I’ll Be Your Mirror

I’ll Be Your Mirror

The art on display at the Whitney Biennial 2006 doesn’t have to tell us it’s not morning in America: We know that by watching the evening news.


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?

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.

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