Everyone seems to like this years Biennial. It’s an unusual state of affairs. Typically, the Whitney’s biannual attempt to assess the current state of American art pleases few beyond those artists lucky enough to appear in it. The 1993 Biennial was dismissed as strident and one-dimensional due to its emphasis on identity politics. The 2000 Biennial, complied by six curators, was thought to be weakened by its attempt to be regionally representative.
For anyone who has a stake in the art business, it is fair game to assess the assessment. This means that even if you do not see it, you get the gist. Talk about the Biennial is like a public servce broadcast regarding the show’s curatorial errors and omissions. As such, the Whitney, like Documenta or the Venice Biennial, provides a heightened example of how opinion is formed in the artworld: from person-to-person, mouth-to-mouth.
The Whitney and audience satisfaction rarely coincide, so its worth asking what the consensus tells about the current cultural moment. Like this year’s Oscars, in which most of the awards went to a single film – the Lord of the Rings, a movie which maybe not uncoincidentally is about a tribe working to rid the world of evil forces – it suggests a not-entirely concious closing of the ranks. It may be a good year for art, and filmmakers from New Zealand, but its proving to be a particularly bad one for the United States.
If this edition’s curators’ have come up with a persuasive account of, as the Village Voice’s Jerry Saltz says, “what the now looks like in art”, its persuasion resides in the consistency of the artistic sensibility on view. The predominant impression given is of an aesthetic engagement with the state of vulnerability, as if the pressure of exterior events had produced an array of delicate art objects in reaction.
Barnaby Furnas’ painting ‘Hamburger Hill’ portrays soldiers in battle, its title referring to the fierce 10 day fight to capture the Dong Ap Bia hill in Vietnam. Both formally and figuratively the paiting edges into abstraction. On first look, the soldiers appare to be of a more distant vintage – maybe the American civil war? – the superimposition of events broadening the theme of the work to war in general. The dynamic of the painting’s moment in time, the sheer brutality of combat, is rendered with surprising fineness. Heads are blown apart in mid-air, the carnage depicted in angular visual harmony, bullets rendered as lines of paint slicing through the air. The effect is the spectacle of war reconciled with the medium of paint, the two-dimensionality of the image made explicit.
The artfulness of Furnas’ work is in keeping with the tone of the exhibition. It is less about war than it is about painting. As the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldhal noted, everything in the show adheres to the gravitational pull of painting and drawing, the median being line-rendered figuration, as it directs looking and in the delineation of what is to be looked at.
This figurative impulse is evident in a number of the film and video installations. Aida Ruilova’s untitled video work, creates a Gothic ambience through momentary vignettes of actors gesticulating for the camera. Playing out on five monitors that surround the viewer, the scenes alternate absurdist instances of thespian drama. Sounds are made but few words are spoken, the repetition of fragments being reminiscent of Bruce Nauman and in their formal dissolution, the films of Jack Smith. Working within the idiom of filmic collage, in their brevity, the videos aspire to the staus of pictures. , albeit pictures with the fraught psychological content that is implied by their durational tension.
Mining similar territory but with added granduer, is Catherine Sullivan’s film installation, Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land (2003), which using actors in period-ish dress, portrays a shortform pageant of 20th century European political turmoil. Referencing the traditions of avant-garde film and theatre, the multiple screen presentation evokes the mass upheavals and visceral hysteria brought on by the two world wars. In contrast to Ruilova’s work, pictorial collage is not in the edits but rather the actors antic stylizations, silent film being a tableau upon which to etch ghostly signs of the past remembered.
In that it is a theatre piece made abstract, Sullivan’s work partakes of the formalizing tendency that pervades this Biennial. As a picture of the zeitgiest, what it tells us is that the art instituion currently favors its traditions of craft, formal ingenuity and hence connoisseurship. What is absent is the conceptualist-pop-minimalist paradigm. For the time being it appears, from the perspective of the influential the American urban centres, art is not obliged to be about politics, the social world, or its own status as object of commodity exchange. Those are subjects better left it seems to less poltically tenuous times. In place of art’s historically important role as mouthpeice or agitator, or vehicle of reflective thought, the 2004 Biennial promotes the value of art as a medium of tactile visual pleasure. As an agenda, it grants artists an autonomy they already had as craftpersons of the articulate visual imagination.
This text originally appeared in BorderCrossings, Volume 23#2 (#90)