PRINT May 2002

George Baker

“Only through sickness can we know what true health is,” Joe Gibbons states at one point in his video Confessions of a Sociopath, 2001. “That's why I've gone to such lengths to develop my neurosis.” Wobbling between Super-8 films of past transgressions and video footage of present inaction, Gibbons's work refuses the suturing of its two contradictory media through its author's confrontation with the intractable disparity between his former and current selves—a kind of Krapp's Last Tape—inspired reverie. In its salutary pessimism, the work reads to me like a rejoinder by film and video curator Chrissie Iles to exhibition head Lawrence Rinder, whom I like to imagine speaking through the affirmations of the televangelist in Christian Jankowski's insipid The Holy Artwork, 2001 (“Thank you, Lord, for creating video. . .”).

It is hard to know what to expect from an institution that, just months ago, nearly scrapped its most artistically vital limb, the unruly Independent Study Program (a crucial forum for the training of young artists, critics, and curators). But Gibbons's statement amounts to the most generous appraisal I could imagine of this year's Biennial, and it would be my rejoinder to anyone whose reaction to this exhibition is to mourn the state of contemporary art. Rather, mourn the sorry state of contemporary curation, which suffers from an all but complete disinterest in the historicity of artistic production and the crucial debates of art criticism.

The “sickness” of the 2002 Biennial, however, lies in a specific problem confronting museums today: the sudden fusion of the digital modes of much contemporary work with the (here exacerbated) logic of decontextualization long dear to museum and curator alike. We witness a growing tautological equivalence between technological and administrative procedures of recoding (the digital artist as mixer of formerly distinct media through the über-archive of the database; the curator as a kind of hip-hop sampler of artistic“statements” through the labyrinthine narrative of the mega-exhibition—and it was no coincidence that there were so many DJs in the current show). It seems to me that it is in the grip of the amnesia peculiar to this techno-administrative fusion that this Biennial's massive appeal to mythic forms of experience erupts: in the Heideggerian, crypto-primitivist blather of Rinder's program of “Beings,” “Spaces,” and “Tribes”; and in our being force-fed a series of “artworks” focusing on a fringe American lineup of psychics, televangelists, sci-fi monsters, automatons, superheroes—the list goes on and on. Such is the regressive harvest of the techno-optimist, tourist-professional model of the curator.

Other harvests are imaginable, and in this exhibition they came mostly from the film and video program, evidently organized by Iles according to a different logic: the endangered scholar-amateur model of curation (amateur here taken in its etymological sense, that of a lover). It is only in light of the Biennial's investment in mythic experience that we can understand another of the film program's rejoinders: the magisterial work of Robert Beavers, functioning here as its centerpiece. There is no doubt that Beavers is a classicist; no doubt, too, that in stunning short films like Work Done, 1972–99, or The Ground, 2001, his vision operates through “correspondences,” analogical connections between disparate objects—both natural and cultural—that often serve as the ground of mythic experience. And yet in Beavers's hands such archaism functions rather to allegorize the outdatedness of his medium; Work Done, for instance, seems to insist on film's embeddedness in an episteme of manual labor (one sequence noses around a construction site, others compare camera movement to the work of a bookbinder or a European cook) as well as of perceptual defamiliarization (the impossibly slow fall of a chainsawed tree mirrored in the impossibly dilated rhythm of Beavers's montage). Even more important, Beavers's analogies often contest the fusion of myth, opting instead for the most poignant incompatibilities: The Ground compares the actions of a Greek stonemason and his chisel to the filmmaker's editorial cuts, only to underline the yawning gap between the three-dimensionality of architecture and the two-dimensionality of film in a repeated scene in which a man offers up his cupped, curved hand and then beats it flat against his chest in a resounding thud. This is a painful almost a sign of bereavement; Beavers's is a form of medium specificity that leaves you weak-kneed. It was developed by the similarly backward-glancing offerings of many of Iles's younger choices (I was particularly impressed by the Broodthaers in a film by David Gatten, Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, 1999), and it utterly deflated any morphological echoes in Rinder's exhibition spaces-specifically Stephen Dean's Pulse, 2001, which turns both video and the Third World other into fodder for the revitalization of mythic aesthetic modes (e.g., painting, by which it was surrounded in Rinder's installation).

Only when the techno-administrative fusion is fissured, only when the curatorial recoding is ruptured, does a work in this context emerge as compelling. By which I do not mean to praise the large cohort of “do-it-yourself” aesthetics—the pinhole cameras, quilts, ancient-seeming expressionist canvases, comic-strip drawings—favored by Rinder as much as his technological gadgets; these are merely the impotent flailings proper to a world dominated by the amnesiac use of technology. Irit Batsry's medium-specific digital video These Are Not My Images (Neither There Nor Here), 2000, and Lorna Simpson's Easy to Remember, 2001, both offer up modes of recoding that run counter to the totalizing claims of the curation: Batsry in the insistence on the recalcitrant otherness of the images “taken” in her movie; Simpson in the concatenation of humming voices that remain individual, nongeneralizable, gridded but constantly wandering astray. Chemi Rosado Seijo's decrepit deletions of media objects surely form a more effective archive than the séances of Archive (art's revenge against the falsehoods of mass culture versus art's masochistic embrace of mass culture's revenge against art). And Rachel Harrison emerges here as perhaps the most important sculptor of her generation (rivaled only, in my estimation, by Tom Burr, who is not included in the show). Turning on strict spatial oppositions of inside and outside, front and back, Harrison's selection presents a sculpture of gaps—experienced literally in the spaces between the haphazard, often splintered planks used to create a form; or phenomenologically in the work's collision of planar photography and volumetric sculpture; or historically in her insistence on confronting the aporia between the legacies of Constructivism and the readymade. Harrison's tilting, jerry-built Unplugged, 2000, makes a laughing stock of Payphone, 2002, the slanted digital gimmick by Robert Lazzarini a room away (the catalogue informs us that his work is “astonishing,” which is untrue sculpturally and would be unfortunate artistically). And her almost curatorial use of sculpture as a display surface for photographs qualifies as another critical—because self-reflexive—mode of recoding, just as it simultaneously splits the inter-media fusion offered up by the model of sculpture “advanced” in a work like Peter Sarkisian's Hover, 1999 (video displaces sculpture in their fusion; phenomenological exploration of space becomes a manipulated image of the same; and the regression entailed is embraced in the work's throwback to the mother-child dyad). Develop your neurosis indeed: Sarkisian's and Harrison's opposition announces a contemporary war between the false plenitude of the technological/curatorial Imaginary and the uneasy challenge of the artistic Real. The time has come to choose sides.

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