I'll Be Your Mirror
Hannah Greely, who in Oslo showed a fly buzzing around a Budweiser bottle--and an animal emerging from a kind of woven mat--is represented at the Biennial by a sculpture of a toddler in diapers, poking its head into the hood of a green nylon parka. The toddler is made of urethane rubber, and is eerily realistic in the manner of Duane Hanson's figures. It is cute and, one feels, harmless. According to the catalogue, the work evokes "the anxiety that the coat might actually swallow the child, which is reinforced by the toddler's bowed, kneeling, and seemingly defeated pose." Though I have known the apprehensions of parenthood, this strikes me as an abuse of interpretative license.
None of these works support the subtext of the show. What they illustrate, rather, is the extreme pluralism of contemporary art--the sense that one can make art out of anything, looking any way one likes. To the degree that artistic pluralism mirrors the contemporary world, ours is an open world full of aesthetic opportunities, a condition that only an aesthetic monist would deplore. A certain price may be paid for this pluralism, in art as in life. In art the price is that often one does not know what one is looking at, or what a work means, or why it is there. The curators have acknowledged this by providing generous amounts of wall text, helping us understand what we are seeing.
Let's consider Daytoday, an installation in the lobby by Carolina Caycedo. It's a chalkboard on an easel, scrawled with such statements as Pick Up the Red Phone for a Personal Exchange. There is a red phone behind the board and next to a computer featuring her website. Pick up the phone, and you can set up an exchange with Caycedo, who offers you, among other things, a New York City tour, a haircut, a Spanish lesson or a video editing lesson in return for books, a surfboard, an astral chart, boots or plane tickets. Daytoday, according to her website, "is a public network of personalized exchanges that offers alternative ways of meeting business and personal needs without using money." And in the catalogue we learn that the artist has operated such a network on the road, traveling about in a 1963 Ford van, offering "any number of goods or services...in exchange for food or a place to shower and cook." Whether or not the installation constitutes a work of art, it's obviously incidental to the larger project, which is the encounter between art and life. Most of the work in the show similarly achieves significance only by reference to its provenance and purpose. Caycedo's work is far less about barter than it is about art, and how it has changed and transformed its institutions. Like most of the work in "Day for Night," it is not, or not simply, about aesthetic contemplation.
Here is another case--an installation by Elaine Sturtevant, who prefers to be referred to simply as "Sturtevant"--that is in some degree about art and the history to which it belongs. Sturtevant is an "appropriation" artist, in the tradition of (albeit different from) Mike Bidlo, Richard Pettibone, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. Though she insists that her work "has nothing to do with 'appropriation,'" it has typically consisted of work by other artists, usually famous artists like Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp (themselves specialists in appropriation). Here, in the installation Push & Shove, she presents, or re-presents, an ensemble of works that, whatever she may add to them, were originally by Duchamp: the notorious urinal, the bicycle wheel fixed to a stool, the row of coat hooks, the bottle rack, etc. Twelve hundred coal sacks hang from the ceiling, as they did in the International Exposition of Surrealism held in Paris in 1938, where they showered coal dust on visitors. Beneath them is a glowing brazier that, in Paris 1938, was said to represent the friendship of those who gathered around it. Here, of course, the brazier just represents that brazier. The appropriation of a ready-made does not inherit the ready-made's meaning. "The push and shove of the work," Sturtevant explains, "is the leap from image to concept." The catalogue tells us the work provides "a space for critical reflection upon the various systems that convey meanings onto artworks."
This is the kind of thing most of the works are said to do. They ask us to reflect, explore, question. The Peace Tower installed in the Whitney's courtyard, for example, "provides an opportunity to step back momentarily from the bustle of the rest of the exhibition and to reflect on the wider social issues presented therein." Surely that is not what di Suvero and Tiravanija intended. When Serra's painting says Stop Bush, its aim is to stop Bush, not reflect on the messages of the other works with which it is exhibited. There is something strangely inert about the language of mirroring and reflecting in which "Day for Night" is framed. Somehow, one feels, the experience of a work of art ought to do something more robust than reflect on good causes. It is too much to ask that we feel the way Rilke did when he stood before an archaic torso of Apollo--that he must change his life. But there seems to be little place for passion, or pleasure, in the intellectually earnest work on display here. Sturtevant's ideas should enrich one's experience--and, dare I say, the pleasure of the work--not merely lead one to contemplate the concept of originality and the legalities of intellectual property.
There are two works one can enjoy without much secondary thought. One, by Francesco Vezzoli, is titled Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's "Caligula." There was no remake of Vidal's ill-conceived film. But the trailer has all the preposterous exaggerations of its genre, using, in this case, language and images of an improbable lubricity--nudity, perversity, orgies, sexual humiliation--to whet the viewers' appetite for some ancient Roman pornography. But it packs so much of what it promises into itself that there is hardly much point in remaking the film. It is sublimely ridiculous, though I have just learned that in the spirit of worthiness, the artist has said that it reflects on government today. The other is the work of Dorothy Iannone, who fell madly in love with the proto-Fluxus master Dieter Roth. They evidently had a fabulous sex life, celebrated in Iannone's marvelously decorative paintings, which look like neo-Art Deco valentines. So far no one has come forward with an edifying message in their carnal bliss.
Needless to say, none of these works tell us much about "the American night," whatever their intentions. But while the curators' search for the zeitgeist is ill advised, the show could not be more informative regarding the kind of art being made today. Indeed, the curators could have made a different show but not one more representative. From that perspective, it's a good Biennial. At the press opening someone remarked that I must have seen a great many Biennials, which of course I have. Yet the only one I remember in any detail was the notorious 1993 Biennial, which was unrelievedly confrontational, starting with Daniel Martinez's brilliant admission tags, which read, "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white." People are still talking and thinking about that show, although the consensus at the time was that it was a bad Biennial. All the rest have been good in their kind. What I have been wondering since that encounter at the press opening is what a great Biennial would be like that was not a bad Biennial.