The 2008 Whitney Biennial and the Failure of an Empire

Low stakes and open rules dominate

But I spent a long time puzzling over Amanda Ross-Ho's sly and formally sophisticated installation, involving large sheets of peg-board, a soiled washcloth, photocopied collage, macramé designs cut into drywall, and a giant, panther-sized kitty box filled with litter. (The catalog description of her work as inhabiting "those interstitial spaces between understanding and confusion" did little to further my interpretation.) Did it represent the inchoate longings of a younger generation, unwilling to commit to meaning? And if so, was that enough for me?

Further spillovers between art and life are accommodated at the Park Avenue Armory, where for the first time the Whitney is collaborating with the Art Production Fund to showcase installations and performances by 33 of the artists whose work is also on view at the museum. (Another four artists are showing exclusively at the Armory; this part of the Biennial runs through March 23.) The majestic spaces of this historic building, with its richly decorated period rooms rattling with the ghosts of regiments past, are tricky for artists to negotiate, and when I visited the place still carried an unfinished air of expectation.

In a luxuriously paneled chamber filled with vitrines for the display of ornamental silver, the artist MK Guth and her assistants were busy braiding together long ropes of artificial tresses and crimson banners on which visitors had written the names of things they thought deserving of protection. In a room lined with sober portraits of colonels, the young, Miami-based provocateur Bert Rodriguez sat beside the white cube of an office he'd installed there, where he'd soon be dispensing, by appointment, advice on artworks that people can create to help heal whatever ails them.

A rare Biennial painting: Karen Kilimnik's The Castle Great Staircase, Scotland, 2007
Collection of the Stephanie and Peter Brant Foundation
A rare Biennial painting: Karen Kilimnik's The Castle Great Staircase, Scotland, 2007


The 2008 Whitney Biennial
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
Through June 1

And at the far end of the Armory's vast drill hall, Gretchen Skogerson had hung fragments of neon like signage to a disaster. As I traversed the hall's unrivaled immensity, I found myself thinking that space is what this city needs for creation. If it takes the failure of an empire to give that back to us—whether in the abandoned sites of military endeavor, or the empty storefronts lining Broadway—so be it.

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