Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night
by William Powhida, Stephanie Buhmann, Hrag Vartanian, Robert C. Morgan and Ellen Pearlman
The Whitney Museum of American Art
March 2 – May 28, 2006
“Movies remain the perfect vehicle for the introduction of certain ritual rites of passage that come to stand for the quintessential experience of border-crossing for everyone who wants to take a look at difference and the different without having to experientially engage ‘the other.’” —bell hooks from “Making Movie Magic”
I don’t think I was alone in feeling the low-grade anxiety that permeated this year’s Whitney Biennial, titled Day for Night. Even seasoned greats like Richard Serra felt the need to be literal with his “Stop Bush” tirade that combined sloganeering with an iconic image from Abu Ghraib. Fortunately, this year also marked a strong showing for projected works—Chrissie Iles’ doing I presume—and while most demonstrate an unhealthy fixation on American dominance, the majority of them made a strong case that projected works may be zapped into the zeitgeist more than any other medium.
Pierre Huyghe’s “Journey That Wasn’t” and Kenneth Anger’s “Mouse Heaven” installations, both from 2005, are fascinating objects by master artists who continually elude classification. If Huyghe’s piece can seem extraterrestrial and cinematically seductive as it travels from Antarctica to Manhattan, weaving a fictive narrative about penguins, people and the environment, Anger’s latest work feels more intimate as it focuses on that eternal American icon, Mickey Mouse. During Anger’s March 21 Whitney lecture, he delved into the way Mickey has been ruined by Disney and corporatization. Not one to nail down his work, Anger seemed to take a moment to reflect on Mickey as he is poised to be transformed again, but this time for the rapidly industrializing third world. One can only assume that in another seventy years, Anger seems to be saying, Mickey will be as unrecognizable to us as he is now to those who saw him in the 1930s.
Geniuses aside, three projected works in particular encapsulate the greater themes and moods that weave through the Biennial’s three and a half art-packed floors: Francesco Vezzoli’s “Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula” (2005); Paul Chan’s “1st Light” (2005); and T. Kelly Mason and Diana Thater’s “Jump” (2004).
Vezzoli’s video—recently donated to the Guggenheim after the Whitney said “No thanks, we prefer Americans”—has become a runaway Biennial success. A brilliantly vivid foray into the decadence of Hollywood’s dream machine, Vezzoli coaxed A-list celebrities (Benicio Del Toro, Courtney Love, Milla Jovovich, etc.) into staging a campy trailer for a retelling of Vidal’s toast to the Roman regent of hubris, Caligula.
The result leaves the Whitney set in stitches—who would’ve imagined watching Karen Black massage semen into her face could be rip-roaringly funny? In five and a half minutes of swipes and jump cuts, the artist achieves both a scathing critique of American imperialism and a hedonistic oasis in a desert of “serious” Biennial art work.
Drawing parallels between Caligula and Christ, Vezzoli gushes that this is one of the greatest stories ever told. Its Christian-centric worldview mocks America’s egocentric, eternally oblivious inward-gaze. When Courtney Love appears on the screen professing to be Caligula, Vezzoli underlines America’s hatred of libertines even as it produces the world’s most lascivious.
If Vezzoli is mirroring America’s love/hate relationship with excess, Paul Chan’s “1st Light” is a work that turns to the magical realism and communal wonderment of early cinema for a language to examine our world today. A marriage of Kara Walker and the Quay Brothers, Chan’s projection pools on the floor like skewed light falling from a window. The experience has a crystalline excitement about it. Part alternate universe and part philosophers’ cave, its shadow images of utility poles with agitating wires, train cars sucked up into the sky and bodies falling to the ground transmits a mysterious awe.
Obviously evoking 9/11, Chan has bought the American assumption that the event four and a half years ago changed the world forever. We are disallowed the possibility of looking directly at the objects casting the shadows, and so we have to guess what they are based on our assumptions—car, lawn chair, bird? We are forced to project onto what we see before us. The fact that one body seems to whip across the projection horizontally doesn’t interrupt our belief that the bodies are falling from the sky.
While Chan and Vezzoli hone in on American narratives of power, Mason and Thater shift gears to present a nostalgic construction that is partly utopian and wholly subversive. In a show stockpiled with aesthetic fuselage, “Jump” is a stealth bomber that hits its target with more accuracy than U.S. strikes against Iraqi insurgents. Twenty pre-pubescent kids, clad in 70s-style personalized tee-shirts, skip rope to music performed by a garage band enclosed on three sides by portable fabric bulletin boards, which also appear in the Whitney installation. The film’s weaving together of so many pop layers, which makes it seductively easy to enjoy, looks back to a time when American power was not so overbearing and could have been perceived as almost friendly. Unconsciously, Mason and Thater have recast American style and aesthetics as the real seat of our global power and influence.
