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The Show They Love to Hate | The Nation

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The Show They Love to Hate

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There is an overall disposition to approach each Whitney Biennial as a State of the Art World Address in the form of an exhibition, organized by a curatorial directorate, presenting us with a reading, more or less objective, of what visual culture has been up to in the preceding two years. It is widely appreciated that on any given occasion, the directorate will be driven by enthusiasms and agendas that compromise objectivity. So there has sprung up a genre of what we might call Biennial Criticism, in which the organizers are taken to task for various distortions, and when these have been flagrant, as in the 1993 or, to a lesser degree, the 1995 Biennial, the critics almost speak as one. Everyone knew, in 1993, that a lot of art was being made that took the form of aggressively politicized cultural criticism, but the Biennial made it appear that there was very little else, and it had the effect of alienating the viewers by treating them as enemies. Again, everyone recognized in 1995 that artists were exploring issues of gender identity--but there was a question of whether these preoccupations were not overrepresented in what was shown. Anticipating the barrage of critical dissent, the Whitney pre-emptively advertised the 2000 Biennial as the exhibition you love to hate, making a virtue of adversity. But Biennials and Biennial Criticism must be taken as a single complex, which together provide, in the best way that has so far evolved, as adequate a picture as we are likely to get of where American artistic culture is at the moment. The Whitney deserves considerable credit for exposing itself to critical onslaughts from various directions in this periodic effort to bring the present art world to consciousness. Art really is a mirror in which the culture gets to see itself reflected, but it requires a fair amount of risk and bickering to get that image to emerge with any degree of clarity.

As it happens, my own sense of the state of the art world is reasonably congruent with that of Lawrence Rinder, who bears chief responsibility for Biennial 2002, though I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with a good many of the artists whose work has been selected. This unfamiliarity can even be taken as evidence that Rinder's selection corresponds to the general profile of art-making today.

It is almost as though any sample drawn from the art world would yield much the same profile of artistic production, so long as it consisted mainly of artists in their 30s and early 40s who have been formed in one or another of the main art schools and keep up with the main art periodicals. A great Biennial could have been put together using older artists with international reputations, but somehow emphasizing the young does not seem a curatorial caprice. It is increasingly an art-world premise that what is really happening is to be found among the young or very young, whose reputations have not as yet emerged. A painter who taught in California told me that he was constantly pressed, by dealers and collectors, to tell them who among the students was hot. So as long as it resembles a fairly large show of MFA students graduating from a major art school--as Biennial 2002 mostly does--a quite representative Biennial can be put together of artists whose work is hardly known at all. Somehow, if it were widely known, it would not have been representative.

Art today is pretty largely conceptual. It is not Conceptual Art in the narrow sense the term acquired when it designated one of the last true movements of late Modernism, in which the objects were often negligible or even nonexistent, but rather in the sense that being an artist today consists in having an idea and then using whatever means are necessary to realize it. Advanced art schools do not primarily teach skills but serve as institutes through which students are given critical support in finding their own way to whatever it takes to make their ideas come to something. This has been the case since the early 1970s.

It is amazing how many young people want to be artists today. I was told that there are about 600 art majors in a state university in Utah--and there will be at least that many applicants for perhaps twenty places in any one of the major MFA programs, despite a tuition equal to that for law or business school. Few will find teaching positions, but their main impulse is to make art, taking advantage of today's extreme pluralism, which entails that there are no antecedent prohibitions on how their art has to be. Every artist can use any technology or every technology at once--photography, video, sound, language, imagery in all possible media, not to mention that indeterminate range of activities that constitute performances, working alone or in collaboratives on subjects that can be extremely arcane.

Omer Fast shows a two-channel video installation with surround sound about Glendive, Montana, selected because it is the nation's smallest self-contained television market. Who would know about this? Or about Sarah Winchester, who kept changing the architecture of her house in San Jose, California, because she felt she was being pursued by victims of the Winchester rifle, which her late husband manufactured, which Jeremy Blake chose as the subject of a 16-millimeter film, augmented by drawings and digital artworks transferred to DVD? I pick these out not as criticism but as observations. They exemplify where visual culture is today.

Initially I felt that painting was somewhat underrepresented, but on reflection I realize that there is not much of the kind of easel painting done now that makes up one's composite memory of Biennials past. What I had to accept was that artists today appropriate vernacular styles and images--graffiti, cartoons, circus posters and crude demotic drawing. Artists use whatever kinds of images they like. Much as one dog tells another in a New Yorker cartoon that once you're online, no one can tell you're a dog, it is less and less easy to infer much about an artist's identity from the work.

