New York

“Biennial 2000”

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. The reviews are in: This is the “boring” Biennial. Critics ranging from Michael Kimmelman (the New York Times) to Jerry Saltz (the Village Voice) were lulled into a fitful sleep by the Whitney’s millennial Biennial. Why were such normally tireless lookers unable to keep their eyes open?

The obvious points are the absence of a theme and a unified curatorial attitude. In addition to their much-remarked geographical distribution, the six curators are individually known for different strengths: formalist sensitivity (Michael Auping); installation art (Hugh Davies); Conceptual work (Jane Farver); politically oriented art (Andrea Miller-Keller); film, video, and public art (Valerie Cassells); identity issues (Lawrence Rinder). To a somewhat lesser extent than “Greater New York”—the “alternative” picture of local contemporary art running concurrently at P.S.1—multiple viewpoints obviate any one perspective at the Whitney.

This Biennial also boasts (courtesy of Auping, who was responsible for the hang) the most elegant installation I can remember ever seeing at the Whitney; airy and spacious, it is the opposite of the “festival” effect everyone complained about at last year’s Venice Biennale. So how is this a minus? Some of these works have a little too much room; maybe you’d prefer to see a third more artists and a little squishing. In past Biennials, that squishing at least contributed to a (false) feeling of excitement. Here the artworks are fewer and farther between; consequently, fewer connections spring up between individual works, emphasizing the exhibition’s eclecticism.

This eclecticism is most notable in the selection of artists themselves, the contexts and localities from which they emerge. It’s always amusing to read journalistic accounts of curators slogging from studio to studio for two years, only to come up with the usual suspects. Here some of the artists actually hail from places other than New York or Los Angeles (although frankly not as many as one might have expected, given the way this feature has been both touted and criticized by the media). Some make explicit reference to “American-ness” as well: the American flags of ERRE, Hans Haacke, and Yukinori Yanagi; Kay Rosen’s quote from “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We even have that most American of American art traditions, a do-it-yourselfer, in the figure of folk artist Thornton Dial. But aside from the Texas posse, the presence of US artists from non–art capitals is ultimately less noticeable than the appearance of transplanted New Yorkers such as Cai Guo-Qiang and Shirin Neshat.

At a time when internationalism seems to be the compelling contemporary-art question, the issue pervading American art is often reduced to cosmopolitanism versus provincialism. An artist who addresses this condition—and to some extent transcends it—is Franco Mondini-Ruiz, who moves between the “provinces” (San Antonio) and New York. His joint Infinito Botanica installation and art cart displays Chicano tchotchkes next to work made by other Texas, Mexico City, and New York artists. He brings his context with him, refusing his chance to leap unencumbered into the fabulous white box. Mondini-Ruiz covers not only the split between Mexican and Anglo cultures, between hi and lo, but also the divide between the local and the general.

People in other places are often (though not always) aware to some degree of their provincialism; rarely are New Yorkers similarly self-conscious. But like any locality, New York is not without its own brand of provincialism: grooviness passing for relevance. Our embrace of this criterion probably factors strongly in the critics’ “boring” verdict—this, after all, is the uncoolest, least groovy Biennial ever. There’s little glamour and few fancy galleries; no Orozco, Pittman, Rhoades, McCarthy, Barney, Pierson, Sherman, or Williams, to name just a few big-ticket artists found in previous installments. Abjection takes a holiday, and in general, there is less media-influenced work than I can remember in any recent survey; neither the culture of complaint nor the society of the spectacle is much in evidence.

There is no more bad art here than usual, and it’s a relief that the bad art doesn’t shine with the distracting gloss of fashion or project a veneer of excitement. Katherine Sherwood’s paintings are terrible, but no more so than those by Richard Prince in the last go-round. Salomón Huerta is a better painter than Richard Phillips (in the 1997 Biennial), but the former’s crisply delicate realism is harder to “get,” operating within a less immediately recognizable framework, lacking the shorthand references to fashion or the pop culture of the ’70s. Rather than boo or cheer a concept—identity, formalism, photography—you have to make individual judgments. This is a Biennial that tests the critic.

