PRINT May 2004

Pamela M. Lee

Yayoi Kusama, Fireflies on the Water, 2002.

In 1966, Robert Smithson took Donald Judd on one of his rock-hunting excursions to New Jersey, a trip recollected in his typically hallucinatory essay “The Crystal Land.” Far from so much New Age hooey, Smithson’s mania for all things crystalline was meant to counter humanistic writing about art. In essays such as “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space,” he opposed the glacial, multifaceted structure of these geological specimens to the organic histories and teleological endgames of contemporary art criticism. In ways not quite articulated by its curators, Smithson’s ghost haunts this year’s Whitney Biennial, which proves a different kind of Crystal Land. As Biennial curators Chrissie Iles, Shamim M. Momin, and Debra Singer write, “A new generation of artists is distinguishing itself by its engagement with the politics, popular culture, and art of the late 1960s and early 1970s” and has “been powerfully influenced by important figures from the 1960s art world, such as Robert Smithson.” No doubts there: His stamp is everywhere in the galleries, from the proliferation of crystalline structures and mirrored surfaces (Virgil Marti, Yayoi Kusama, Taylor Davis) to prismatic, kaleidoscopic painting (Fred Tomaselli, Kim Fisher) to the progressively degraded and entropic (Glenn Kaino, Dario Robleto). Beyond literal references to these forms, Smithson’s notion of the “Time-Crystal”—a nonlinear, refracted view of history seen through a crystalline optic—finds its inadvertent expression with this exhibition. But whereas Smithson appropriated this model to shatter the seeming transparency of the present, the Biennial offers a weak image of the past to suggest a precarious vision of the future.

The good news is that this is the most even-keeled Biennial in a long time, and that is no small thing. In contrast to the visual glut—indeed, circus atmosphere—of the exhibition’s most recent incarnations, here the galleries are installed with a notable respect for the object, with works given ample breathing room and the implied connections between practices lucidly drawn. On this score, credit is due the curators for mounting such a brisk and well-paced exhibition. Relative to its precursors, this Biennial goes down easy.

assume vivid astro focus, assume vivid astro focus 8, 2004. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2004. Photo: Kate Lacey.

But is that its very problem? The not-so-good news is that much contemporary art—certainly as presented in this context—seems caught up in a kind of transhistorical feedback loop little relieved by the organizers’ theoretical apparatus. That may sound strange in light of the exhibition’s backward glance at the ’60s, but to insist, as the curators do, that artists “deal with that radical moment as a way to come to terms with the conditions and circumstances of current events, and to find alternatives for the future” is not the same thing as decisively arguing for any particular approach to that encounter or identifying what those alternatives might actually be. Lip service is paid to the “striking uncertainty” of our moment—and how current art embodies this uneasy sense of transition—yet one is struck by how utterly secure, bordering on conservative, much of the work appears. (Painting and figuration have returned with a vengeance, while Net-based art, architecture, and new media in general have dropped off considerably since the last go.) And in the more superficial nods to the ’60s, the conceptual preoccupations of the period have hardened into a kind of mannerism or period style.

To be sure, the intergenerational dialogue proposed by the Biennial doesn’t seem especially troubled by the relative ease with which this conversation takes place or by the ugly reality of current politics, which motivates more than a few efforts to grapple with the past. (Compare the Whitney’s seamless image of the ’60s with the other biennial’s most recent installment. Venice’s “Utopia Station,” cocurated by Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, was an appropriately sweaty and shambling affair that undertook the collective experiment of that decade’s radicalism as its organizing principle—and openly courted the potential failure of such an endeavor in the process.) If the ’60s serve as the master signified for much recent art, the resulting work, which ranges from the conceptually incisive to the merely cute, betrays a Smithsonian verdict. “The future is but the obsolete in reverse,” he pronounced, but that future is growing more obsolete by the minute.

Take David Altmejd’s Delicate Men in Positions of Power, 2003. In a gallery painted Prada green, a multiplatform structure showcases a bizarre assortment of props including desiccated werewolf heads; latticed cubes and mirror-lined cavities reminiscent of a Smithson or a Sol LeWitt; costume jewelry; and crystals and stalactites. Non sequiturs ranging from a Star of David to the word “high” are impressed onto the structure’s various surfaces. The work’s peculiar crossbreeding of Minimalist aesthetics with commercial display offers a refracted image of the ’60s as both glittering spectacle and personal mythology. Altmejd’s formal vocabulary is just loopy enough to compel us to stay with him; there’s some pleasure in conjuring narratives about the work equal to its baroque elaborations. Still, the object’s recourse to the historical forms of Minimalism—an art that explicitly engaged questions of the public in its reception—inverts those forms, creating a deeply private, even solipsistic visual language.