At least three graduate students in a leading art school I visited not long ago choose to paint like self-taught artists. The self-taught artist Thornton Dial Senior appeared in Biennial 2000, but his contribution did not look like anyone's paradigm of outsider art, so no one could have known that it was not by an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design or CalArts. There are some quilts in Biennial 2002 by Rosie Lee Tomkins, who is Afro-American, as we can tell from items in her bibliography (Redesigning Cultural Roots: Diversity in African-American Quilts). Since this year's catalogue does not identify artists with reference to their education, we don't know--nor does it matter--whether Tomkins is self-taught. But it is entirely open to white male graduate students to practice quilt-making as their art if they choose to.

Whether someone can paint or draw is no more relevant than whether they can sew or cook. Everything is available to everyone--the distinctions between insider and outsider, art and craft, fine art and illustration, have altogether vanished. I have not yet seen a Biennial with the work of Sophie Matisse or George Deem in it, both of whom appropriate the painting styles of Vermeer and other Old Masters, but they express the contemporary moment as well as would an artist who drew Superman or The Silver Surfer. Mike Bidlo--also not included--has been painting Jackson Pollocks over the past few years. In a way I rather admire, Biennial 2002 presents us with a picture not just of the art world but of American society today, in an ideal form in which identities are as fluid and boundaries as permeable as lifestyles in general.

The openness to media outside the traditional ones of painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture has made it increasingly difficult to see everything on a single visit in the recent Biennials, and this is particularly so in Biennial 2002. But just seeing the things that can be taken in on such a visit may not give the best idea of what is really happening in the art world. Biennial 2002 includes the work of eight performance artists or teams of performance artists, for example, and theirs may be among the most revealing work being done today; but you will have to read about their work in the catalogue, since the performances themselves do not take place on the premises of the museum. I'll describe three artists whose most striking work is performance, since together they give a deeper sense of visual culture than we might easily get by looking at the objects and installations in the museum's galleries.

Let's begin with Praxis--a performance collaborative formed in 1999 that consists of a young married couple, Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey. On any given Saturday afternoon, Praxis opens the East Village storefront that is its studio and home to passers-by. The ongoing performance, which they title The New Economy, consists in offering visitors any of four meaningful but undemanding services from the artists: a hug, a footbath, a dollar or a Band-Aid, which comes with the kind of kiss a mommy gives to make it all better. Praxis draws upon a fairly rich art history. Its services are good examples of what were considered actions by Fluxus, an art movement that has frequently figured in this column. Fluxus originated in the early 1960s as a loose collective of artists-performers-composers who were dedicated, among other things, to overcoming the gap between art and life. The movement drew its inspiration from Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Zen--and from the visionary figure George Maciunas, who gave it its name. It is a matter for philosophers to determine when giving someone a hug is a piece of art--but an important consideration is that as art it has no particular connection to the art market, nor is it the sort of thing that is easily collected. And it requires no special training to know how to do it.

There is something tender and affecting in Praxis's ministrations, which connects it to a second art-historical tradition. It has, for example, a certain affinity to Felix Gonzales-Torres, who piled up candies in the corner of a gallery for people to help themselves to, or to the art of Rirkrit Tiravanija, which largely consists in feeding people fairly simple dishes, which he cooks for whoever comes along. Praxis's art is comforting, in much the way that Tiravanija's work is nurturing. The people who enter Praxis's storefront are not necessarily, as the artists explain, seeking an art experience. Neither are those who eat Tiravanija's green curry in quest of gastronomic excitement. The artists set themselves up as healers or comfort-givers, and the art aims at infusing an increment of human warmth into daily life. There was not a lot of that in Fluxus, but it has become very much a part of art today, especially among younger artists. The moral quality of Praxis belongs to the overall spirit of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which recently emerged as an art scene. On one of my visits there, a gallerist asked me what I thought of the scene and I told him I found it "lite," not intending that as a criticism. "We want to remain children," he told me. The artists there could not have been nicer, and this seems generally the feeling evoked by Biennial 2002. It is the least confrontational Biennial of recent years.

There is, for example, not much by way of nudity, though that is integral to the performances of the remarkable artist Zhang Huan, which stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Praxis. Zhang Huan was expelled from China in 1998. His work fuses certain Asiatic disciplines laced with appropriations from various Western avant-gardes. In each of his performances, Zhang Huan's shaved head and bare, wiry body is put through trials in which, like a saint or shaman, the performer displays his indifference to injury. His nakedness becomes a universal emblem of human vulnerability. There is a remarkable, even stunning, poetry in these performances, and they feel in fact like religious ordeals, like fasting or mortification, undertaken for the larger welfare. I have seen the film of an amazing performance, Dream of the Dragon, in which Zhang Huan is carried by assistants into the performance space on a large forked branch of a tree, like an improvised cross. The assistants cover his body with a kind of soup they coat with flour. A number of leashed family dogs are then allowed to lick this off with sometimes snarling canine voracity.