So who looks good? Doug Aitken and Paul Pfeiffer, for two, presenting opposite ends of the same question (on opposite ends of the scale scale as well). In Aitken’s large video installation, Electric Earth, 1999—a hit in Venice as well—a black dancer wanders through an urban landscape, teaching us how we synchronize our bodies with the world around us. Pfeiffer’s minuscule (three-by-four-inch) digital video projections of Tom Cruise (The Pure Products Go Crazy, 1998) and NBA star Larry Johnson (Fragments of a Crucifixion [After Bacon], 1999) show bodies controlled by and synchronized with technology. Both the squirming, repetitive subjects and our perception of them are fractured and speeded up; the result is at once extremely expressive and radically inhuman. Other standouts evince the wide variety of art’s abilities. Laurie Reid’s decorative watercolors offer escape. Richard Tuttle’s plywood paintings, Tara Donovan’s wire-casing floor work, Leandro Erlich’s rain room, and Chakaia Booker’s wall of tires reestablish immediate contact with material physicality. All these works take ordinary materials and experiences, exaggerating and focusing familiar sensual qualities such as density, flexibility, and wetness. Painters Linda Besemer, John Currin, and Lisa Yuskavage and glass blower Josiah McElheny all demonstrate mastery: Their great ideas depend on technical skill wielded with ease and grace. Sarah Sze’s large assemblage of small, household objects humanizes machinery.

This art and these possibilities respond to our increasing distance from how things work, which partly explains the wide appeal of Sze’s pieces—like old cars with mechanical rather than electronic guts, their construction and action is something we all can follow. This distance is part of a larger social condition, one that anyone who has ever dealt with a computer glitch or an insurance company knows firsthand—that of a world beyond understanding or control. In this world, art that astonishes us without eluding us (like that of Tuttle and Sze) has a certain political agency. Ironically, the art in the main part of the exhibition that directly addresses political and/or social conditions—pieces by Hans Haacke and Krzysztof Wodiczko—feels clichéd and as such is ineffective.

By contrast, the politically engaged work in the film/video and Internet sections of the exhibition seems better equipped to take on real-world problems and frustrations. Instrument, 1999, a video by Jem Cohen, documents ten years in the life of the punk-rock band Fugazi—the group is listed as joint author of the piece—who reject mainstream “alternative” culture in favor of a community constructed with their fans. One member of the band asserts that it’s less important for everyone to know who you are than to work in a context you control. ®™ark—significantly, like Fugazi, a collective endeavor—presents both an industrial video entitled Bringing IT to YOU!, 1998, and an interactive website. The group promotes corporate sabotage as returning control to workers caught in a degrading, faceless system—not the most sophisticated politics, nor particularly new, but nonetheless a strong statement of and response to a common experience.

Just as some of the art bemoans the state of society, many of the critics have used the occasion of the Biennial to bemoan the state of art, as they did with the Carnegie International. But by rejecting current fashion, the exhibition itself functions as a critique of the art world, reflecting back on the critics—not to mention the dealers, the magazines, and everyone else who participates in the consensus of what important contemporary art looks like today. It would be a stronger critique if the work itself were stronger, but were that the case, we might not grasp the commentary. We have grown accustomed to recognizing criticality in only its most obvious incarnation, such as the Louise Lawler pieces on display here—that is, work that is critical of the museum as art institution yet utterly at home there. The curators at the Whitney want to challenge the in and out lists that seem to have replaced the modernist dialectic of avant-garde and mainstream. But oddly, like “Greater New York,” the Biennial can’t quite break away from the idea that newness is still an important criterion for art; both emphasize young artists, who after all are known not for their tremendous depth or skill (except perhaps with new technologies) but for their presumably new ideas. We say the avant-garde is dead, but it’s not clear that we mean it.

Or what that means. Without movements or a clear progressive direction, what’s left? Globalism? The decorative, Apollonian art of stable economic times? The repetition of postmodernism? Random pluralism? The Internet? We’re not sure. Museums are becoming increasingly reflexive (e.g., this Biennial, “Museum as Muse,” “Modern Starts”), while at the same time promoting entertainment (“The Art of the Motorcycle,” “Fame after Photography”) and enticing the public (this Biennial introduces a useful audiophone guide with the participants’ voices, but stumbles with the mawkish wall texts). With no collective dogma, there is no easy route for critics, or for those looking for someone or something to follow. You have to do your own thinking, which in itself can be valuable, even if you don’t get anywhere. Puzzling things through for yourself puts you in control. But you have to be willing to think.

Katy Siegel is assistant professor of contemporary art history and criticism at Hunter College, CUNY, and a frequent contributor to Artforum.

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