Indeed, much of the art on display mimes the visual rhetoric of the ’60s without any marked skepticism about such a return. The head-spinning installation by assume vivid astro focus, which dazzles in its mix of cigarettes, booze, undulating lights, and psychotropics, makes for great boutique or shopwindow display, suggesting its liability as a work of art. By contrast, Taylor Davis constructs elegant, minimalist pallets of pine and mirrors. Their architectural associations, however, are undercut by the audience’s desire to chase its image in the polished glass. (If the Minimalist object was once observed to externalize the conditions of spectatorship onto the social field, here that process has been reduced to serving public displays of narcissism.)

A second group of ’60s-inflected objects are far cannier about the historical stakes they raise relative to the present. Sam Durant’s reimaginings of the decade take the form of drawings based on period photographs of political demonstrations, including several based on the student uprising at Columbia University in May 1968. In making drawings after documentary photographs, the works press us to think about the distance between the representation of such events and the role of the archive in the production of a historical imaginary. (Andrea Bowers’s quiet renderings of activists follow a related conceit.) The Minimalism- and process-inspired turn of Tom Burr makes a different claim for the social. Blackout Bar, 2004, a Morris-like plinth reworked as a vinyl fetish, supports a mess of cigarette butts, trash, and empty glasses. Flaccid black shapes in the corner (Warholian flowers done up in the same inky vinyl) dramatize the psychosexual dynamics that attend these seemingly disinterested forms. And Mary Kelly’s Circa 1968, 2004, her projection portrait of faceless soixante-huitards onto compressed lint, literalizes Walter Benjamin’s dustbin of history to reflect on the relative materiality of the past and its image.

These works are at once theoretically engaged, grave, and witty; their appeal to present conditions tacit rather than explicit; and their suspicions about the representation of politics to the point. Yet whatever history lessons they may offer are outstripped by the uses and abuses of the past displayed in other galleries. Although framed by the social upheavals of the ’60s, what counts as the treatment of aesthetics and politics at this Biennial is pretty toothless. Maybe it’s just long in the tooth. You can’t help but notice the stark contrast between this show, which flaunts its nostalgic turn, with numerous other large-scale exhibitions of the last few years in which the timeliness of recent geopolitics seemed especially urgent. Perhaps the absence of any global reflection here signals a desire to avoid didacticism or the repetition of such curatorial efforts (a worthy enough ambition), but it might also speak to a collective reluctance to confront the mess we’re in head-on—or, even more frightening, to imagine what the future might look like. Note that when questions of the political are taken up, they generally occur at a safe distance from US shores (as in Emily Jacir’s eloquent photo and text–based series on displaced Palestinians) or are ritualized as theater (Marina Abramovic´’s children’s choir to the UN; Catherine Sullivan’s compelling Eastern bloc choreography) or have been relegated to the Biennial’s film program (Sam Green’s The Weather Underground [2002]). Raymond Pettibon’s drawings, which take to task our contemporary version of the “Peaceable Kingdom,” are among the few works to register any blatant critique of our moment’s “striking uncertainty.”

Against this backdrop, the youth-culture sensibility (mostly goth) seen elsewhere in the Biennial accrues significance beyond flirtations with the monstrous or with disaffected teenagers. In fact, you could view this phenomenon as a decisive retreat from present realities, a return to a past that is atavistic rather than historical. I suspect that Smithson would have got a kick out of Aïda Ruilova’s short-format videos featuring drooling and goggleeyed psychotics. Recalling George Romero by way of John Bock, they tell their own version of a historical horror story. In a gallery in which the viewer is encircled by an orbit of flashing and glinting video monitors, Ruilova gives us an allegorical hall of mirrors, our “reflections” a vortex of regressive behavior. It’s a refracted view of the present—a dark crystal of a kind—from which we can little afford not to escape.

Pamela M. Lee is assistant professor of art history at Stanford University.

David Altmejd, Delicate Men in Positions of Power, 2003. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2004. Photo: Kate Lacey.