The performances of William Pope.L, which involve great physical and, I imagine, psychological stress, stand to Zhang Huan's as West stands to East. His crawl pieces, of which he has done perhaps forty since 1978, perform social struggle, as he puts it. His contribution to Biennial 2002, titled The Great White Way, will involve a twenty-two-mile crawl up Broadway, from the Statue of Liberty to the Bronx, and will take five years. In a film excerpt, Pope.L is seen in a padded Superman suit and ski hat, a skateboard strapped to his back, negotiating a segment of the crawl. Sometimes he uses the skateboard as a dolly, but that seems hardly less strenuous than actual crawling. Pope.L is African-American, and somehow one feels that crawling up the Great White Way has to be seen as a symbolic as well as an actual struggle. But it also has the aura of certain ritual enactments that require worshipers to climb some sacred stairway on their knees, or to achieve a required pilgrimage by crawling great distances to a shrine.

Since foot-washing, which is one of Praxis's actions, is widely recognized as a gesture of humility as well as hospitality in many religious cultures, the three performance pieces bear out one of Rinder's observations that a great many artists today are interested in religious subjects. He and I participated in a conversation organized by Simona Vendrame, the editor of Tema Celeste, and published in that magazine under the title New York, November 8, 2001. We were to discuss the impact of September 11 on American art. With few exceptions, the art in Biennial 2002 was selected before the horror, though it is inevitable that it colors how we look at the exhibits.

In a wonderful departure, five commissioned Biennial works are on view in Central Park, including an assemblage of sculptures in darkly patinated bronze by Kiki Smith, of harpies and sirens. These figures have human heads on birds' bodies, and as they are exhibited near the Central Park zoo, they suggest evolutionary possibilities that were never realized. When I saw pictures of them, however, I could not help thinking they memorialized those who threw themselves out of the upper windows of the World Trade Center rather than endure incineration. I had read that one of the nearby schoolchildren pointed to the falling bodies and said, "Look, the birds are on fire!"

I don't really yet know what effect on art September 11 actually had, and it might not be obvious even when one sees it. The artist Audrey Flack, whose work is in the Biennial, told me that as soon as she could get away from the television screen, she wanted only to paint fishing boats at Montauk. A good bit of what Rinder has selected could as easily as not have been done in response to the terrible events, but he said that he had sensed some sort of change taking place in artists' attitudes well before September 11: "What I was finding over and over again was artists saying things to me like 'Well, to be honest, what I'm really doing is searching for the truth' or 'What matters the most to me is to make the most honest statement I possibly can.'" I don't think one can easily tell from looking at the art that it embodies these virtues, any more than one could tell from Flack's watercolors that they constituted acts of healing for her. But that is what they mean and are.

One consequence of art's having taken the direction it has is that there is not always a lot to be gained from what one sees without benefit of a fair amount of explanation. Biennial 2002 has been very generous in supplying interpretive help. Some people have complained that the wall labels go too far in inflecting the way one is supposed to react to the work, but I am grateful for any help I can get; I found the wall texts, like the catalogue, indispensable. And beyond that, you can hear what the artists thought they were doing by listening to recorded comments on the rented electronic guides. I cannot see enough of the work of Kim Sooja, a Korean artist who works with traditional fabrics from her culture. But her statements contribute to the metaphysics of fabric--to what Kierkegaard calls the meaning of the cloth--and are worth thinking about in their own right.

You will encounter Kim Sooja's Deductive Object, consisting of Korean bedcovers placed over tables at the zoo cafe in Central Park, just north of Kiki Smith's mythological animals and just south of a towering steel tree by Roxy Paine. Since Central Park has been opened up to temporary exhibitions, I would like to urge a longstanding agenda of my own. I cannot think of anything better capable of raising the spirits of New York than installing a beautiful projected piece by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which, as always with their work, will not cost the city a nickel. They envision a series of tall gates, posted at regular intervals all along the main walkway of the park. Hanging from each will be saffron-colored strips of cloth that will float above us as we follow the path for as long as we care to--an undulating roof, since the strips are just long enough to cover the distance between the gates. The whole world will look with exaltation upon this work, which will express the same spirituality and truth that today's artists, if Lawrence Rinder is right, have aspired to in their work. And billions of dollars will flow into our economy as they pilgrim to our city.

I think the art world is going to be the way it is now for a very long time, even if it is strictly unimaginable how artworks themselves will look in 2004. Meanwhile, I think well of Biennial 2002, though I can have written of only a few of the 113 artists that make it up. You'll have to find your own way, like the artists themselves. Take my word that it is worth the effort. That's the best Biennial Criticism is able do in the present state of things.

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