"The 47th Corcoran Biennial: Fantasy Underfoot," Dec. 21, 2002-Mar. 10, 2003, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006.
The Corcoran Gallery marked the opening of its 47th Biennial on Tuesday evening, Dec. 17, 2002. This year's exhibition was orchestrated by Jonathan Binstock, the curator of contemporary art. For purposes of full disclosure in this Enron/Worldcom era, I should note that I am Mr. Binstock's brother.
That being said, the opening was a wonderful event. After climbing the steps from the front door, visitors enter the museum's grand, column-lined atrium, in which is suspended Nancy Davidson's Double Exposure. A big, beautiful red dirigible with a blue braided rope tied around its middle, the work evokes an abundance of sexual imagery -- an umbilical cord tied around an ovum, for instance, or a man's testicles. The work may even help recall a scene in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask, in which a large, lactating breast chases Allen across an open, grassy meadow. In any event, this is an impactful work that draws the viewer immediately into the exhibition.
A real coup for the Corcoran was is its exhibition of The Paradise Institute, a multimedia installation created by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller that won a first prize at the 2000 Venice Biennale. Visitors enter a small wood box (measuring about 10 x 37 x 16 feet), sit in a row of theater chairs and put on headphones. The effect is dramatic -- the artists have created an aural and visual illusion of a much larger hall. Participants hear a woman nearby, first offering popcorn to a friend and then worrying whether she might have left the stove on -- and she eventually leaves to check. Slowly the sounds of Cardiff and Miller's "trompe l'oreille" movie and the noises of the actual audience overlap, so that it is not clear whether one is hearing one's neighbors or the movie itself. This illusion eventually feels unsettling and remarkably present and real.
An art-world master of artificial intelligence, Ken Feingold, has made a computerized sculpture that is a literal "talking head." Titled Sinking Feeling, the work consists of a talking animatronic head in a flowerpot, with a computer screen projected on the wall. A microphone in the gallery allows viewers to communicate with the head. Occasionally Feingold's sculpture offers a relevant answer to a viewer's question, but most conversation seems either mechanical or irrelevant. In conversation, Feingold admitted that the exhibition opening may not have been the best forum for interacting with his art. Background noise and multiple conversations tend to confuse the program, which results in inane answers. Nevertheless, it does seem that Feingold's animatronic figures do not live a rich and fulfilling existence. Perhaps coincidentally, the figures very much resemble Feingold.
The biennial pays also homage to a group of artists that employ tremendous intensity and methodical detail in their work. Linda Besemer combines arts and craft by detaching her abstract acrylic paintings from their support surface (in her case, glass) and displaying them draped over an aluminum rod, creating a kind of "quilt" of paint and color. Jacob El Hanani uses a quill or a superfine Rapidograph pen and India ink to draw thousands of tiny lines arranged in connecting patterns -- all on a piece of paper with an area no larger than two square feet. It is hard to imagine an artist creating a painting or drawing with images of greater density.
While sitting with Binstock at the dinner following the opening, I told him -- in my layman's manner -- that El Hanani must be crazy to be able to sit for a stretch of time and create these works by hand without the assistance of magnification. Binstock then gestured across the table and said, "Jacob, I'd like you to meet my brother." Oops! In fact El Hanani's intensity and dedication to his craft is impressive, and perhaps more importantly, the works are a wonder to look at. Gauze gives the impression of a waving sheet of cotton gauze from a distance, while evoking awe at the detail and density of the work up close. El Hanani attributes his patience and love of the repetitive to the mixture of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that he was exposed to as a young boy in Casablanca. Another work, titled Alef-Beth-99-2000, consists of a continuing stream of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a Zen-like mantra that evokes images of a Buddhist monk chanting or a Muslim worshipper saying his prayers five times per day. El Hanani does not believe in fast food, or as he said to me, or fast love -- he takes his time. One imagines that a thousand years ago El Hanani could have been a scribe hunched over a torah where every letter would need to be perfect. One mistake and. . . well, he said he was not interested in fast love.
Bruce Yonemoto puts the globe at the center of his work in "Fantasy Underfoot." In one part of the installation, three globes sit on pedestals. Inside the globes, films -- Journey to the Center of the Earth, footage from NASA and The Time Machine -- can be viewed through peepholes. A fourth globe plays the song It's a Small World. Yonemoto is putting forth serious ideas about the world with a sense of playfulness. A still photograph displayed on one of the gallery walls shows a woman who appears to be Japanese holding a globe. When asked if the woman is Japanese, Yonemoto responded, "She is half Japanese; Eurasian." This may be another symbol for the global nature of Yonemoto's installation.
Kojo Griffin and Marcel Dzama are figurative painters who use colorful, playful characters to sometimes depict the dark side of everyday life. The artist Susan Smith-Pinelo hosts a gallery that one viewer referred to as the "porno room." In her work Dances with Hip Hop, three stacked televisions display a woman dressed in undergarments, dancing to hip-hop music. The provocative work will no doubt make many viewers uneasy about sexual imagery in a museum environment. Works by Tim Hawkinson, Bruce Nauman and Nigel Poor complete the Corcoran's exhibition.
In the continuing theme of combining theater, video, technology, art and craft, the Corcoran has assembled a group of artists and installations that mirrors the progression in the industry as a whole. You won't find works of art here that shock or horrify you. This is not meant to be a sensationalistic or shocking display -- no cows cut in half or urine spilled over religious icons. The 47th Corcoran Biennial is a thoughtful, intellectual and intense journey into the art of the new millennium. It is an open, uncrowded and well-organized collection of artworks meant to inspire the viewer and reflect on the art world of the past two years and the potential directions we are likely to take in the coming years. It is a journey certainly worth taking.