arts

Review

WHITNEY BIENNIAL 2008: The “New (Art) World Order”
By Heather Corcoran

T

his year’s Whitney Biennial isn’t a collection of great art. There aren’t any apparent themes or stylish trends, either. Together, the 81 artists in the exhibition paint a very bleak snapshot of the U.S.A. in 2008. The bi-yearly survey of American Art, which runs through June 1, fills nearly the entire museum. A chaotic installation by Jason Rhodes, the L.A. artist who died in 2006, greets visitors as it busts out of a small alcove off the side of the lobby. Beads of Styrofoam litter a messy office-cum-karaoke-lounge. It’s a good warmup for the rest of the exhibition, which favors a cacophony of video and installation over the traditional art forms that have dominated the bullish market in recent years. It’s not an easy exhibition to love – it’s messy and, at times, ugly. Cumbersome installations made of unusual materials fill the galleries, and seeing everything is a daunting proposition. But tucked within each corner of the museum are the types of connections that reward careful observation. Visitors are encouraged to begin on any floor of the museum, or at the nearby Park Avenue Armory, where the Biennial spills over into a series of installations and performances through March 23. Curators Shamim Momin and Henriette Huldisch offer no prescribed narrative for their exhibition. It’s a “holistic enterprise,” said Huldisch, meant to “unfold in multiple ways,” Momin added. At the armory, the audience is invited to participate in everything from a dance-a-thon to therapy sessions, in what feels somewhat like a clever marketing ploy. The exhibition makes the most of the armory’s creepy and recently renovated corridors, with each artist getting one room to transform. At the end of the cavernous drill hall, a video of a forest by Mungo Thomson flickers in a tiny bunker. In a library off a baroque hallway, MK Guth and her assistants ask visitors to write down what is worth protecting – before ritualistically braiding the responses into plaits of long, blonde hair. On its own, the armory’s performances and installations would be a strong exhibition. As

part of the Biennial it seems like the freaky sideshow to the otherwise coherent Whitney main stage. Back at the museum, there is no subtitle and no concise theme to welcome visitors. Rather, the curators offer hints of common threads: mixed-up media, references to art history, and studies of the topography of the typical American city. These themes are superficial, though. In their own ways, each work in the exhibition speaks to the fear and nostalgia that come with a pessimistic view of a country in the midst of a war, an election and the technological age. Together, the exhibition captures the apathy that has come to characterize America today. We’re clinging to a failed dream. A sense of defeat and longing and even disgust is everywhere. Today’s de rigueur popculture references show up in Rita Ackermann’s sculptural collages of tabloid icons. Hazy photos of abandoned spaces are scattered throughout the exhibition like whispering ghosts. While politics mostly appears in subtle ways, on video, it is loud and clear and most effective. American xenophobia and indifference towards other cultures seems to be on a lot of minds, like in a video by Olaf Breuning, where an obnoxious white traveler can’t wait to get back to New York. The most powerful piece in the exhibition, though, is also among the most overt. Omer Fast’s video installation “The Casting” presents the intertwined stories of a lover’s quarrel and

(Left) Mungo Thomson’s Silent Film of a Tree Falling in the Forest, 2005-2006. (Above) Walead Beshty’s Travel Picture Sunset [Tschaikowskistrasse 17 in multiple exposures (LAXFRATHF/TXLCPHSEALAX) March 27-April 3, 2006], 2006-08. Collection of the artist; courtesy China Art Objects, Los
Angeles, and Wallspace, New York

a violent accident in Iraq, recalled by a veteran for a Hollywood casting director. The overlapping descriptions of confusion, frustration and miscommunication become eerily similar. It’s a good story, but who has the patience to listen for 30 minutes, Fast’s casting director says. Another apparent source of artists’ angst is the disappearance of nature, the artificial supplanting the organic. Phoebe Washburn dominates the fourth floor with a mad scientist’s laboratory where neon Gatorade feeds flowers on a rustic wooden platform. A small part of the installation’s (painfully long) title talks about a “Deep Down Thirst.” That phrase alone could sum up the entire exhibition. All of the artists in this year’s Biennial seem to be searching for something while quietly screaming. Wandering the museum, you can almost hear them, like a chorus. We may be more linked up and tuned in than ever before, but we are seriously disconnected.

Resident The Week Of March 11, 2008 • 33