New York

the Whitney Biennial


JUTTA, A CHARACTER in the Bernadette Corporation’s exquisite-corpse novel Reena Spaulings (2004), has learned how to sidestep the pitfalls of selfhood, turning her own body into a kind of assemblage: “Books, ideas, movements, figures, photos, data, other lives,” Reena, the book’s protagonist, observes. “I can almost tell the place on her body where she has digested Artaud, Rimbaud.” This elusive, recombinant concept of the self seems close to what Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne had in mind when curating this year’s Whitney Biennial, “Day for Night” (titled after the 1973 François Truffaut film): Their exhibition is to some degree a celebration of the ambiguities of collective production and of fictitious personae so widespread in the art world right now. “Anonymity or invisibility might be the condition of absolute freedom today,” muses Toni Burlap in a catalogue essay. And she should know, since she’s one of these imaginary creatures herself—a nonexistent curator invented by Iles and Vergne for the Biennial. Jutta, on the other hand, is slightly more fact than fiction; her paintings even appear in the Biennial under her full name. I’ve always liked them, even if the “restless energy” attributed to them in the catalogue is apparent mostly to those viewers already familiar with the complete oeuvre of Jutta Koether, the real-life artist, writer, musician, and performer.

Desiring such slippages in identity some forty years ago, Michel Foucault wrote, “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: Leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.” The imperative seems totally appropriate to our historical moment, and one wonders how its call for defiance and subversion is—or isn’t—answered by individuals engaged with art today. Here, while groups such as Critical Art Ensemble and Deep Dish Television Network no doubt have real political visions and critical agendas, a biennial (and perhaps the art world in general) would seem to provide a dubious platform from which to communicate any program of resistance. There’s also nothing implicitly wrong with Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s recreation of a 1966 antiwar monument, Peace Tower, 2006, installed in the Whitney’s basement-level courtyard; but on the rainy day of my visit, this structure didn’t exactly emanate utopian energy from its lonesome hole in the ground. In fact, its placement reflected a generally ambivalent attitude toward the political in this biennial: Progressives would be given slightly desultory due, while purveyors of the sardonic and the darkly Pop took center stage. The top floor of the multilevel exhibition, where most visitors start their tour, set the tone with a suite of galleries in which Urs Fischer’s ripped-apart walls and spinning kinetic sculpture (comprising silver-painted tree branches and dripping candles) gave way to a sort of shrine to Kenneth Anger, complete with red-painted walls, neon, and Hollywood Babylon memorabilia, which in turn opened on to rooms of Koether and Steven Parrino’s scabrous punk conceptualism. The effect was exhilarating but far from upbeat. More than the dialectical equipoise suggested by the titular phrase “Day for Night,” La Nuit américaine (the French title of Truffaut’s film) seemed apt.

The foreign flavor would seem doubly apt, in fact, since the curators, in a much-discussed break with Whitney tradition, have presented a show featuring many artists who are not from America. Some, like Francesco Vezzoli and Peter Doig, don’t even live in the United States. Given that biennial fatigue will likely reach critical mass next year, when “global” exhibitions will open simultaneously in Kassel, Münster, and Venice, one wonders, Is this really the moment to risk turning the Whitney Biennial into just another international event? After all, it’s a show with a historically local mission. In the curators’ defense, one should note that Documenta-on-Madison is not what Iles and Vergne and little Burlap, their British-French love child, were aiming to create. They were less interested in the artists’ nationalities than in the ways artworks could inform a picture of “the artifice of American culture, in all its complexity.” To capture the American zeitgeist is not an easy thing——I know, because I recently attempted to do so with a show of emerging artists. Does Vezzoli’s hilarious Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s “Caligula,” 2005, to take just one example, enrich this picture? I think so. Any exhibition that hopes to succeed in such an endeavor must be “wrong”——the real opposite, according to Burlap, of being right, in terms of the political spectrum. Perhaps this paradoxically necessitates the inclusion of artists living in other places in addition to those working in “other” traditions. Some Biennial participants fit both bills: for instance, Berliner Dorothy Iannone, longtime maker of sexually vibrant images that always look refreshingly “wrong.”