Whatever their take, the Biennial’s projected works are comfortably examining the mined crossroads of aesthetics and political power. Their foray into the American psyche makes the Biennial a must-see and a welcome meditation on how we got where we are.
Perhaps it is only my subjective opinion, but the 2006 Whitney Biennial had the potential to harness a subversive undercurrent with only a slight (if radical) reinterpretation of its curatorial premise, Day for Night. While the curators’ objective was to invert accepted ideas and to present artwork that exists in a kind of liminal state between dialectics, the most striking dislocation for me was the sense that the Biennial could have been staged as a curatorial occupation to de-center American cultural hegemony. Outside on the street, Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Peace Tower” (2006) protests American military imperialism, while on the fifth floor, the mini-exhibition by the Wrong Gallery, “Down by Law,” puts the mainstays of the American avant-garde on trial. These two works, along with the inclusion of several international artists, could have positioned Day for Night as a reversal of the Biennial’s longstanding nationalist premise. But even though Day for Night has its share of politically charged works—with American artists like Nari Ward, Dash Snow, Matthew Day Jackson, Jamal Cyrus, Robert A. Pruitt, and Dawolu Jabari Anderson offering overt criticism of nationalism, the war on terror, manifest destiny, and racism—a general preoccupation with art history undermines the exhibition’s transgressive potential, rendering it a series of academic exercises.
Admirably, Day for Night is the antithesis of the art fair; rather, it is dominated by installations that allow each artist a context. Unfortunately, many of these installations are not the radical narrative interventions that the show’s curatorial thesis on shifting identities and unfixed images would suggest. There is instead far more lavish abandon, screen life and flawed beauty, particularly in Adam McEwen’s gum paintings and comically brilliant faux-obituaries, which manage to cover everything the Biennial curators set out to accomplish.
The Wrong Gallery’s “Down by Law” is framed to resemble a courtroom with artwork serving as evidence against ‘outlaw’ artists. The installation, which includes a wall with a montage by superstars Andy Warhol, Chris Burden, and Raymond Pettibone, embodies both the liberal politics of the 1970’s and its own laughable premise, reading not as a celebration of transgression but, given the strength of conservatism in the country today, as a trial of its failure. The younger artists included in the exhibit, like Kehinde Wiley and Jules DeBalincourt, seem content to remain on the surface of things. Wiley’s beautifully painted portrait of a young black male in the context of an NYPD mug shot doesn’t have a shred of the radical politics of David Wojnarowicz’s “One Day This Kid…” (1990), while DeBalincourt’s sausage-fingered politicians in “ambitious new plans #1” (2005) is adjacent to Mark Lombardi’s damning exploration of global capitalism through the complex web of banking and finance. It’s not that Wiley or DeBalincourt don’t have a political agenda, It’s just clear that their work, like much contemporary art, has no teeth beneath the attractive, accessible imagery.
It’s not a surprising then that the curators have turned from the commercial New York scene, enthralled as it is with the kind of youth-driven pop culture so prominently featured in the last Biennial or Greater New York 2005, to different artistic perspectives. Unfortunately, in the attempt to make this Biennial a more mature statement about the complexity of our cultural moment, they filled it with largely dry, academic paintings and self-referential installations such as Yuri Masnyj’s “The Fine Line” (2006)—a reinterpretation of Russian Suprematism (with a few sardonic barbs like a skull and beer bottle) that doesn’t rise to the level of critique. It’s a matchstick-like revival of a revolutionary aesthetic without the political content. Josephine Meckseper’s installation, “The Complete History of Postcontemporary Art” (2005), tries to critique capitalist consumerism and class structure through a museum display of commercial objects. In each of these artists’ work there is an attempt at least to incorporate elements of European and Russian history in order to challenge American capitalism and its sole claim on Democracy.
