PRINT January 2004

US News

Tim Griffin talks with the curators of the 2004 Whitney Biennial

On March 11, the Whitney Museum of American Art unveils its biennial survey of contemporary art, co-organized by museum curators Chrissie Iles, Shamim Momin, and Debra Singer. Featuring 108 artists, this installment is only slightly smaller than the gargantuan 2002 version of the show yet is not broken down into any categories, thematic or otherwise. Rather, as the curators explained in an interview with Artforum editor Tim Griffin last November, the artworks will remain in fluid dialogue, their exchanges often steeped in artists’ pregnant looks back to history at a moment made uneasy by the ever-swifter advance of technology and continuing conflict in Iraq.

TIM GRIFFIN: What conversations did you have about your conception of the Biennial before you began traveling around the country to visit artists’ studios?

SHAMIM MOMIN: One thing we discussed from the beginning was that we wanted an intergenerational exhibition. Many exhibitions have emphasized youth for its own sake. While we certainly weren’t going to ignore the young, we wanted to emphasize the new, regardless of age—to distill a sense of what’s happening now.

CHRISSIE ILES: When we finally came back to the table, we all noted that younger artists are very interested in the work of older artists from the ’60s and ’70s. There is also renewed interest in the ’80s—in figures like Richard Prince, Jack Goldstein, and Robert Longo. At the same time, older artists are extending their own practices looking back, in some cases, thirty years.

TG: Can you describe the quality of this intergenerational exchange? Are there even specific pairings you can point to in the show?

CI: Morgan Fisher has been a very important figure for a number of young artists in Los Angeles, such as Sharon Lockhart. Both artists are in the show with new film works. Elizabeth Peyton and David Hockney are another obvious example. Less obvious is the way in which the ’60s and ’70s in general are influencing younger artists. It’s been very interesting to observe, for example, Sam Durant’s concern with the Black Panthers and with placards from ’60s demonstrations. I think it’s significant that we’re showing his work immediately after seeing mass demonstrations against the war in Iraq.

DEBRA SINGER: There’s also, say, the influence of Smithson’s writing on younger artists like Mark Handforth and Wade Guyton. But, as Chrissie suggested, the idea of looking back here is based not just on matching specific artists intergenerationally but also on political and social events. Whether particular artists experienced the 1960s or ’70s firsthand or only as received information, there is a complex understanding of nostalgia right now that has varying uses for artists—whether they’re taking up that era’s political context and civil activism, its art-historical movements, or a countercultural, popular aesthetic. In her work for the Biennial, Mary Kelly, for example, is recuperating an image from her own participation in those earlier movements, excavating history in order to comment on present-day concerns.

TG: Is it somewhat unique that a younger generation interested in art, culture, and politics would turn to previous decades instead of dealing directly with the here and now?

SM: I would say that these artists are using the past to deal with the here and now. The impulse to turn to the late ’60s and early ’70s—whether in popular culture or art history—is a strategy that responds directly to contemporary circumstances. Even where the work seems to sidestep a direct translation of culture or events today, it is certainly influenced by a cultural landscape that is tumultuous and uncertain—and therefore similar in certain respects to that previous moment.

CI: Which differentiates the present from the ’80s, when a nostalgic, near-romantic conservatism triggered the resurgence of figurative painting. The current appearance of figuration in painting and drawing is driven by a very different psychological impulse.

DS: You can also think about these uses of history within the broader context of appropriation. For example, artists like Robert Longo provide the precedent of appropriation as a sort of allegorical procedure, with references to cinematic or advertising images. Among the younger generation of artists in this Biennial, you see a shift in strategies of appropriation, where the references are more particular or the modes of production and the formal qualities of the art are quite distinct from their art-historical predecessors.

SM: Right. Are you thinking of a Tom Burr or a Wade Guyton?

DS: Exactly. Such as Burr’s idiosyncratic fusing of Pop and Minimalist histories with popular culture, using frequent references to specific artworks to address issues not originally invoked by the cited work—in Burr’s case, often issues of sexuality or surveillance.

SM: And again, there are multiple interpretations for this approach. You could look at it in the new sculpture by Dario Robleto, who is very specifically addressing the ’60s in the context of the failed utopian gesture and asking what might provide us that lost sense of investment or give people the same sense of social conviction. Unlike Burr or Guyton, he describes his work in alchemical terms, a process akin to that of a DJ remixing.