Wrongest of all is the Wrong Gallery, aka Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick, who smartly—too smartly?—navigate our culture of high-speed visual stimulation and emotional commodification. At the Whitney, they staged “Down by Law,” a stylish show-within-a-show about American rogues past and present. Set apart from the rest of the Biennial in a mezzanine gallery, the exhibition was densely installed and full of visual puns (Chivas Clem, represented here by a C-print appropriating Andy Warhol’s portrait of O. J. Simpson, could be the best of the current crop of Richard Prince descendants). Subotnick et al. also organized this year’s Berlin Biennial. Indeed, I arrived in New York directly from their extravaganza in the German capital, and found it strange to step right back into a microcosm of their pictorial intelligence—which contrasted, it must be said, with the Biennial as a whole. Iles and Vergne stuck to a conventional mix of big, messy installations (though I found Anthony Burdin’s quite mesmerizing), not-especially innovative painting, and numerous dark-room projections (among these, the work of Mathias Poledna may be too sophisticated for the artist’s own good, but it does stimulate one’s curiosity). The overall impression is of a somewhat disheveled exhibition lacking a strong trajectory, and the curators’ decision to place many of the works in warrenlike suites of connecting rooms made things feel more claustrophobic than cohesive. The Wrong gallerists, on the other hand, may be, as the notorious Burlap puts it, sleeping with the enemy (e.g., sensationalism, commercialism, spectacle culture), but they sure know how to install a show.

Among other collaborative efforts that look good is Dan Graham’s high-energy video projection DTAOT: Combine (Don’t Trust Anyone over Thirty, all over again), 2005, which first appeared as a live puppet show/rock opera in 2004, and involves fellow artists Rodney Graham and Tony Oursler as well as the band Japanther. I am also glad that Sturtevant’s work with that most intellectual of all “collaborators”—Duchamp, whose famous 1200 Coal Bags, 1938, she re-created here along with some of his readymades—has finally been given the attention it deserves by a major American museum. That said, I am still simpatico with artists who just can’t let go of old-fashioned notions of self, such as Rudolf Stingel, whose massive black-and-white photorealistic oil paintings show the artist in a state of total passivity. Self-portraits always suggest doubling and disassociation, but here Stingel seems to be taking up a more traditional, unified subjectivity in a kind of melancholic embrace. Also compelling in the individualist vein were Rodney Graham’s hyperreal video projection of a spinning chandelier and Paul Chan’s 1st Light, 2005, a silent digital animation projected on to the floor, in which the silhouettes of cars, cell phones, a telephone pole, and other everyday objects appear to float upward, as if levitated by God or aliens.

My immediate association was the latter, given the recent death of Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem, announced the day I visited the Whitney. The author’s science-fiction novel Solaris (1961), and the hallucinatory 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky film based on it, kept coming to mind as I viewed the most ambitious work premiered at the Biennial, Pierre Huyghe’s A Journey That Wasn’t, 2005. This multiphase endeavor started with an exhibition in Bregenz, Austria, followed by a boat trip the artists chartered to the Polar Antarctic Circle with a group of friends. It continued as a performance and musical interpretation in New York’s Central Park last October, and was completed with a film, on view at the Whitney, combining footage of the trip and the New York event. In a poetic travelogue published in these pages last summer, the voyage itself is described in temporal terms: A storm damages the boat’s computer, and the machine can no longer “remember” parts of the journey. Thus the crew members are caught in a temporal loop, with no way of knowing whether they are constantly returning to a place they’ve already been or even if the place itself has changed location. The voyage’s dramatic climax is an encounter with a legendary albino penguin that appears on a nameless, snow-covered island; the crew attempts to communicate with it through a sort of audiovisual semaphore.

Huyghe’s work has been discussed in terms of its strategic deployment of outmoded technologies within a contemporary sphere that is dominated visually and spatially by highly advanced media technology. Is this work conjuring up a future in which digital navigation systems have been rendered obsolete—a postcomputing era in which new forms of communication take over? Or, more radically, is Huyghe escaping into a kind of whiteout beyond the technological imagination? The analogy here is with Lem’s eerie alternative futurism, one predicated less on high-gloss technics than on a collapsing of the borders between fantasy and reason. In search of the habitat of the mythical penguin, Huyghe’s crew speculates that “desire itself might produce the island”—not so different from Solaris’s astronauts, who incarnate their long-lost loved ones just by thinking about them. As Huyghe’s work demonstrates, this Biennial, in spite of its flaws, did begin to offer a picture of a world in which technologies of the self (individualistic, collective, anonymous . . . ) are being reimagined in intriguing ways.

Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Städelschule Art Academy in Frankfurt and a contributing editor of Artforum.


THE 2006 WHITNEY BIENNIAL is the first to be given a title by its curators (Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne), and they have called it “Day for Night,” after the 1973 Truffaut film. To shoot a night scene in broad daylight—that is, to shoot day for night—the cinematographer uses a technique in which the film is underexposed and a filter is placed over the lens to allow less light, of a different color temperature, to enter the camera. Less shadow detail is recorded and, literally and metaphorically speaking, less light is thrown on the scene that was in front of the camera. A representational fiction, or fictive representation, is produced in which the audience is offered obscurity in place of clarity. Shooting day for night also, obviously, produces a particular mood. (The curators have suggested that the mood of artists around the world is one of uncertainty, if not of pessimism and despair.) Of course, the original title of Truffaut’s film is La Nuit américaine, the French name for the cinematic technique. Both the English and the French terms are richly suggestive.

