"The Whitney Biennial 2008," Mar. 6-June 1, 2008, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021
The 2008 Whitney Biennial is a deeply transitional, studiously pious, blandly brainy, somewhat compromised exhibition. Call it the Art School Biennial. Not because the art in it is immature or because the artists all went to art school -- although I bet they did -- but because it centers on a very narrow slice of highly educated artistic activity and features a lot of very thought-out, extremely self-conscious, carefully pieced-together installations, sculpture and earnestly political art. These works often resemble Home Depot displays, architectural fragments, customized found objects, ersatz modernist monuments, graphic design or magazine layouts. The resultant quasi-formalist assemblage-college esthetic, while compelling in the hands of some, is completely beholden to ideas taught in hip academies and featured in hot art magazines. Not only is it the style du jour, it promises to become really annoying in the not too distant future.
Perhaps the show is inclined toward the current educated art-school moment because its curators, Henriette Huldisch, 36, and Shamim M. Momin, 34, were in part selected for their youth. I was thrilled that the Whitney was prepared to give itself over to young curators. Momin, in particular, is known for being totally in the art world blood stream; she sees everything; goes everywhere. Good or bad, she has an idea of what’s out there. In some ways the curators of the last biennial may have swooped in and swiped some of her artists. Regardless, no sooner had Huldisch and Momin been named than Whitney director Adam Weinberg pulled back the reins, announcing that the two would be "overseen" by the museum’s chief curator, Donna De Salvo, and that they’d "work with" three older "advisers," Thelma Golden, Bill Horrigan and Linda Norden. It’s not unusual for biennial curators to "work with" advisors; usually, however, they get to pick their own. As one observer put it, "It’s like going to a dance with a chaperon." If the Whitney was genuinely prepared to entrust these two erstwhile young curators with its signature show, it ought to have given them enough rope to do it. Also, enough time: Huldisch and Momin had only 13 months to pull this show together -- nowhere near enough time for such an undertaking.
But never mind the institutional politics. Like many curators these days, Huldisch and Momin are more cerebral than they are visual, and this show feels very controlled. This would be the perfect point in this review for a long catty digression about how curators are the weak link in the art world right now and that legions of decent artists who can’t gain a power-curator’s eye are up a creek -- international exhibition-wise -- and how troubling it is that there are basically 30 seasoned professionals curating all the big shows and that they should slide aside and allow a new generation of curators, critics and artists into the driver’s seat. But that’s fodder for another column. At the Whitney, the art and its presentation are orderly and methodical. Viewed over time and on repeated visits, the works develop interesting and subtle interrelated cross-conversations. That’s admirable. However, the circumspectness and consistency of the curating means that there are few moments that stop you in your tracks, confuse, delight, set your nerves on end or provide moments of "What is this?" There’s little that’s overtly sexual, shocking, angry, colorful, traditionally beautiful or decorative, almost no madness or chaos. The show doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Huldisch and Momin assert that current art is exploring what Samuel Beckett called "lessness," and that it’s in a "do-over" phase. Huldisch writes that artists are working in modes of "anti-spectacle" and "ephemerality," and employing "modest, found or scavenged materials." Momin says the do-over "creates an unfixed arena of past possibilities," and that artists "think viral, act viral." I’m not sure what this means, but it may be her curator-speak way of saying that artists are working together and off one another, and that they’re making use of the open-source systems, self-replicating strategies and decentralized networks of our YouTube-MySpace world. These things are changing the look of art, and of cattle calls like the Biennial.
Or they’re starting to, anyway. It’s clear the curators only have a yen for installation, sculpture and video, and that they barely care about painting or photography at all. There are 81 artists in this show, only seven of them are strictly painters. Four of them -- Olivier Mosset, Robert Bechtle, Mary Heilmann and Karen Kilimnik -- have been lauded for years. The youngest painter, Joe Bradley, 32, has looked very good previously, but here contributes three works that are only boring versions of Ellsworth Kelly. You know there’s something wrong in curating-land when conceptualist John Baldessari is presented as a painter. These curators seem to think that painting is incapable of addressing the issues of our time or that it’s passé. I suspect Momin and Huldisch didn’t want to include painting (or photography) at all. Although that kind of academic orthodoxy is old-hat -- mediums have potential until the ideas they address are exhausted -- it’s a shame they didn’t go all the way with that notion. A No Paintings Biennial would’ve at least made everyone hysterical and drawn lines in the sand.
