Whitney Biennial 2012, New York

by Tom McGlynn, March 2012

The most effective installation of work at the 2012 Biennial occurs in the “Untitled” restaurant in the basement of the museum. Directly above the dining area hangs a painting of a vacant floor in the Whitney by the British conceptual art group Art and Language. While they are not listed in the Biennial’s roster of primary participants, Art and Language have been invited to present an opera co-written by the experimental art/rock band, Red Crayola. The painting, a flat representation of the institution’s somewhat dreary, emptied halls, is a figurative contrast to the literal cultural recreation beneath it, acting as the clearest representation of this institutionally empty show. A similarly barren museum is reproduced on the Biennial’s event guide.

In her essay contribution to the exhibit, There’s No Place Like Home, Andrea Fraser does a good job at delineating how art institutions (and artists and viewers) can internalize and therefore extend the symbolic representation of art’s agency in a symmetrical loop of uninspired critiques:

“It may well be the critical agency within our selves that plays the greatest role in maintaining this internal conflict and, thus, in reducing cultural critique to a defensive and reproductive function. By interpreting negations as critique, by responding to judgments of attribution with judgments of attribution, by aggressively attempting to expose conflicts and to strip away defenses in critiques of critiques and negations of negations, critical practices and discourses may often collude in the distancing of affect and the dissimulation of our immediate and active investments in our field.”

In the press release for the show, the curators, Elizabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, state their conviction that the artists in the 2012 Biennial are “trying to cull into existence something real and true, pushing it up and out of layers of synthetic nothingness, idealism, cynicism” and that “such restless energy can be ecstatic, poetic, and tragic all at once in the tangled web of twenty-first-century American culture.” This florid language is itself representational of the lightweight interrogation of “the real” that pervades the show. By wading in the shallows of sociological and aesthetic theory to fish for its activated presence, the curators are left with a tale of the one that got away. The 2012 Biennial aggregates its form similar to a series of representational snapshots taken by a gifted tourist who projects how well the slideshow will turn out, thereby impoverishing his or her actual experience of the there and was. Perhaps in anticipation of the possibility of the audience finding that staged representation a bore, the curators have scheduled all manner of time-based and performative modes, which might serve to leaven the pedantic nature of the scope and arrangement of physical works.

Why is this representational aspect of the Biennial so troubling? It is because the curators consistently telegraph their moves to invest symbolic meaning into the realm of  “the real” without real effect. The obvious attention paid to the tokens of the real such as the strategic spatialization of many of the artist’s installations, the use of sound, the inclusion of time-based media and performance, don’t add up to a sum of embodied inspiration. Instead the ensemble feels like a feeble regression into some of the worst art clichés imaginable.

To be fair, I should point out that the weakness of the overall curatorial vision does not always preclude individual poetic moments. Luther Price’s scarified and manipulated film scraps, often scored with the reductively harsh yet hypnotic soundtracks of sprocket holes running through the projector’s amplified audio, have an animated presence. His concept is not a new one, a trail blazed most famously by Stan Brackage and other visionary filmmakers, but his work provided much needed relief from the airless concept of the overall exhibition. The diminutive sculptures of Matt Hoyt offered a similarly refreshing pause. His work, often resembling drops of resin or gum wads, as well as more suggestive organic forms like branching coral or the inorganic remains of antique electronic components, claimed a smaller space of existence than much of the larger scale works in the show yet a larger share of embodied aura. Mike Kelley, who died last month, is represented in the show by a documentary film of his Mobile Homestead project, which took his unique ontological exploration of his cultural roots in Detroit on the road to various cities, situations and locales. It’s a shame that none of his actual sculptures are present in the show, since they may have offered an antic parody of the plodding ostentation prevalent in the physical show.

The independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, who can honestly own a credible track record of stalking the imaginative possibilities of quotidian time and space in her films like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, is an interesting addition to the roster of filmmakers included. George Kuchar is another filmmaker whose idiosyncratic body of work offers a low tech foil to the enervating academicism of this Biennial.

In the end it is simply not possible to import the real into the context of the museum and have it read as undifferentiated naturalism. A young artist currently working in Detroit, Kate Levant, simply represents barely manipulated abject materials scavenged from derelict buildings. A similar gesture by Dawn Kasper brings the entire contents of her transient studio existence into the museum, staging contingent reality as a performance piece. There is something insincere and socially irresponsible in isolating these gestures. The curators of the 2012 Biennial should have known better that simply representing the tokens of the real doesn’t recreate vision, and that vision is exactly what is needed to recreate the real.

Whitney Biennial 2012
1 March—27 May, 2012
Whitney Museum of American Art
New York