For—needless to say?—shortly after the 2006 Whitney Biennial opened, we entered Year Four of the American occupation of Iraq. It is hard for a serious show being mounted at this time to avoid interrogating the United States’ role in the world, though, lord knows, plenty of advocates of painting, cool or expressionist, have made this their mission: rescuing the commodity and buying its silence via yet another rediscovery of sheer aestheticism.

This the curators of the Biennial did not do. But they—like the organizers of every Biennial since the much-maligned (though belatedly lionized) “political” Biennial of 1993—faced a dilemma: Avoid serious themes in favor of a mild excursion (like the last installment) and be pelted critically for timidity, or face up to the state of world affairs and be pilloried for partisan politicking (since we know where artists tend to stand), even in this left-leaning town. Iles and Vergne seem to have aimed for a middle course: If the United States had, as British import (and cheerleader of empire) Niall Ferguson argued in the Wall Street Journal in 2003, assumed its imperial role in a dangerous state of inattention (or “mass myopia,” as he put it), Iles and Vergne, also foreign born, are determined to focus Americans’ attention on the important issues of the day, but only through a glass, darkly—a kind of threat and reassurance at the same time. Advance and deny, the art-world two-step—maybe a necessary dance for the central art-world institutions to dance.

“Day for Night” forwards the proposition that what makes art art is subjectivity and passion, or, more succinctly, subjective passion (or perhaps, decadent withdrawal, as suggested by certain works in the show and underlined by the phrase, oft repeated in accompanying materials, “lavish abandon”). The artist, moreover, is destabilized; identity is felt to be in question. Now we have a theme. (The avenue banners show Marilyn Minter’s over-the-top photorealist closeup of a showgirl’s baroquely made-up yet seemingly unfocused eye: layers and layers of mediation.)

The show’s aim—to respond to the world (political) situation—may be serious but the tone is playfully evasive: Here assertions are ventured “as if.” How do the curators manage this “schizophrenic” thing? Primarily by division of labor. In an online interview, Vergne began by announcing that he wanted to play, while Iles articulated a desire for an ambiguous space of imagination—for, that is, in a phrase redolent of political strategies of the recent past, “a third way.” (There is a third, fictitious curator, one Toni Burlap. She writes but does not seem to curate.) In the show, the division of labor is such that there are invaginations: subcurating artists who act “as if” they are curators. One such group is the in-jokey Wrong Gallery, whose subshow on the physically invaginated mezzanine space, titled after Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 movie Down by Law, offers a reading of the theme “Bad Boys” (and is said to explore the “dark side of the American psyche”). And then there’s the team of Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija, who tried to revivify the Vietnam-era artists’ antiwar tower as a new focus of antiwar protests, but it wound up in the museum moat.

The siting of the 2006 Peace Tower was unfortunate, but telling. The artists in the three shows are listed in separate groups, and I suggest the following rank ordering: the “Biennial group,” i.e., the artists chosen by Iles and Vergne; those in the Wrong Gallery show; and, a distant third, the Peace Tower artists, chosen for (the hope that they will offer up) political sentiments. The original Artists’ Tower of Protest (which di Suvero erected in Los Angeles in 1966) was a collective shout against a similarly unpopular war; but in retrospect its marginality and modesty of means, its ad hoc quality, make more sense than a brushed-steel clothesline barely visible from a sliver of Madison Avenue. Despite the declared intentions of the project’s organizers, many of the submissions were no more obviously directed against the war (or for peace) than the artworks inside the museum, and the ensemble did not seem to galvanize people. I visited the show on two different Fridays. Despite the crowds inside, there were no more than three or four courtyard visitors at a time——often there were none (the streetside view of a handful of the works seemed to attract more attention). If, however, it does manage to be a focus of antiwar events, as the organizers plan, the tower will have served its purpose.

