New Proposals (For the Heart Beat of America), Part I

by Art Fag City on March 8, 2006 Events

The Best of the Biennials, 2007

I know, I know, “best of” lists are so VH1 2004, but let’s be honest, since you can count on the Whitney for at least one outstanding piece every two years, it does seem like a realistic way to finally get a good Biennial. We would also be able to retire the over-used phrase “snapshot of the moment.”

The Whitney Biennial and Panel Discussion History, Politics, Uncertainties: The Failure of Curation

If as Jerry Saltz suggests Day for Night, offers the best scholarship of the Biennials thus far, we have a significant problem. Like most critics, I agree the show is an improvement on the Biennial of 2004, but that’s not saying much given the rampant vapidness that permeated the last curatorial effort. Thankfully, there is no shoddily constructed skid art in this exhibition, but if work such as this is merely replaced by mediocrity then so what? The Biennial bar really needs to be raised, because at present, I can step on it.

Contrary to Saltz’s claim, the trouble with this show is lack of intelligent curatorial decisions. After visiting hundreds of artists studios the most identifiable trend these guys have come up with is “Red, White, and Bleak“, to quote biennial curator Philippe Vergne at last Saturday night’s panel discussion. While it may be true that there is some anger and dissatisfaction with the current state of political affairs among artists, only intellectual laziness leads one to conclude that remaking the peace tower, (a project where over 200 artists contribute anti-war drawings and paintings, to make a pole of clothes-line art) would be an effective way to address these issues. Past the fact that the salon show has never been a particularly effective method of presenting pointed criticism, it’s hard to imagine a concept that less reflects the time. Even co-creator, Mark Di Suvero asked the question, “If the Peace Tower didn’t work in 1968 why will it work now?” The answer to this is obvious to anyone with an ounce of sense. It won’t.

The tower typifies what has become an irritating Biennial tradition of becoming a form for established artists to make “outrageous” and/or heavy handed political art work. 2000 brought us Hans Hacke’s atrocious dumpster pieces ridiculously comparing mayor Guillanni to Hitler, and while 2002 was notably timid given the recent fall of the towers, by 2004 we were back to Mel Bochner’s infantile rainbow text expletives on canvas. Like the printing of a ditto device, two years later Richard Serra presents a bombastic drawing depicting a Abu Ghraib figure and the message Stop Bush scrawled across it, and we’ve now come full circle. The Serra work is particularly infuriating, as every time I look at that piece of shit I am reminded of art worlds music equivalent the Rolling Stones, who recently penned the literary masterpiece “Sweet Neo Con” singing, “You call yourself a Christian, I think that you’re a hypocrite, You say you are a patriot, I think that you’re a crock of shit”. I mean, clearly these people aren’t even trying.

It’s hard to get past the feeling that rather than examining current trends, Biennial curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne began with a set of concerns they were interested in and then sought out artists who met those interests. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does strike me as an intensely egotistical practice to be making the claim that contemporary art making is about the things you happen to be interested in. Old school political activism is not the pulse of nation.

Despite impressive resumes, having heard Ilse and Vergne speak I find it hard to believe the curators had a real understanding of what inspired the work they managed to find. The most engaging art in the show often used recycled imagery, or constructed fictional narratives, and the curators forward provides increased travel as the explanation for this phenomenon. I guess artists with nominal pre-Whitney success are making a lot more money than I knew, because I just assumed travel was as much a credit risk to these people as it is to me.

I think we can say with some degree of certainty that the jet setting ways of the average American are not informing art making practice to such an extent that it is worth noting, but there have been significant changes over the last year and a half that are creating a more cohesive community of art makers than we have seen over the last twenty-five years. Given the change in Internet usage, particularly during the last two years, it is not a surprise that artists are using pre-existing imagery as a starting point for work.

And yet, despite the deluge of artists on Saturday’s panel who no longer feel the need to build imagery from scratch, because it is now at their fingertips, these methods of working are met with Chrissie Iles’s ill-thought out ideas that the Internet inspires passivity. One need only to have navigated the web to know that the application of McCluhan philosophy won’t translate. In the age of Internet, the medium is not the message, it is a command. And commands incite action.

Next on AFC:
New Proposals Part II: The Full Biennial Review: Unlikely Points of Connection Suggest New Movements within the Field of Art Making.

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