Art of the Free and Brave
There is a lot of video in the Biennial, some of it more successful than others but all of it requiring an investment of real time on the viewer's part with no real guarantee that there will be an artistic payoff comparable to that in Pfeiffer's piece. No such reservation is in order with Shirin Neshat's powerful video installation, Fervor, which lasts for eleven intense minutes. Many readers who expressed regret at not having been able to see her earlier masterpiece, Rapture, will be able to experience it at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City until mid-June, where it has a room to itself in the exhibition "Greater New York." Rapture is enacted on two facing screens, respectively occupied by women wearing chadors and by men wearing neat white shirts and black pants. The two groups are engaged in parallel symbolic actions. There are again two screens in Fervor, this time set side by side. No individual stood out in Rapture--it was as if there were two choruses, as in a very ancient dramatic form, segregated by gender. In Fervor, two individuals--a Woman and a Man--stand out as characters. Unlike the other men, the Man stands out by the fact that he wears a suit. The Woman is in a chador, like the others. We first see Man and Woman approaching and passing each other on a rocky road. Each is clearly mindful of the Other. They soon join a crowd, to enter a place of assembly, in which the genders are separated by a black cloth partition. The groups are addressed by a man who appears to discourse on a somewhat primitive painting in the style of a Persian miniature, showing a prince with a falcon on his wrist and a lady with courtiers. The audience (congregation?) responds with chants--this must be the fervor to which the title refers--but Man and Woman, though they cannot see each other, are more involved with each other's invisible presence than with what the Speaker says. At the same moment, each rises and leaves the building. We finally see them--and they again see each other--outside the building. They still do not overcome whatever separates them, though one is left with the hopeful sense that they will. The compelling, urgent music, sung and composed by the same singer as in Rapture--Sussan Deyhim--intensifies the feeling of the work, which by itself justifies a visit to the exhibition.
Neshat is one of the few widely known artists in Biennial 2000, as she is in "Greater New York." Both exhibits include a handful of such figures, but for the most part, the artists selected are virtually unknown even to those fairly familiar with the art world today. This somewhat indemnifies the Biennial against the otherwise irrepressible critical complaints about who and what is left out. Both exhibitions are made up primarily of what the organizers of "Greater New York" call "evolving" artists--artists who are doing evolved work without as yet having attained an evolved reputation. P.S. 1, interested in seeing what was being done in the metropolitan area, issued an open call; 2,000 emerging artists submitted work, from which 140 artists were selected. Of course, it is not entirely a fair representation of art in greater New York, simply because the criteria of admission excluded evolved artists. This was not Biennial 2000's policy, but it is its effect. Taken together, the two exhibitions give us a remarkable picture of what is being done in America today. It is astonishing, in view of the sullen suspiciousness toward art of which Hans Haacke's work reminds us, how many artists are out there, engaged in making work of impressive ambition.
I have heard the complaint that Biennial 2000 gives us no sense of the direction of art today; but we might care to distinguish between the direction of art and directions in art. It is the mark of our moment that the direction of art is simply the aggregate of the directions of individual artists, taken one at a time. This means that most of the ways we thought critically about art in less pluralistic times are of little help today. We are as much on our own as the artists are, so each viewer has to be his or her own critic. I enormously enjoyed Josiah McElheny's An Historical Anecdote About Fashion, which is a display of fictional glass. It is fictional in the sense that, though real enough and even brilliant as examples of contemporary glass blowing, it pretends to exemplify a set of objects made in an imaginary Venetian glass factory, executed in homage to Christian Dior's "New Look" of 1947. The work combines art, craft and literature to create a work as philosophically arresting as it is visually stunning. But everything in the show, really, is rewarding if one takes the time to think it through.