Whitney Biennial 2008 at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Domenick Ammirati

Reviews / 24.05.2008
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The idea of 'taking the temperature' of the zeitgeist conjures images of rubber gloves and rectal thermometers. And yet people continue to curate the Whitney Biennial. And for what? Which biennials do we remember? Only those whose organizers seized the opportunity to do something bold-1993, the 'identity politics' biennial; 2006, 'Day for Night'. The rest flow together into a stream that we dip into only for occasional checking of professional bona fides- Was she in the biennial? How many times? When?

The curators of the 2008 edition, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin, chose to make their bid for history by extending the show to an exhibition space outside the confines of the Whitney's Marcel Breuer-designed home in New York. Although recent biennials (including those in 2002 and 2004) have made use of Central Park, this year they chose the grandiose and mildly decrepit Park Avenue Armory, a fortress built between 1877 and 1881 that occupies an entire city block. The building's once ornate interiors are now maculate with age; its halls and chambers display cloudy oil portraits alongside the occasional bit of exposed brick and bear now quaint, once practical, names like Company Room F, the Commander's Room and the Women's Balcony. The Armory's most pronounced feature is the enormous Drill Hall, a space that induces gasps of wonder among New Yorkers used to cramped apartments: it's the size of a football field with a vault eighty feet high. An interior balcony is enclosed by chain link, and at the exposed stairwells in the corners, the fencing is very quietly topped with razor wire, an inexplicable detail that enhances the sense that the building is negotiating its way back from the world of the condemned. Which it is. A year and a half ago, a conservancy leased the building from the state of New York for 99 years, and it has raised over a third of the estimated $150 million needed for a full restoration.

All of which is fascinating, or would be fascinating if not for the way the Armory and its semiruinous state were deployed as part of the premier event for art in the United States. Regardless of good practical reasons for choosing the building (ample space, location, location, location), what it lent the show was atmosphere, in the worst sense of the term. The inversion of values ordained by the shift from concrete and brutalism to crushed velvet and vaguely campy, rundown neoclassicism evoked in the exhibition organizers a mood of the carnivalesque but one that unfortunately failed to advance much beyond a license to ill. In the Armory, art lovers could experience a full-tilt funhouse version of bohemia: a weeklong dance marathon that culminated in a 24-hour hoedown; a bar serving artisanal tequila; fifteen-minute portraits by conceptual painter Ellen Harvey; music gigs by the de mode Gang Gang Dance and, inexplicably, the démodé Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, plus a very bad installation by its leader, Kembra Pfahler. (Why her ass prints deserve inclusion in the biennial, and why recent similar works by Nicholás Guagnini involving his testicles do not, is a question open to debate. Guagnini's absence, however, does bring up the noteworthy fact that the clique of artists surrounding New York's Orchard gallery, and their like-minded Whitney Program associates, were one of the bases left uncovered by the show.) The emphasis on sleepovers/slumber parties-the culminating dance event, an overnight screening of movies about various sorts of apocalypse, a sleepover-with-soundscape organized by another mildly archaic figure, DJ Olive-lent an infantilizing cast to the whole, and abetted an overall defanging of site-specificity as an artmaking strategy. Some artists did attempt to take on the building's identity through references to war and militarism, but these were either half-hearted or silly; the project by Portland, Oregon's MK Guth, for example, which solicited viewers to answer the question 'What is worth protecting?' on shreds of red ribbon that were then braided with human hair and webbed across an old library, smacked of the worst of community art. And even this and like attempts to couch the armory as a 'site', when it's really just a couple of coffer drops away from being an ornate vacuum (that is to say, a gorgeous exhibition hall) reflects the apparently inevitable clammy grip of institutionality. Those looking for sitedness might have been better served by turning their attention to the residents of the shelter for mentally ill homeless women that the building very admirably houses.

Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler, T.S.O.Y.W. (The Sorrows of Young Wether), 2007, two-channel projection, 16mm film, colour, sound, 200 min, stills. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Back at the Whitney proper, meanwhile, the curators put up their show proper. The juicy and the ephemeral were confined to the 'other' space (the Armory), while the 'serious' elements took their places in the white cubes of the official edifice. In the museum, under the banner of the theme 'lessness', you could see a lot of architecturally scaled and derived work; a lot of video, some of which was excellent (ranging from Spike Lee to Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, Edgar Arceneaux to Olaf Breuning); mediocre conceptual japes and occasional nods towards an idea of political or social counterculture (Rita Ackermann, I'm looking at you). Some of the object-based works were good: Sherrie Levine's exquisitely concise Masks hung at the show's center, their eerie pregnancy frozen in bronze, seemingly attuned to the fact that they were some of the most generative works in the whole biennial. Rachel Harrison, too, was at her hilarious and depressing best with an ugly parti-colored sculpture whose DVD element projected scenes from the Pirates of the Caribbeanfranchise in alternation with footage of a sidewalk showman hawking vegetable peelers. If the Armory served up ecstasy, a quiet note of nostalgia sounded through the Breuer building, fulfilling a dichotomy as time-honored as getting old and dying. On one hand, the failure of modernism and utopianism-still the definitive aspect of the current era of artmaking-plays through many works, by artists as diverse as Leslie Hewitt, Fia Backström, William Cordova, Heather Rowe, Carol Bove, Amie Siegel and Jennifer Montgomery. The presence of Ackermann, meanwhile, signified a desire for something like a near past, of 10 years ago or the last time you got high, danced, and got laid; and Adam Putnam's work (which I like) is somehow made to sigh more heavily than usual. The most nostalgic work in the exhibition (despite any claims to being about nostalgia) was a wordless, two-channel, 16 mm-to-video, three-hour-plus opus by Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler. Sumptuous and well paced, it preyed on me despite my suspicion of it. Even James Welling looks nostalgic in context, perhaps because his Torsos are so uncommonly beautiful, and because they are blue. My favorite work in the dystopian vein lay around the corner from them: Phoebe Washburn's day-glo While Enhancing a Deep Down Diminishing Thirst, the Juice Broke Loose (2008), because, consciously or not, it cribs from the misbegotten genius of Mike Judge's film Idiocracy in imagining a world of people so brainwashed by corporatism that they water their plants with sports drink.

Overall, the museum felt cramped, despite the curators' choice to reduce the number of participants to 81 (from the last outing's berserk 101) and spread them across two sites. Perhaps the sense of claustrophobia was a mere effect of contrast with the Armory's roominess; perhaps it was a byproduct of the inevitable difficulties of making one connection after the next between artists not terribly in concord. Too, I can't help wondering if Huldisch and Momim did in fact begin with a strong vision that was diluted by an atypical curatorial structure: their work was officially overseen by Donna De Salvo, the museum's chief curator, and they received advice from the Studio Museum's Thelma Golden, Bill Horrigan of the Wexner Center, and independent curator and writer Linda Norden. All four of these advisors are exceptional; but the scenario implies insertions and deletions, "suggestions" that cannot but be taken, that could only muddle what it was the two curators were trying to do. Perhaps better the pair had crafted a disaster on their own than fail by committee?

But for all the flaws and successes of the main show, the Armory is what will be remembered from the 2008 biennial. There, if the median quality was low, the average was raised by the paradoxical presence of some of the show's best works, which did take great advantage of what the setting allowed. Matt Mullican and Michael Smith both made discomfort-inducing live appearances, the former subjecting himself to one of his grueling hypnosis performances and the latter inhabiting his Baby Ikki character. And two excellent works took place in near invisibility. In fact, for all I know, Matthew Brannon's work might not exist at all, given the artist's scalpel wit. His The last page in a very long novel is described as a screenplay for a haunted house movie based on recordings made at the Armory overnight; the script was then purportedly buried inside the Armory in a secret location. The piece less sends up the spiritualism and softheadedness that pervades some of the Armory works (DJ Olive, MK Guth . . .) than illustrates how a shred of phenomenon may become fiction and how fiction in turn may become myth, with the hidden manuscript now a seed for a future generation's loopy beliefs.

The other 'invisible' high point existed behind a hidden door in the Commander's Room. In this doppelganger exhibition, the design-art outfit Dexter Sinister set up a doppelganger identity for itself, Sinister Dexter, which in turn doubled the Whitney's press office. For a three-week run, they produced daily 'press releases' available at the front desk in both exhibition venues and online. These bulletins ranged from a discussion of pragmatism à la Peirce and Dewey to a reprint of Duchamp's Blind Man issue one, reversing the publication's color scheme; a criticism of the show itself by Jan Verwoert to a (false) announcement of a Batman-like, inverted Whitney logo being displayed in the sky via Klieg light; and a wiki link explaining the 'hundredth monkey effect', whereby, when a critical mass is reached, all members of a group suddenly learn certain behaviors. While inversion and reversal dominated as motifs, the project was a world apart from the carnival that surrounded it, using the idea of a secret command and information bureau operating hidden at the heart of the show's 'other' space to its full metaphoric potency. To find Dexter Sinister's true intent, look to the project's title, True Mirror, and to the 'true mirrors' that they installed in the restrooms throughout the exhibition. In them, one sees oneself as one is actually seen by others, not 'flopped'. The glimpse provides the kind of disturbing and virulent truth that might unsettle one into different habits, might produce something creative and concrete, and with a sense of humor, too-something that might produce a limited but actionable optimism amid the 'lessness'. For bringing this project into being, the 2008 biennial, and its curators may well deserve to be remembered.

- Domenick Ammirati