The other large-scale installations that dominate the show—by Gedi Sibony, Jutta Koether, Matthew Monahan, Steve Parrino, Deva Graf, and Anthony Burdin—are almost entirely preoccupied with art history. Koether’s black and silver room is a feminist riposte of impermanent offhandedness to Sibony’s post-minimalist reverence for the materials and forms of Smithson, Beuys, and Morris. Still, neither installation improves on or complicates the historical dialogue; they are merely shadows of the ideas themselves. Parrino’s large, shaped monochrome canvases are safely aligned with the tenets of Modernism. His small black-and-white drawings are engaging, but the relationship among the art works is tenuous, with the objects and their historical references dominating the space. Burdin and Graf both invest their Beuys-inspired installations with more self-reflexivity than Sibony, but the three installations are so familiar historically that their inclusion and proximity seem rather odd. Matthew Monahan’s display is closely aligned with German expressionism, though it is refreshing to see it done outside the context of Modernist painting.
And so despite “Peace Tower,” “Down by Law” and the presence of international artists, the exhibition does not attempt a reversal of American hegemony, but instead turns back towards an art historical navel gazing that dulls the impact of the sharper work. The proposition that the Biennial could have been a cultural occupation of an American institution remains a tantalizing, unfulfilled possibility.
Advancing the Biennial Enterprise
“Did you like the show?” I asked. “What do you mean?” she replied.
I repeated the question.
“It’s neutral,” she replied, “like business, like the information technology that runs business. What’s there to like? On the other hand, what’s there to dislike?”
For several years now, the visualization of the Whitney Biennial has remained the same. Nothing changes except for the artists’ names. The mise-en-scene remains neutral.
This time the theme was Day for Night. I loved the film.
The director of the film, Francois Truffaut, was an artist possessed by extreme generosity. When asked by the press how he felt about the work of another French director, Jean-Luc Godard, he replied: “Jean-Luc doesn’t like my films, but I find his fascinating.”
I was hoping to find this kind of generosity in the Biennial, but instead it felt rigid, too controlled and too predictable. The conundrum was the overflow of materialism and, in the same breath, the denial that it was there.
Too much irony becomes a form of denial.
The Whitney Biennial is like the American news hour on broadcast TV. Every move is carefully planned, and every second is costly. The idea is to make it look like spontaneity while keeping the controls fixed beneath it all.
Make it look like visual culture, not art! A guided walk-through is best understood when it reads like cultural anthropology. Tell the audience stories about what the artists say, and keep the critics out of it. Learn to obey power, but present the art in a way that says something else. This is a show that is organized, more than curated.
So what is there to like? What is there not to like?
Is it possible that the theme–Day for Night–was intended as a wake-up call for Americans? Perhaps. But what about the art? When candidates run for political office, does anyone bother to ask: “Is this the best we can do?”
In recent years, the Whitney Biennial has become an international biennial—in a league with Venice, Sao Paolo, Shanghai, Johannesburg, or Sidney. This is both good and bad. It is good that foreign-born artists can show. Why not? The next step will be to move away from the marketing fixation on “emerging” artists. But then who will invest in the Whitney? Is it possible to have art without investment? Yes. Is it possible to have a Whitney Biennial without investment?
There are some good works by good artists in the show. This happens every time. A Biennial that includes the poet Ira Cohen and jazz impresario Miles Davis is already ahead of the game. Both works come from the outside and have a performative and visual dimension. Cohen is conceptual while Davis is painterly. I was also delighted with Liz Larner’s pile of aluminum tubing with fabric and Sturtevant’s haunting coal bag elegy to Duchamp.
Speaking of Miles Davis, there has been a question raised about the authenticity of his painting. In fact, it is a real Miles Davis. More accurately, it is one of several collaborations between Miles and his girlfriend (at the time). I knew Miles when he was doing these works, while spending time at his place on 57th Street, eating cookies and looking at piles of unstretched paintings on the kitchen floor. That was back in 1990, and I eventually wrote an article about them for the former Arts Magazine.
There are some excellent films in the Biennial, like Lori Cheatle and Daisy Wright’s profoundly moving This Land is Your Land (2004). I also liked the Billy Sullivan film, the pithy Rodney Graham film-installation, the poetic cinema of the brilliant Kenneth Anger—and finally, who can resist the frantic sensuous delirium of Francesco Vezzoli?
The more I think about Day for Night, I have to laud the curators for including this tender cinematic side as an alternative to the current market mania, a revisitation of the art of cinema hidden within the tough exterior of war-torn images and ironic blandness that occupies much of the floor and wall space.
This suggests another core problem, a fundamental misunderstanding, reinvented by the visual culturalists, that art is a mirror of society. I have news for those of you who took the wrong art education class or believe that visual culture is a methodology to save the impoverished: Art is not a mirror of society. Art is, at its best, a mirror of consciousness. But if you want a mirror of society, you can find it on commercial TV. There are mirrors everywhere you look in this culture of narcissism (quoting Christopher Lasch). You can also find smatterings of it here—at the Whitney, clogging up the drain.
