academic, tasty paint-handling and ambiguous, but sensuous, reclining female nudes.
Best Installation — Tom Burr’s Blackout Bar: toppled bar stools, long, narrow bar with bar debris (cigarette butts, wine glasses) and funereal black-vinyl versions of Warhol flowers. Does it represent the death of gay-bar culture, the death of vinyl, or mayhem subsumed?
Best Work-on-Paper or Using Paper –Lecia Dole-Recio’s painting-size, geometric collages that involve sweet layerings of random geometries.
Best Political Art –Sam Durant’s drawings of ’60s demonstrations, but only when complemented by the lobby light-box piece that proclaims “Legality is not morality.”
Best Big Sculpture –Rob Fischer’s Ten Yards, a kind of glass-walled dumpster or inverted greenhouse filled with chairs, windows, bundles of newspapers.
Best Medium-Sized Sculpture — Wade Guyton’s Untitled Action Sculpture made of the steel tubing from a Marcel Breuer chair.
Best Comment on Modernist Design and Architecture — Guyton’s groupings of x’ed-out book pages.
Best Illustration of Warped Space — Various sculptures by Mark Handforth, but particularly the altered freeway sign and the fluorescent-light sunburst.
Best Glass and Best Print — Jim Hodges, a hugely underestimated artist, impresses with a glass-nest wallpiece and a large photo of a forest with leaflike, folded-out cutouts.
Best Double-Sided Photo Display & Best Art Dispersal Piece — Most of Roni Horn’s stanchions are clustered in one area, but others are near the elevators and elsewhere, presenting back-to-back photos of the artist’s (and this writer’s) beloved Iceland and of a stunning blond youth.
Best Mirrored Room — Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water, a gorgeous, very-Kusama variant on the mirror trick, incorporating 150 lights and an inch or so of water.
Best Film Installation Using a Single Take — No, by Sharon Lockhart, observes the piling up and then the spreading out of straw on a field in Japan. Traditional farmer costumes are stylish; movements are mesmerizing.
Best Painting, No Holds Barred — Robert Mangold’s Column Painting No. 1.
Best Layering — paintings by Julie Mehretu are made beautiful and complex by the use of architectural and flow-chart techniques, using a variety of media.
Best Photographs — Catherine Opie’s images of minute surfers on pale ocean views get the feel and almost the sound of the surf and the bliss of a certain light.
Best Drawings Qua Drawings — Chloe Piene’s charcoal nudes at odd angles with a fine and nervous line.
Best Self-Portraits — Jack Pierson’s glamour photos of persons not himself.
Best Marble Sculpture — Yutaka Sone’s meticulous carvings of L.A. freeway intersections. I really like these because they end up looking like Styrofoam, but don’t see why they need to be surrounded by a jungle environment.
Best Sound Sculpture, Site-Specific Installation, and Most Promising Emerging Artist – Julianne Swartz’s stairwell sound-piece uses clear plastic tubing to disperse various versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Because of the “pipes,” sound becomes water, electricity, blood.
Best New Mythology — Erik Swenson’s deerlike invention, rubbing its horns on an oriental carpet. Still not up to Henry Darger’s Vivian girls as myth, but certainly the best demonstration of this particular curatorial subtheme. It’s not cute; it’s not cartoony. Let’s count our mythological blessings.
Best Painting That’s Really a Relief — Tam Van Tran’s paintinglike wall pieces use all sorts of materials, including staples and chlorophyll, to create rolling abstract landscapes that really hold the wall.
Best Rock and Roll Imagery — Banks Violette’s Untitled (model for a future disaster), a large, black, and very wrecked drum set that might be a model for Kurt Cobain, Keith Moon, and Judas Priest teen suicides, but could be a monument for youth in general, right?