PRINT May 2004


Editor’s Letter

“THE TV BABY SHOT ME,” GROANS MATT DILLON’S WOUNDED character at the end of Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. I thought of this line while walking through the 2004 Whitney Biennial, the words brought to mind by the severe air of unreality to which the observation plainly speaks. Beyond the Whitney Museum’s walls, the everyday seems revelatory—the American occupation of Iraq, the 9/11 testimony unfolding before a congressional commission—and yet the work in the Biennial galleries mostly stands at a safe distance, falling well within the bounds of conventionality. Perhaps this quality of cool remove is nowhere so palpable as among works touching on some aspect of politics. But the favored mode—of looking beyond today in order to tap motifs from past eras, which, in their simultaneous familiarity and lost immediacy, lend the pieces a sense of low-stakes permission—can be easily observed of work made in almost any aesthetic vein. Whether conjuring ’60s activism or proffering a pastiche of clubland psychedelia, this Biennial offers so many presentations of the already known, creating a kind of gentle buffer system, a comfortable cordon sanitaire that softens, ever so slightly, the provocative edge even of the great number of strong artworks in the show.

Of course, a Whitney Biennial is meant to articulate the ethos of its hour. This one does so exceptionally well. Indeed, whatever failings the show may be said to have are less compellingly pinned on its organizers, I think, than put to the culture at large. My own suspicion is that the 2004 Biennial reflects a moment in American art resembling that in theater when Konstantin Stanislavsky felt compelled to counter with his “method” the mannered “technique” of those he termed “actors of representation,” players who had lost a sense of immediacy in their work and fallen into the stale repetition of clichés onstage. (As Stanislavsky writes in An Actor Prepares: “At first they feel the part, but when once they have done so they do not go on feeling it anew, they merely remember and repeat the external movements, intonations, and expressions they worked out at first, making this repetition without emotion.”) Wanting to create a theater germane to the times—it’s interesting that his thinking caught on in the States at the onset of the atomic era and the cold war—Stanislavsky asked players to produce works infused with lived experience. As actors in the art world, we have to ask ourselves frankly: How many of us—artists, curators, writers, scholars, editors—looking past the particularities of our contemporary situation, seem to be acting according to a script, adhering to conventional treatments of accepted roles?

There are certainly artists who deviate from the assigned script, introducing “imperfections” (and a sense of immediacy) into the art-world veneer. In this issue, one good example appears in the reviews section: Alex Bag, whose latest exhibition featured a video in which she plays the part of Private Lynch in a faux infomercial for, among other things, Halliburton’s war services in Iraq—interlarded with scenes from Paris Hilton’s homemade porn flick. The execution is amateurish, the presentation eccentric (“tweaked” is a good word), yet the video, perhaps by virtue of these qualities, manages to capture the schizophrenic charge of American mainstream news media at a time when war and celebrity share equal—and equally sensationalized—airtime. (The video elicited the same crestfallen science-fictional feeling I got from CNN when a headline on its website identified only one of the four men horrifically murdered, burned, and hung from a bridge in Fallujah: the celebrity trainer who worked with Demi Moore on her film G.I. Jane.) While I hardly mean to suggest that work must now be political, formally raw, or about visual culture, Bag’s satirical piece offered a direct response to lived experience, forcing audiences to re-see it—even to be offended (or at least provocatively bored) by it. By contrast, what conclusions might one usefully draw from a Biennial that is smartly selected and installed, and followed by a relatively sleepy critical reception? Perhaps the best exhibitions are those that are in some sense untimely, reflecting the ethos of but somehow inappropriate to the moment, instigating reflection in turn. On that note, consider a subject in this month’s “In Conversation” with Dan Graham and Michael Smith: the notion of the “just past,” Benjamin’s term for cultural phenomena whose novelty is only just worn off, producing an uncomfortable psychological effect in their historical proximity. Graham posits the concept against the interest in a “neo-’60s” and “neo-’70s,” which he has derided as a kind of avoidance technique. One wonders whether the 1993 Biennial has so often been extolled of late precisely because in its day—given that “political correctness” had by then already become a cultural cliché—it was just behind the times.

A number of politically minded group shows have recently been organized in New York City, including “American Idyll” at Greene Naftali and “Let the Bullshit Run a Marathon” at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, to name just two. These come in the Biennial’s wake, reflecting a perceived need, however quiet, to draw art closer to the anxious currents of culture. But, to me, most intriguing at this moment are a number of art-related spaces and projects taking place throughout the city that are by design impermanent or continually take on a variety of guises—371 Grand, Continuous Project, Year—even to the degree that their sponsors hesitate to identify such endeavors by the standard nomenclature (gallery, show, artwork, publication), which would assign a specific function to them. (The aversion recalls Hugo Ball’s desire to abandon Dada as soon as it was named.) In part, this reluctance probably reflects an acute awareness of well-trodden style cycles—the artist-run space as “alternative” grassroots platform at the base of the larger art-world infrastructure that feeds on it, for example. (Again, one might profitably read Smith’s conversation with Graham, where the two touch on art-world communities and, significantly, the dynamics surrounding “The Times Square Show” of 1980.) Yet the impulse also underscores the fact that dissenting models of presentation—particularly ones with a kind of informal, organic logic—are being sought by artists. And with the investigation of these new models comes a corresponding interest in art that doesn’t immediately announce itself as such, the most positive counterpoint to a Biennial possible.

Tim Griffin