Let’s unclog the drain and focus on the delightful cinematic vision this Biennial has to offer us: the speed of the image. This is the best we can do.
Art is everything that TV is not.
—Robert C. Morgan
On the third floor, the Whitney Biennial opens wide. Significant chunks of the gallery’s walls have been gouged out by Swiss-born Urs Fischer, leaving jagged edges of plaster and metal that frame his elaborate installation, “Untitled” like mechanical teeth. Two giant tree branches covered in metallic silver, with candles burning on each end like monumental candelabra, rotate slowly but relentlessly from the ceiling, suspended by heavy chains. The overall gesture is extravagant in its largesse and Serra-esque machismo; the branches morph into torches that, instead of painting with fire leave, their mark by dripping wax in circular patterns on the gallery floor. This is the entrance hall leading straight into the belly of the beast.
Though maybe far from Fischer’s original intent, one cannot help but take the work’s raw boldness as a metaphor for the inescapable spiral of violence and greed in today’s world. In fact, many of this Biennial’s contributors have taken an outspoken political stance. Even if one considers only the impressive array of sculptural expressions, there is anger and hope, longing and doubt, solutions and rejections. There is day and there is night and there is the illusion of night captured in daytime – the Hollywood technique explored by François Truffaut in his 1973 classic La nuit Américaine (Day for Night), which is also this Biennial’s underlying curatorial theme.
To the right of Fischer’s “hall,” Dan Colen shows three boulders bearing graffiti and chewing gum mosaics. Instead of marking European megalithic tombs—some of the oldest monuments of Western civilization—Colen’s boulders are emblazoned with colloquialisms such as “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” “Vete al Diablo (Go to Hell),” and “Eat Shit and Die.” Though playful in appearance, Colen’s work is dead serious about questioning what defines culture. Nari Ward offers “Glory,” a strong satire of hysterical nationalism: a tanning bed made of battered oil barrels and barbwire, with glass plates covered in black stars and stripes, ready to burn an abstracted American flag on the client’s skin. What could be more perverse than tanning one’s patriotism onto one’s hide? But then, fanaticism always recognizes kindred spirits through surface appearances, preferably uniforms or insignia, such as swastikas.
Tackling similar ideas in a very different format, Liz Larner’s “RWB” comes off as a poetic elaboration on what makes something American, or simply, what builds America. Rather than focusing on economic issues, she draws from nostalgia. “RWB” is a large intertwined construct of bent aluminum tubing, reminiscent of flagpoles used in parades or, as the Whitney wall plaque points out, of those lining America’s used car lots. Each outstretched arm is lined with fabric and ribbons covered in the saturated American palette of red, white and blue, turning the overall construct into a beautifully complicated and unapproachable embodiment of US dynamism. No less lyrical, “Chariot Live Day after the End of Days” by New York-based Matthew Day Jackson references pioneer history by using frontier symbols to fabricate a Conestoga wagon. Dan Flavin-inspired neon tubing glows like disco incarnations of train tracks between the wagon’s wheels, while an owl—a symbol of exceptional vision and hearing—hovers inside the mysterious darkness beneath the canopy. If today’s society, like the American pioneers on their journey west, is painfully aware of the uncertainties that tomorrow might bring, German-born Josephine Meckseper tells you exactly what you get, or better, what you take. “The Complete History of Postcontemporary Art” is a slick shop window mockup, in which a stuffed rabbit, stockings, and a toilet plunger are contrasted with fragments of news media coverage. Encased in glass like a museum artifact, each object is granted a rare preciousness that is equally amusing and thought-provoking: We are what we consume, however arbitrary, however abstract.
One of the few figurative sculptors in the biennial is Matthew Monahan. Though his subject matter might be traditional, his style is far from it. Roughly shaped from beeswax, floral foam, paper, or encaustic, and fine-tuned with gold leaf, glitter, twine or wire, Monahan’s depictions of the human body simultaneously capture its interior and exterior form. A certain touch of the medieval permeates these richly contradictory works, which range in sentiment from punk rock to kitsch. A piece of gray paper, for example, which appears at first glance as simply crumpled and tossed, with a closer look becomes a haunting image of psychological fragility. What is human and where is humanity heading? These are thoughts expressed by many of this Biennial’s artists, who, in spite of their disparate mix of media and style, strike at least the appearance of unity as critical voices of our time.