TG: You’re curating on the heels of Venice, where there was a deep consideration of previous conceptions of utopia. How does the work in this Biennial stand in contrast?

CI: Venice has always been a fundamentally European show, while the Whitney Biennial is about America’s image of itself, which is perhaps one reason it’s such a contested show. In terms of utopianism specifically, perhaps the works in this show are less didactic and theoretical.

SM: I think that there’s a much broader understanding of utopia as a kind of implicitly failed project, one which doesn’t necessarily imply that utopian ideas are a dead end. They remain necessary. Artists like Andrea Zittel, in her project in Joshua Tree, California, are still investigating conceptions of community, looking for that ideal one in which, as she puts it, individual agency coexists with the desire for community.

CI: There is also Liisa Roberts’s project about the city of Vyborg—a border town that switched from Finnish to Russian rule in 1947—and the failures of Communism. We learn about the degeneration and physical decay that took place during the Communist years, seen through the eyes of a group of teenagers living there now. Roberts spent a long time working in direct collaboration with the teenagers and the staff of the Alvar Aalto library. The idea of social space becomes very important, as it does in Zittel’s project.

DS: In that regard, there are several examples of collaborative process in the show. For example, Velvet-Strike is a collaborative Net-art project led by Anne-Marie Schleiner with Brody Condon and Joan Leandre. The team created a “hacktivist” artwork relating to the violent and popular multiuser Internet game Counter-Strike; the piece enables you to spray “peace” graffiti within the game environment instead of shooting bullets. There is a sense of collective agency as well because anyone can download their protest graffiti and participate.

CI: There is a lot of painting and drawing in this show, which isn’t surprising given the current strength of the two media. I think this is related to a shift in our perception, through being overexposed to technology, particularly regarding the photographic image, which has become completely dislodged from its material form. It is becoming what video was to us in the ’60s—completely immaterial. Take a picture from your cell phone and e-mail it to someone. And now that photography has no material substance, the materiality inherent in painting and drawing is reasserting itself with a force, because with these media there is a certain kind of control over the image, which is impossible with something dematerialized and fluid.

SM: Throughout the work in the exhibition, there is a deep investment in materiality and process, but there is also a kind of internalization of the metaphorical and conceptual structures of technology, which becomes part of the work without the work being explicitly about technology. You often encounter a kind of hypertextual approach to narrative and form used by artists today.

TG: On that note, the special catalogue you’ve devised extends the structure of the Biennial.

DS: The catalogue is a two-part project, with a book of essays and a box of artist’s projects. Within the book, in addition to each of our catalogue essays, we provide a set of historical and contemporary essays about related themes.

CI: The catalogue is inspired by an issue of Aspen magazine, from winter 1967, which was a box of artist’s projects. We wanted the catalogue to have a strong critical aspect and an artist-based concept. So for example, we have Anaïs Nin’s description of her first experience with LSD, which is interesting given the psychedelic thread within the show.

DS: And a fictional excerpt by Samuel Delaney, because of the influence of science fiction on artists now and his connection to psychedelia.

TG: Both of those examples point to the importance of mythmaking, which is another theme you’re pursuing. But these interests can be seen over the previous ten years or more, not just two.

SM: It’s certainly not a new impulse per se, but it is ever more present in the particular way in which contemporary society is structured right now. Visual culture is replete with these mythmaking impulses—in everything from the popularity of movies like Lord of the Rings or The Matrix to the extraordinary fantastical worlds of video games. Again, this creation of alternative worlds—by artists like Amy Cutler or Ernesto Caivano—seems an internalized response to the simplified, overdetermined narratives we’re given in a hypermediated environment.

DS: So, for example, Shamim writes in the catalogue about the resurgence of a gothic sensibility and the uncanny within current artmaking practice—noting that you can trace these renewed interests back a few years to, for example, the 1992 LA MoCA show “Helter Skelter” and Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny, which was published the same year. You can look as far back as 1985, when Mike Kelley wrote an essay called “Urban Gothic.”

CI: In the early ’80s, Umberto Eco asks in Travels in Hyperreality what it is about American society that makes it constantly revisit the gothic and the medieval. We’re not trying to say that anything emerged in just the last two years; we’re saying that, within the work created in the last two years, there might be an excellent articulation of something that’s been going on for a decade.

SM: The work often points to a sense of decline. You can see it in Aïda Ruilova’s videos or the sculptural installations of Banks Violette. The idea of the gothic sensibility is a historical occurrence, evident at moments like the current one, when the need to create another kind of enigmatic, discursive alternative space comes to the foreground.

