AO Onsite – The Whitney Biennial: 2010 opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art on the Upper East Side in New York

February 28th, 2010

Strange Attractors
, Aki Sasmoto – all photographs by Oskar Proctor for Art Observed.

This week the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York opened its doors for the 75th edition if its defining exhibition: The Biennial. Simply titled, 2010, the show rejects an organizational theme and instead uses time as its marker in a matter-of-fact cross-section of American art today. The show is one of the smallest in the Biennial’s history – works by only 55 artists and collaborative teams are displayed on four floors of the museum’s ‘Breur Building’ in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This year the entire third floor of the building has been taken dedicated video installation – first exhibited at the Biennial in 1975 – a sure sign that video work has now reached maturity, worthy of recognition as an independent art form. In addition, the museum’s fifth floor is devoted to artists in the Whitney’s permanent collection who have shown in past Biennials.

Francesco Bonami, Curator of Whitney Biennial 2010

Whitney Biennial 2010 – Interview with curator Francesco Bonami via VernissageTV

More text, images and related links after the jump….

Gary Carrion-Murayari, Curator of Whitney Biennial 2010

Since its inception in 1930, The Whitney Museum of American Art has devoted itself to nurturing and celebrating American art, and its dedication to defining the nature of the ‘American’ aesthetic is what distinguishes the Whitney’s biennial from other contemporary art surveys around the world. However, as the nature of art has become increasingly globalized over the past few years a clear sense of what is American in American art has been lost.
Over the past three decades, curators of the Biennial have grouped artists under the umbrella of an overriding theme that they believe defines American art at that moment – a method that has earned the Biennial the reputation as ‘the show the critics love to hate.’ This year, the curators – the seasoned Italian Francesco Bonami, 53, and Gary Carrion-Murayari, 28 – have not taken a conscious stance on the answer to this puzzle, and instead present the viewer with a presentation of a moment in time – the single element that truly separates each biennial from the next. The result is mixed bag of individual works in a plethora of mediums that draw few connections – itself emphasizing the diversity inherent in the nature of American culture. This heterogeneous element of American culture is underlined by the inclusion of works by 12 non-American citizens who have, as put by the Italian-born curator, “digested the culture in a particular American way.”

We Like America and America Likes Us, Bruce High Quality Foundation

We Like America and America Likes Us, Bruce High Quality Foundation

It is important not to confuse ‘American-ness’ with anything nationalistic, however in a survey that illustrates feelings amassed in America during a period of great adjustment, patriotic elements creep into a number of works. While perhaps not as overt as in previous war-era Biennials, many works exhibit a sense of devotion that no longer has the energy to throw punches but promises to stand by their side, waiting for the clouds to part.
Nowhere is this more true than in one of the most provocative and absorbing pieces in the show, We Like America and America Likes Us – the brainchild of the elusive art collective, the Bruce High Quality Foundation. The group have been described as “anti-market, anti-art school pranksters” and while their behavior may be naughty or reckless, their artwork is just as serious and poignant as any other in the show. The piece features a hearse come ambulance – painted white and embellished with a flashing light. The symbolism is interesting, the fact it is a hearse hints at the death of America, meanwhile its similarity to an ambulance suggests a glimmer of hope – a rescue. Projected on the windshield of the vehicle is a film composed of photographs, youtube videos and film clips that reference America’s recent political and cultural history. The viewer, backed-up against a wall, is caught in the beam of the headlights while a woman’s voice plays to them through the dark room: “We like America and America likes us, but something keeps us from getting it together.” Generally it is quite a dismal outlook on the state of American today.

Still from Parole, Sharon Hayes. In this video installation, Hayes examines theories of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure that set out to distinguish individual acts of speech (parole) from a larger system of language (langue).

A performance of Strange Attractors by Aki Sasmoto. In her work Sasamoto attempts to understand the mathematical concept of ‘strange attractors’ in dynamical systems – she jumbles her recent obsession for doughnuts, fortunetellers, hemorrhoids, and things detected in the world. Performances are scheduled to take place at 4 pm on select dates that include the numerals 6 and 9.