Fade To Black
Subtitled Day for Night, the Whitney Biennial is less about surface, glitz and shifting identities than it lets on, and more about anxiety than it admits. That anxiety does not arise from theoretical/fictional personas, but rather from 9/11, Jihad fundamentalism, Homeland Security, and the war in Iraq.
If two years ago the Biennial was the search for utopia and rainbows, the predominant color lacing this show is black. There are scores of black paintings, drawings, photographs and installations, and despite the convivial circus atmosphere, their dark undertones ooze and seep out of unexpected corners. Jim O’Rourke’s “Door,” a three-screen video installation of a stealth bomber ominously coming in for a sunset landing reflects a soft nuclear douche looming on the horizon. Nari Ward’s smart sculpture “Glory” depicts the real villain—raw crude. Horizontally sliced, fluorescent-lit oil barrels are cracked open like macabre coffins and roped by tar stained white terrycloth towels. The casket repeats the words “Come over here, HEY” like a Disneyfied version of the LaBrea tar pits. A black-and-white photo by Anne Collier of an unraveled audio tape cassette stamped “despair” adds to the mood.
A circular black enamel canvas from the tragically deceased artist Steven Parrino counters the black window display cases of perfume bottles, toilet cleaners, and a Joseph Beuys type white hare holding a twirling protest sign, “Oui or No,” by Josephine Meckseper. A stuffy, dark, allergy inducing room of fake Marcel Duchamp bicycle wheels, R. Mutt urinals and nudes descending the proverbial staircase by Sturtevant balances Robert Gober’s staged black-and-white homosexual murder photos.
Paul Chan’s projected animation “1st Light” and Pierre Huyghe’s film “A Journey That Wasn’t” are my personal favorites. Chan’s simple animated cut-outs cast eerily evocative floor shadows of falling people, cell phones, bicycles and debris, re-enacting the dream time horror of the collapse of the World Trade Towers. Huyghe, accompanied by a team of artists, took a polar research ship to the receding ice floes of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to search for the mythical albino penguin. Pummeled by brutal weather conditions, the team built a sound and light station translating the environment’s physical topography into raw digital data. Back in New York, Joshua Cody composed an instrumental score based on the raw data, and Huyghe transformed the Wollman Rink into a movie set of the frozen island. Elliot Sharp performed the reconstituted music with a live orchestra.
This isn’t an in-your-face political show, but it does include the Buffalo artist Steven Kurtz, a member of Critical Art Ensemble, who was indicted by a federal grand jury for using common biological materials in his art. The Ensemble’s three video installations are shoved into a narrow corner outside the restrooms, making them annoyingly difficult to see. Elsewhere, Monica Majoli’s watercolor series “Hanging Rubberman” poetically and disturbingly depicts convoluted positions of torture and terror.
But not all is doom and gloom. There are fun videos, lots of erotica, lust, and high camp. The yip-de-do psychedelia includes Kenneth Anger films, “A Fairy Tale” by Taylor Mead, and Ira Cohen’s 1970’s transparencies of Jack Smith and Charles Ludlam. Rooms are awash in eye popping dayglo colors, and there are videos with Moby Grape-like lettering (faux Austin Powers to those of you under 30), a film about ecstasy inducing drugs and the quaint slogan “DTAOT” or “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30.” And there is a Black History room with Ku Klux Klan costumes and racks of books like Soul on Ice. If the Biennial is a snapshot of the current moment, what does this acid flashback have to do with the noir focus so evident on the other floors? Is it there to highlight how naive optimism was (is)? Is it there to jumpstart a revivalism in acid tripping? Or is it there to celebrate a better world before it gets extinguished like the rain forest?
Lust comes on strong with Billy Sullivan’s seductive waifs, nymphs, nymphets and deceased trendsetters vamping either come hither looks or stoic attitudes. Gore Vidal yucks it up in Francesco Vezzoli’s fake movie preview for Caligula, where Karen Black (in her Joyce Wildenstein look alike cameo) demurely tenderizes her skin with a facial of freshly squeezed cum, while Courtney Love romps through a Hollywood style villa proclaiming she is in fact the real Caligula. The trailer, a thinly veiled allegory of power run amok in the Bush administration, allows Vidal to nail it with the snarky epigram, “Every point in human history is dark.” Now there’s the real Day for Night.
Image caption: Francesco Vezzoli, film still, Photograph by Matthias Vriens