Witless Biennial

03/14/2012 4:00 AM |

As seen through the eyes of the Whitney, the last two years of American art-making were defined by an enormous amount of mediocre abstract painting, a complete lack of nuanced emotion, and sculpture that mostly looks like nothing. You and I both know that isn’t true.

Given the disorganized arrangement of works on display at the Whitney Biennial, though, one can’t help seeing much of its work in an unflattering light. I know I keep beating this drum, but curators in this city—starting with Biennial organizers Jay Saunders and Elizabeth Sussman—need to pay a lot more attention to exhibition design, on- and offline.

The performance section of the show—ten artists working in a fourth-floor amphitheatre built specially for the Biennial—is a sad example. It’s left without any sort of livestreaming or video documentation, so visitors who can’t make it to the exhibition to see all the performances in person are out of luck. Surely, if we’ve learned anything from Marina Abramovic’s blockbuster 2010 performance The Artist is Present, it’s that more online documentation, not less, draws in viewers. Two years later, visitors now expect it.

The performances themselves felt as incomplete as the show. The central work, by choreographer Sarah Michelson, has dancers walking backwards in circles for 90 minutes to the beat of a metronome; viewers without a ticket, though, are out of luck. During the press preview, we saw a more motley assortment of works: one woman assumed contemplative poses while wearing a horse head; another cleaned the floor, but the general state of disarray made me unsure whether it was a Mierle Laderman Ukeles reference or a real-life janitor’s pre-show prep. Either way, I got nothing from it.

Georgia Sagri attempted to address the issue of contemporary durational experience, and was the only successful performance I saw. “I am not doing a performance for the press” she declared during the preview, “this is a rehearsal”. She sampled those words and ran them through speakers as her small body forced out the words again, “This-is-is-is-aaaaa reeeeheaaaar-sal” she told us, her actual voice now sounding more digitized than the sample. By this point she’d changed into a robe with a life-sized image of her naked body, as if to further underscore that the difference between an original, a copy, and a work in progress was completely irrelevant.

The rest of the performers, though, did their best to reinforce the importance of polished work. For one performance, to be delivered via Skype by Red Krayola, the artist failed to show up entirely. For another, by Dawn Kasper, the artist has moved her studio to the museum for three months, but isn’t sure why. When asked what she would do with her residency, the answers were emphatically vague. “I’ll be making work,” she told us, the assumption being that viewers would gain more from the work’s development than any end result. She sounded excited to be there.

Outside of the performance floor, the weak work is less obvious; unfortunately, this is because the disorganization and questionable curatorial judgment make everything look bad. As Howard Halle pointed out in his Time Out review, it was often difficult to be sure you were even looking at Biennial artwork at all. Personally, I had no idea why Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol and Garry Winogrand were included in the show (and mysteriously not on the checklist) until Halle explained that these works were actually part of an installation by Nick Mauss. They clearly needed their own room.

Past this obvious problem, the second and third floors were simply too crowded to identify the good work. “The Breakup”, a painting by Nicole Eisenman depicting a man with orange ears looking woefully at his Blackberry, fought with the 45 emotionless monotype portraits surrounding it. A suite of black-and-white photographs by LaToya Ruby Frazier, Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save Our Community Hospital), cried out for the close reading an intimate viewing space demands; instead, it became almost mute in an undistingushed corner of the Biennial. This is a shame: hung differently, it would have been apparent that Frazier’s work was some of the strongest in the show.

Campaign for Braddock Hospital is a chronicle of the loss of UPMC Braddock, a hospital in a near-abandoned suburb of post-industrial Pittsburgh. Sparked by the discovery that all the black families who lived in Braddock (including Frazier’s own grandfather) were omitted from its written history, Frazier’s work chronicles not only the loss of the hospital, but also the false narrative that continues to plague its citizens. In one pairing of photographs, a Levi’s campaign inaccurately depicting Braddock as a pastoral landscape is juxtaposed with an image of its protesting citizens standing against a bleak industrial backdrop. In another image, Jenny Holzer’s Truism (or Everybody’s Work is Equally Important), Frazier’s anger is palpable; her handwritten words, etched into a dark corner of paper, declaring, “The slogan is a misguided, misused and misappropriated text; Truism that belongs to the artist Jenny Holzer.”

Spending time with Frazier’s work is a joy, but it takes a degree of determination; without the visual cues of sound exhibition design, the viewer is expected to make their own decisions about what deserves a long look, a close reading, or background research. Most museum goers, though, don’t come expecting to have to make those decisions, and become less engaged when put to the task. That’s not cultural degradation, that’s reality, and it’s part of why curation is necessary in the first place. By expecting-rather than earning-the diligent awe of the ideal museum visitor, this Whitney Biennial does its artists a great disservice.

Laida Lertxundi, Cry When It Happens (2010), courtesy The Artist