Though certainly not the principle of the show, what is intriguing about the pool of artists this year is the majority won by women, however slim. This is a trend that has been increasing in the most recent history of Whitney biennials; in 2000 women artists made up 36% and then 2008 46%, this year it has reached 52%. Are we ticking the boxes of political correctness here or does this reflect a happy equality finally realized in the art world? Bonami in several interviews firmly dispels fears of a fix. In an interview with Frieze Magazine’s Dan Fox he assures “We didn’t do it on purpose,” and, to New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz, “[we] didn’t look for women artists. They were just in front of our eyes. It wasn’t conscious at all.”
Jerry Saltz, himself, has been a regular campaigner for the lack of representation women artists receive even in the 21st Century. In 2006 he published an article entitled: “Where the girls aren’t,” and even more scathingly subtitled: “Art and apartheid: The prime real estate is still a men’s club”; in 2007 he persisted with his article for the New York magazine questioning: “Where are all the Women?” In both articles MoMA bore the brunt of Saltz’s anger, but the Whitney was equally criticized for its 2006 re-hanging of the permanent collection, ‘Full House’. Only 19% of participants were women, and at the time only 24% of its entire collection were women. Ostensibly Bonami and Carrion-Murayari’s curatorial efforts have remedied this worrying reality, at least temporarily, as well as tempering Saltz, who dubbed it a ‘triumph’. The fifth floor of the exhibition, however, tells the familiar story: out of 68 art works 8 are by women, just under 12%.

Patron, Marianne Vitale – Staring directly into the camera, Vitale orders her audience to stand up, open their mouths wide, recite tongue-twisting rhymes, and “spit at the ceiling.”

But perhaps it would be more optimistic to view the fifth floor in contrast to the rest of the biennial as a marker of how far the art world has come. There is certainly consensus between Bonami and Saltz that gender should not be an issue in the selection and display of artworks. We must avoid quota filling yet equally we must avoid neglect, or worse “apartheid” [Jerry Saltz]. The tension between these polarities in selection means that only when the numbers are in relative equilibrium can we forget the gender issue. As Saltz aptly asserts, the inclusion of more women than men “does not mean that the upcoming Biennial will be much better or worse than usual,” however it will at least be right.

Josephine Meckseper, Mall of America, 2009. Video

Annotated Plans for Evacuation, Alex Hubbard

Untitled (Red Dwarf)
, Piotr Uklanski

2010 is sparse and frugal, a non-gratuitous and unpretentious biennial, born of the bust. Everything has been pared down, from the number of artists included to the exhibition name, simply: 2010. Part of the justification for this is functionality. Bonami explained that some artists were omitted, not because they were weaker, but that they were “not functional” in what they were trying to say. Equally, this sense of functionality was also applicable to the title; Bonami stated in Interview Magazine that what defines a biennial is Time and he has taken this literally in the choice of title. There is nothing superfluous about the 2010 Biennial: unlike previous exhibitions no off-site projects have been called for, the exhibition is contained entirely within the walls of the museum’s hub – The Breur Building. Bonami, again from Interview magazine, explained that the museum building itself was a point of departure for thinking about the content of the biennial, “the starting point maybe was the museum itself, the building, and then the collection.”

Landscape with Houses (Dutchess County, NY), James Casebere

Series by Robert Williams

Dual, Hannah Greely

For most September, 2008 will be remembered for the crash of the US markets that eventually spread into a global economic shock. For the art world, September 2008 was marked by Damien Hirst’s blowout auction, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” at Sotheby’s, London. It is therefore fitting that 2010, already dubbed ‘The Recession Biennial,” includes none of the audacious commercialism of pop art. Instead, the curators chose to be more appropriately sober in their selection process. Bonami believes that what is apparent in art at the end of the first decade of this century is a return to a more introverted and intimate practice, and a more experimental one. This is ostensibly the antithesis of the pop phenomenon – the artist’s presence is more keenly felt.

Consequently the atmosphere in some parts is alternately somber and eerie – Bonami, himself described the second floor as “creepy” in the press conference. James Casebere’s mildly haunting photographs of a model, people-less, American suburbia open this floor and the mood reverberates right around the galleries, not least in Maureen Gallace’s Hopperesque portraits of New England houses. Moving through the second floor, the sense of desolation and isolation mounts. Hannah Greely’s Dual, a surreal, yet hypereal re-construction of a bar bench and table, rips and all, again seems unnaturally empty of human presence. Behind, Dawn Clements’ elaborate and lengthy drawing of an interior scene, pieced together from film stills, is populated by a single figure that is seemingly being swallowed up by the room itself.

