The 2008 Whitney Biennial and the Failure of an Empire

Low stakes and open rules dominate

If there's anyone left who still doubts that we're living at the end of the American empire, they can find confirmation for this state of affairs at the current Whitney Biennial, the latest edition of the museum's oft-maligned survey of contemporary American art. Is this a matter for regret? Not entirely. One might feel nostalgia for a not-so-distant past when our nation's art seemed in the vanguard, formally or politically—when peripatetic art-world types, wandering through the Biennial's three floors on opening day, didn't moan about "no longer being able to afford the London art scene," or speculate that "Berlin [meaning the Biennale, opening April 5] will be better."

But the Biennial seems to work best when its curators (as much as possible) leave their agendas aside and start taking the culture's temperature. And for artists, that sense of belatedness, of coming in the door as the party's petering out, can offer an unexpectedly promising start—with the stakes low, the rules open, and few people looking over their shoulder.

So let's be clear: For all the moaning about New York's loss of creative energy, the current Whitney Biennial is a surprisingly local affair. Forty-two of its 81 artists call this city at least their part-time home. Beyond a handful of éminences grises—Californian Conceptualist John Baldessari, or the painters' painter Mary Heilmann—they are a relatively youthful bunch, with most born in the '70s or later. A hefty 25 hail from Los Angeles, whose art scene has finally broken free of its perennial upstart status; further afield, Berlin and Mexico City are also represented.

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

Their art is given rather more breathing room than is usual in large exhibitions of this sort, with whole rooms devoted to multipart installations. When you con-nect with the work, that's all well and good; when—as is perhaps inevitable—you don't, there are significant dead zones to traverse.

What would a visitor from outer space, or a latter-day Alexis de Tocqueville, understand of this country and its art by perusing the Whitney Biennial? They might presume that painting is a thing of the past, a relic from a preceding generation, cherished only by a mad recluse like Karen Kilimnik, whose chandelier-lit chamber hung with small canvases depicting the accoutrements of European aristocracy (a race horse, a rococo château, etc.) appears wildly out of sync with the far more prevalent trends of dystopic video art and sculptural installation.

They might assume that, as a nation, we are drowning in our own garbage, given the preponderance of work cobbled together from bits of refuse, like Jedediah Caesar's gorgeous amalgams of studio debris—lemon halves, plywood scraps, etc.—encased in resin blocks that are sliced and polished, combining the sensuality of marble with the texture of memory.

They might well admire, as Tocqueville did, our quintessentially American get-up-and-go, evident in the do-it-yourself strain of contemporary art, descended in equal measure from Tim Hawkinson and Rube Goldberg. So Phoebe Washburn alters her corner of the fourth floor's micro-climate with a monumental ecosystem composed of repurposed wood, aquariums, Gatorade, and flowering narcissus bulbs rising from beds of neon-yellow golf balls. And they would note our increasing interest in artisanal production, which is given an absurdist turn in Mika Rottenberg's multiscreen video installation. Housed in a makeshift shack, it follows a pastoral community of extraordinarily long-haired women—kibbutzniks? Victorians?—who milk their tresses and their goats to make butter.

More darkly, those visitors might sense that we are lost, moving forward without direction, like the stray woman with a mysterious nosebleed played by Stanya Kahn in her video collaboration with camerawoman Harry Dodge, who wanders through an anonymously institutional, post-industrial Los Angeles wearing a Viking helmet and telling fragments of stories we'd rather she forgot.

And they'd know that we're at war. The war (in Iraq and on terror) shows up in some rather thin work, and one truly affecting piece: Omer Fast's four-screen video projection, in which actors silently mime two intertwined stories of an American serviceman abroad. In one, the narrator recalls his benighted liaison, while stationed near Munich, with a young German girl; in the other, he recounts a tragedy that occurred along a stretch of road in the Iraqi desert. Caught up in the casualties of his romantic life, the Iraqi nightmare takes us by surprise, and we are left to ponder the limits of trauma in wartime and in civilian life.

Fast's piece reminded me of Franz Kafka's insistence, in a letter to a friend, that a book be "the axe that breaks the frozen sea within us." Little of the art in this Biennial did that for me. I was moved by Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, his post-Katrina requiem to New Orleans, though its running time of over four hours meant that I caught only fragments of it. I was taken by the simple poetry of Javier Téllez's Letter on the Blind, a short film in which six sightless people, one by one, run their hands over an elephant, as they talk in voiceover about what their fingers are feeling, thus bringing the sense of touch vividly alive.

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.

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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