A good number of the associated public talks deal with political works, but this does not fairly represent the works inside the walls. This is not to suggest that the “political,” in the sense of both straightforwardly topical and unequivocal, is wholly absent from the work in the “Biennial proper.” But with a few exceptions, it is to collectives that the labor of rationality is assigned. Deep Dish’s scathing twelve-episode cable-TV series about the Iraq war, Shocking and Awful: Grassroots Response to War and Occupation, 2003–2005, is showing continuously, but, as pre-elevator Muzak in the basement corridor between the bathroom and the gift shop, it had few dedicated viewers. The environmental work of the Bureau of Inverse Technology (usually identified as Natalie Jeremijenko, Phil Taylor, and others) was similarly swallowed by the gift shop. The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s kiosk, which merely named a bunch of projects, inhabited a dark corner, where it was overwhelmed by Kelley Walker’s large, splashy work on canvas with its very different take on political imagery. (I could not find the work of a collective I admire, the Critical Art Ensemble—I’ve been told it is situated at a bathroom entryway—or the fictive Reena Spaulings, a gallery entity similar to the Wrong Gallery, only different.) The wall diorama by Otabenga Jones & Associates (a collective of African-American artists) was sited in a narrow corridor on the way into a screening area. The black-consciousness/black-power room (please don’t think of it as a ghetto), spacious enough, was mystifying as an ensemble. Otherwise, political “dissent” seems to be strained through subjectivity and recuperated through often-lengthy wall labels that frequently explain works by reference to other, more canonical representations, frequently movies.

The curators’ strong strategic intentions, together with their less persuasive tactics, are exemplified by the curatorial treatment of Richard Serra’s ferocious, expressionistic anti-Bush election poster. It is based on his black-and-white rendering of the iconic trophy photo, taken by an anonymous US soldier, of a prisoner maltreated by American forces in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The prisoner stands on a box, with arms outstretched, draped in a short, shawl-like cape, with a bag over his head and electric wires dangling from his fingers. We all saw this poster—which read STOP BUSH as its only legend—in the streets during the No RNC demonstrations and elsewhere, and it was reproduced in these pages during the last presidential election [Artforum, September 2004]. But leave aside that the poster is a work in reference to a preceding representation; the curators have said that they asked Serra to show, not this work, but the lithocrayon on glass that served as the poster’s substrate. (An imposing piece, it is encased in a massive glass and wood frame.) The poster has become an artwork from a master’s hand. Art-art, in the late Allan Kaprow’s terminology. Serra’s poster—possibly anti-art, for Kaprow—with a slightly different text, is on sale in the ground-floor gift shop, as is a poster of the Peace Tower.

At the 4th Berlin Biennial (titled “Of Mice and Men”), just opened, curated by the Wrong Gallery, Ali Subotnick, speaking for the curatorial team, strikes a familiar note: “There is definitely a certain sadness in the show, a sense of darkness, and, of course, loneliness,” and an “atmosphere of anxiety.” There, as at the Whitney, expressionism’s structures of feeling are called upon in reaction to world events; but in Berlin it is fixed around the destruction of the Jews as encapsulated in the former Jewish School for Girls that is one of the show’s sites, although many sites along the street are also in play. We discern a pattern, a kind of claustrophobia of our own making: Cut away the walls of the museum and there is another room full of art. Whitney press materials refer to “the artifice of American culture in what could be described as a pre-Enlightenment moment”—what a thought!—“in which culture is preoccupied with the irrational, the religious, the dark, the erotic, and the violent, filtered through a sense of flawed beauty. This reflective, restless mood is not unique to the United States; its presence across both America and Europe suggests a shift in the accepted values that have formed the basis of twentieth-century Western culture.” Artists (and curators) step out in the world, and they see themselves seeing the world.

In being discouraged from speaking as citizens in their art, artists, and their audiences, are turned into children (or servants—in terms of social status, another kind of child). Youth is a current in any show like the Whitney Biennial, a reality that hardly needs explaining after thirty years of celebrity and marketing dominance. But at this year’s Biennial, in keeping with the idea of unfixing identity, an interesting subtheme links youth and powerlessness—from Ryan Trecartin’s video near the third-floor elevators (A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004), a work reenacting coming out as gay to one’s parents; to the sadistic burden of Cameron Jamie’s film Kranky Klaus, 2002–2003; to the softer, more manipulative JUMP, 2004, by T. Kelly Mason and Diana Thater; to the Blair Witchy photos of Hanna Liden.

Pierre Huyghe’s beautifully realized Antarctica folly, The Journey That Wasn’t, 2005, a ballet starring those celebrity penguins, is an appropriate anchor for the Whitney Biennial. It suggests that the filmmakers recognize that you, and they, might want to go somewhere that others have gone before (even to film other penguins); but you will not go there, only imagine going there, because this is what you can do, and they will help you—filming night for night, because they can. (The audience appears, seated in the dark, like a penguin mass, their faces illuminated silent and lovely in clear-plastic hooded ponchos.) The score, the pacing, the shots of lazily rolling black-and-white ice-bound seas and a small sailing ship (filmed on a trip that Huyghe actually took), bracketed by the comfortingly glorious night-lit towers around Central Park are as beautiful as you can get. But you can’t get there from here. One alternative is to stand in a lighted gallery space and stare at one of several versions of the sublime Michael Snow’s real-time grazing sheep.

Martha Rosler is a New York–based artist