I'll Be Your Mirror
The Whitney Biennial 2006 draws its title, "Day for Night," from François Truffaut's 1973 film La Nuit Américaine, a celebration of making movies as a way of life. If Truffaut's film did not appear under its French title in US theaters, it's perhaps because neither the movie nor the film the characters are making has anything to do with America. It designates, rather, a device by means of which the camera can film night scenes in broad daylight. Truffaut's "American night" is rapturous, evoking the magic of the cinema, its spellbinding power of illusion--its ability to turn day into night.
The Biennial's view of the American night, which appears in French alongside Day for Night on Peter Doig's poster for the exhibition, is almost the antithesis of Truffaut's. Today's art, the show suggests, provides a forceful reminder that it is not morning in America, as one famous American actor--and political magician--famously put it. With this exhibition, Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, the curators, seek to make "a bold curatorial statement about the current zeitgeist." The overall mood of the art on display, they argue, is characterized by "obfuscation, darkness, secrecy, and the irrational," which can "also be said to reflect the mood in the larger world." Doubtless these attributes reflect almost to perfection the Administration currently in power. But there is nothing dark, secret or irrational about the few pieces in "Day for Night" that attack the Bush Administration. Richard Serra's powerful painting, which reproduces the notorious image of a hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib beneath the message Stop Bush, could not be more straightforward. Nor could the 300 antiwar panels contributed to Rirkrit Tiravanija and Mark di Suvero's reprise of the latter's 1966 "Artists' Tower for Peace" speak more clearly. True, if the rest of the art were saying obliquely the kind of thing Serra says directly, it would indeed be dark, secret and irrational. But that would make the art of our time hermetic and univocal to an incredible degree.
The Biennial 2006 is in one sense exemplary: It gives a very clear sense of what American art is in the early twenty-first century. American art has been increasingly autonomous in recent times, and in large part concerned with the nature of art as such. To be sure, it has explored issues of identity politics and multiculturalism, and sometimes worn its political virtues on its sleeve. But gestures like Serra's reflect artistic decisions, not something in the culture that the art passively mirrors. Even at its most political, the art here does not project much beyond the conditions of its production.
It would thus be a mistake to look to "Day for Night" for a reflection of the spirit of our time, much less a critique of what is wrong with the state of the world. By raising such expectations, "Day for Night" sets itself up for failure--through no fault of the art on view. Much of the work is smart, innovative, pluralistic, cosmopolitan, self-critical, liberal and humane. It might not aspire to greatness, or take much interest in beauty or in joy. But in general, the art in the Biennial mirrors a better world than our own, assuming, that is, it mirrors anything at all. Indeed, if contemporary art were a mirror in which we could discern the zeitgeist, the overall culture would have a lot going for it. The art doesn't tell us that it is not morning in America, and we don't need it to. We know that by watching the evening news.
Some months ago at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, I saw an interesting show, "Uncertain States of America," selected from the work of young American artists by three outstanding European curators, including the museum's director. The art might have been made by young artists pretty much anywhere. There was nothing distinctively American about it. The work alluded to American art, music and movies, but these belong to global culture today, like bluejeans and Reeboks. The Americans in Oslo not only seemed to be having a great deal of fun making their art; their art did not seem to reflect a world out of joint. A visitor from another planet might get the impression that our world is fairly benign, a place where young people are allowed to devote their time to such antic pursuits.
I mention the Oslo show since at least three of the artists in it are also in "Day for Night." One is Matthew Day Jackson, whose Chariot (The Day After the End of Days), an enormous installation of a covered wagon, fills the first room of the second floor. At Oslo, Jackson was represented by Eleanor, a large portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, in oval format. According to the Biennial catalogue, "Using yarn, stained wood, feathers, and tooled leather, Jackson depicts this twentieth century champion of social justice and humanitarian causes as a radiant being whose soul and ideals carry a lasting, regenerative power." Eleanor has something of the quality of folk art, goofy but respectful of its exemplary subject. Showing Eleanor Roosevelt as a radiant being could be taken as a roundabout way of deprecating America's leaders today--but it's far from clear that this is what Jackson's portrait is about.
Paul Chan's meditative film 1st
Light--a piece of digital animation--was as admired in Oslo as it is here. It has an affinity with Marcel Duchamp's mysterious cast shadows of ready-mades, projected in trapezoidal format on the floor. Its silhouetted forms--vehicles, sunglasses, telephone poles tangled with wire--rise slowly upward, seemingly drawn by some irresistible force we do not understand. At certain moments human bodies start to hurtle downward, evoking, for most of us today, the desperate figures of 9/11. It is difficult to interpret what larger message unifies them with the ascending gear. Does the work imply that our rising level of consumption is to be blamed for 9/11? Or does it have, as the artist evidently believes, some larger religious message?