DS: Andreas Huyssen recently pointed out a great irony about our time in his book Present Pasts: that even as our capacity for digital memory expands, digital technologies grow obsolete at an ever-increasing rate, meaning we could quickly become an era without a memory, without a history. This accelerating rate of obsolescence has led to the transformation of our sense of the present, creating in particular a sense of compression of time and space. This, in turn, has triggered conscious and unconscious attempts to slow down time and to find grounding in a relationship to history. You really do often find that emotional tenor in artmaking today. Through various critical displays of nostalgia, there are references not just to another time but to other notions of temporality.

CI: Which is why you have artists such as Bruce McClure and Luis Recoder working with the materiality of film in a hybrid of live projection and installation. Cecily Brown is also dealing with painting’s history, making direct references to Goya and erotic nineteenth-century prints.

DS: Sharon Lockhart’s film installation also references nineteenth-century landscape painting traditions, as much as it does the bodily presence and poetic simplicity of everyday movements used by the Judson Dance Theater from the late ’60s.

TG: Given this kind of looking back, what would you say this show is articulating about today?

CI: I think that all Biennials can hope to do is articulate a critical moment. We are looking at this particular period of contemporary art history through the lens of three individual curators with very different ideas, brought together to create a dialogue that brings out a number of important dynamics. This show is a kind of weather report: a moment of crisis; forecast uncertain.

SM: It’s specific threads coming together as a response to a moment in contemporary society marked by turbulent international politics and an economic downturn. But one critical aspect of that pervasive intensity, even anxiety, felt in the work is that there is a sense of the necessity of renewal and purpose in the work right now.

CI: Perhaps the strength of the Whitney Biennial is that America is a kind of flash point for larger changes occurring in the world. America is all about the future. It has never been afraid to explore what another future might be. I think that’s striking in the work that we’re showing.

As Shamim said, there’s a sense of a body politic grappling with the decline of its empire—a sense of decay mixed in with a feeling of extreme vulnerability. The challenge is to understand the paradoxical combination in America of right-wing tendencies—be they political or religious—and an anarchistic and rebellious impulse for change.

SM: To my mind, conservative forces in culture have increased dramatically over the past ten years. So at this moment there are ruptures happening in art that are necessary to find a more ambiguous, fluid space in which to think about the future.

CI: And yet that’s in contrast to the ’80s. Within that period of right-wing government, there was a certain kind of art made in response, whereas the art that’s being made now that responds to the political situation is very different. It offers another kind of engagement.

TG: Maybe, given our conversation, “virtual” is the word to describe it.

DS: There isn’t so much work within the exhibition with direct political commentary, but, especially among younger artists, you see different rhetorical strategies—more masked and coded. Things are not so issue-based on the surface, but you have works by David Altmejd, Terence Koh, or Christian Holstad that are overtly foregrounding formal concerns such as the aesthetics of psychedelia, camp, or the gothic but which have underlying content about civil activism or issues of sexuality or critiques of mainstream American cultural conservatism.

SM: The engagement is weirdly distant and yet simultaneously more immediate. It seems very influenced by the shifts in modes of communication engendered by technology at large. Think of flash mobs as a structure. Or online chat rooms, which create that kind of tension between immediacy and distance.

CI: It’s interesting to see how the new work of older artists who came of age before fax machines, cell phones, or the Internet reads to a new generation for whom interconnectedness is a given. There is a profound difference in the perception of materiality, space, and speed. It’s almost impossible to remain fully in the present. This has deep implications for artmaking.

DS: I don’t know if it’s a category that we’ve articulated, but it is related to everything we’ve discussed: There’s a strain in the show that pertains to the sublime—whether it’s Yayoi Kusama’s sense of hallucinatory obliteration and transcendence in her work Fireflies in Water or the kind of technological sublime of someone like Dike Blair or a certain hysterical sublime that you get in Holstad’s work. The challenge of the Biennial is to put together a constellation of ideas while at the same time leaving things open.

SM: Something we discussed before going to artists’ studios was that we did not want thematic groups with strict parameters. We really want to treat that multiplicity of ideas as a kind of large Venn diagram, with overlapping sets and any number of possible groupings. The challenge, of course, will be how to present that physically so that those themes come out and make sense and have some cohesion for the viewer, but also with enough fluidity to allow seeing those things in different ways. So the dialogue that Chrissie talked about is very much a multiperson conversation.