New York

1987 Biennial Exhibition: Film and Video

Whitney Museum of American Art

Even though this year’s Whitney Biennial seemed like a return to normalcy, the film and video component wasn’t relegated to the back room entirely. Bruce Nauman’s video installation The Krefeld Piece: Good Boy/Bad Boy, 1985, was given pride of place in an alcove off the main lobby, while other video works—the Grandmother and Grandfather, both 1986, from Nam June Paik’s Family of Robot, made of old TV sets; Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman’s interactive videodisk The Erl King, 1986; and Judith Barry’s First and Third, 1986–mingled with the rest of the invited guests. But both in the front rooms and the back theater, the media fever that made the last Biennial so striking had dissipated in favor of more measured examinations of familiar issues. With many of the films and videotapes, this meant wrestling once again with the slippery question of narrative.

Thus Ernest Marrero and Susan Kouguell’s Before the Rise of Premonition, 1985, frames its archetypal arguments between a man and a woman by setting them in the front seat of a car, with the children watching from the back. Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women, 1985, repeatedly ruptures narrative consistency in telling its story of creative and created lives. In several works, artists transposed familiar narrative forms to their own ends. In Cinderella, 1986, Ericka Beckman makes explicit the fairy-tale, mythic structures that have provided the underpinnings of her earlier work, at the same time borrowing conventions from sci-fi film and Broadway musicals. Meanwhile, in Leandro Katz’s The Visit, 1986, film noir meets structuralism to tell a Borgesian one-line joke.

As in any attempt to encapsulate two years’ worth of activity, this Biennial’s selection (by Whitney Museum curator John G. Hanhardt) included major films and tapes by significant artists that deserve more complete discussion than is possible in a review, such as Bill Viola’s lyrical tour de force I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, 1986, Martha Rosler’s If It’s Too Bad to Be True It Could Be DISINFORMATION, 1985, and James Benning’s Landscape Suicide, 1986. But two works in particular can be seen as reflecting the breadth of styles, subjects, and approaches among the film and video works in this Biennial. Dan Graham’s crudely made, raucously energetic videotape Rock My Religion, 1986, makes little if any attempt to explore or challenge narrative form, opting instead to use a standard TV-documentary format to present its provocative thesis—that rock ’n’ roll and evangelical religion are closely parallel and stem from the same impulse for transcendental release. By contrast, Ernie Gehr’s Signal—Germany on the Air, 1985 uses minimalist techniques–shots of Berlin street scenes made with a stationary camera, accompanied by a soundtrack taken from German radio broadcasts–to reexamine with particular force the nexus of unresolved questions of which the divided and occupied Berlin is itself an emblem: questions about World War II and the Holocaust, and Germany’s responsibility for them. Gehr’s film and Graham’s tape—brilliant, provocative works that use diverse narrative forms to consider issues at the heart of our times—make clear the centrality of film and video in modern culture, and the crucial necessity to consider them in any survey of contemporary American art.

Charles Hagan