Series by Nina Berman

One of the most acutely political moments in the show is Nina Berman’s series of photographs documenting the daily existence of a severely wounded ex-Marine Sgt., Ty Ziegel. Despite choosing an unavoidably politicized subject matter, Berman’s objective is not solely to be damning or critical about war, instead Ziegel, as a human being, is very much the focus. Viewing such photographs is an intensely intimate experience; we are literally transported another life, experiencing it as Berman did. Berman’s portrait of his life is extremely sensitive and warm, yet imbued with a deep filtrated melancholy. The sense of something lost permeates every image and is compounded by her purposeful use of the gaze; all eyes are averted, apart from the camera and a little girl unused to social rules about staring. Not even his bride and childhood sweetheart can bear to look upon his physical disfigurement. Consequently, these images, like many others on the second floor, are very lonely.

Aurel Schmidt, Master of the Universe/FlexMaster 3000 , 2010

Aurel Schmidt convincingly combines the dirty and gritty litter of life with beauty in her piece Master of the Universe: FlexMaster 3000. Her wonderfully intricate depiction of trash comes together to depict a mythical figure of masculinity – half bull, half man. The objects are thoughtfully chosen and are accurate macho masculine signifiers, or prostheses: cigarettes, Budweiser cans, blackberry attached at the hip as a second male appendage, similarly to the bunch of bananas. An abundance of condoms obviously imply a keen interest in sexual activity is amongst the traits of the macho-male. The only non-metaphorical, realistically rendered body part is the penis itself, arresting in its detailed, veined, and pink, flaccid state.

Woven in amongst the grimier elements of his body are starkly contrasting flowers, which form the majority of his body-surface. The delicate appearance of the petals patently suggests vulnerability – this image of masculinity is in fact very fragile. The feebleness of macho posturing seems to radiate in every detail down to the incredibly fine and subtle draughtsmanship.

Series view of Self-Immolation in Afghanistan, Stephanie Sinclair

Self-Immolation in Afghanistan, Stephanie Sinclair

Another of the documentary style photo-journalist, Stephanie Sinclair’s photographic series portraying Afghani women being treated for extensive self-inflicted burns is one of the more shocking pieces in the show. What is so disturbing is the knowledge that these women set themselves alight in utter desperation of the circumstances of their lives, many of them suffering torturous abuse at the hands of their husbands or families. Aside from the clear journalistic nature of these photographs there is also equally valuable aesthetically – she exploits the visual tension between bodies revealed and concealed, flesh uncorrupted and disfigured, and between tenderness and horror. Equally, there exists a balance between the sheer vulnerability of these women and their exceptional bravery in allowing Sinclair to photograph them in this extreme low. Finally, these photographs are functional as promotional tools for atrocities that went previously unseen. In partial response to the photographs’ widespread media attention new burn unit was created in Herat.

Still from Untitled (New Way), Rashaad Newsome – for this video installation the artist invited performers into his studio to demonstrate various styles of the dance form known as vogue on camera.

Pagans, Verne Dawson

Integrated Forms (Birnam Wood), George Condo

Untitled, Robert Grosvenor

Ship Song
, Martin Kersels – this work will live a double life as a stage for performance throughout the exhibition. Full List of Performances via The Whitney.

Ari Marcopoulos, Detroit, 2009. Video.

Related Links:
The Whitney Museum of Modern Art
At The Whitney – Busting out quietly [NY Times]
At a Biennial on a Budget – Tweaking and Provoking [NY Times]
Whitney Biennial 2010
[Interview Magazine] – Lisa Phillips interviews Francesco Bonami
Interview with Francesco Bonami [Frieze Magazine]
Artist Charles Ray on his Whitney Biennial Showing [Los Angeles Times]
The Whitney Biennial Lightens Up [Wall Street Journal]
But what does it mean? [NewsWeek]
Women’s Work [NY Times]
New York’s Whitney art show mixes creepy, optimistic [Reuters]
A Room of One’s Own [ArtNet]
Change We Can Believe In [NY Magazine]
A Sneak Peak at the Whitney Biennial [Vanity Fair]
Art Olympics: Ranking the Whitney Biennial [Flavorwire]
Whitney Biennial Mishmash Serves Up Michael Jackson, Macrame [Bloomberg]