On the upside, Momin and Huldisch should be congratulated for mounting a thoughtful show that, while academic and narrow, is neither dogmatic (the painting and photography dis notwithstanding) nor sprawling (recent biennials have been crammed with over 100 artists) nor sexist (about 40 percent of the individual artists are women, which may be a Biennial record). Critics have already called this show both pro-market and anti-market. In fact this show takes the refreshing position that more and more artists are taking: The market is there but it isn’t the point.
Given that the consistency of the show means that the art tends to blend together, things that stand out do so because of qualities like color, scale or outright oddness, rather than for their preapproved art-world signifiers. Even the artists I liked aren’t at their best here, but I had a striking moment in Mika Rottenberg’s dilapidated installation that looks like a beaver dam or wooden shack (and isn’t as good as previous environments). Inside, video images depict women with fetishistically long hair (one is reportedly a porn star who does nothing but wave her hair at men; who knew?). These women reach into the earth, milk goats and make cheese. Rottenberg’s palette, sound, materials and timing combine to make something like an animal language of images. You don’t know whether to think about grooming, barnyards, the means of production or mythic beings’ doing bizarre things. This lets you escape the art-world conventionality of so much of the show. Phoebe Washburn takes a similar chance in her sprawling sculpture/termite tower/ greenhouse. It has its own irrigation system of Gatorade pumped into aquariums that grow flowers in tanks of golf balls. Like Rottenberg’s, Washburn’s art, while not up to her usual standards, still can throw viewers "don’t ask" visual curveballs.
This kind of caught-napping relish dawned on me in front of Cheney Thompson’s almost-monochromes that are meticulously painted patterns that are themselves hard to identify. It’s a welcome change to be lowered through the trapdoors of perception this way. Those doors crack open as well in Jedediah Caesar’s Larry Bell-meets-Donald Judd-meets-Lynda Benglis block of iridescent Styrofoam -- another work with an unpredictable surface and hard-to-determine reasoning.
That kind of engaging strangeness is at work in the best films and videos on view. It becomes tragic in Omer Fast’s outstanding dual-screened projection of an American solider recounting stories of dating a German girl and his accidental killing of an Iraqi civilian. We see the relationship and the shooting reenacted on separate screens, blending together. A death has rarely seemed more pointless; the end of empire, so sad. This sadness turns outlaw in Natalia Almada’s Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side), a stunning 66-minute work documenting the Mexican music known as corrido, a style that has gone from telling stories of troubadours to recounting tales of drug-runners and "coyotes"; as one musician bitterly sings, "I didn’t cross the border; the border crossed me." A subtler rupture permeates Amie Siegel’s excellent exploration of the former East Germany.
The three most effective films in the show are the craziest. In them you sense humanity tugging on the bit, mired in uncontrolled emotions. These are Coco Fusco’s manic indoctrination into the interrogation techniques of the U.S. military; Olaf Breuning’s treatise on hapless American ecotourism; and Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn’s wild woman walking around L.A. with Viking horns on her head and a hunk of fake cheese under her arm.
It’s too late now because this portion of the show closed last Sunday, but the best chance viewers had of escaping the art-school gravity was to see the show in reverse. If one started by visiting the performances and installations at the glorious Armory on Park Avenue -- and went at night (the place was pretty empty during the day), it was possible that the looser and more experimental atmosphere, hanging out, free tequila and amazing architecture would have given your experience a boost. It did mine. In the three weeks that the Armory was open I saw a lot of good performances, among others, the legendary "loser" Michael Smith in which he dressed in a baby diaper and interacted with audience members, Gang Gang Dance playing a twenty-minute set of tribalistic trance music from behind a huge mirror, Steven Prina singing earnest love songs while wearing red plaid pants, and best of all, Marina Rosenfeld’s Teenage Lontano, in which she had 40 teenagers from New York public schools stand in a long line as they sang the vocal section of György Ligeti’s 1967 >Lontano, a piece of modernist music from the 2001: A Space Odyssey era. Watching this piece, I felt the opening of a portal between a failed utopian past and the possibility that the more real present is already something to love. I was transported.
This show comes at a restless, discontented moment. Institutional critique has become an institutional style, and the socioartistic movement known as "relational esthetics" -- that is, art that’s all about your own relationship to being in public with it -- has gone mainstream. Most in the art world want more than that. They’re longing for art to be more than just a commodity or a comment on art history. They yearn for a less quantifiable, more vulnerable essence, perhaps what Lawrence Weiner called, "the eternal little surprise of Well, is it art?" I still have faith in Momin and Huldisch, but while some of the art in their biennial has this essence, much of it simply looks like what art looks like these days.
JERRY SALTZ is Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org