THE UNGOVERNABLES VS. THE WHITNEY BIENNNIAL by Norman Douglas

THE UNGOVERNABLES VS. THE WHITNEY BIENNNIAL (2012)Eungie Joo & Ryan Inouye vs. Jay Sanders & Elisabeth Sussman

Impressions on two contemporary art surveys at Gotham by Norman Douglas

I'm not sure that I take in museum shows in the accepted fashion, but somewhere along the desultory path I call my life, I learned (probably from one artist or another) to start out on the top floor and leisurely make my way down to the lobby. In following this route a couple of times in a couple of days over the weekend, my impression of New York City's two biggest spring art shows was inadvertently sealed early on.

My visit to the New Museum began in the elevator, where the guard immediately engaged my friend and me in conversation. "The stairs are long going up," he concurred with our plan to wend our way from top to bottom. He was hardly the only employee there to wear his humanity openly, even shamelessly. Later on, and a few floors down, at least three of them danced with abandon and aplomb to the pounding techno soundtrack of Cairo-based Hassan Khan's "Jewel," even replicating the video's study of two men idly dancing "alone" (as if singing in the shower) to club beats. The New Museum guards' knowing grins invited visitors to join them in their spontaneous footwork, or dared guests to upbraid or report them. They danced with a mixture of defiance and grace, in gratitude for the awareness that working conditions at the New Museum stand apart from the deadening decorum one expects at other sanctified art institutions. The Whitney, for example, continues to display the mannequins of color dressed in museum guard uniforms that caused such a stir at curator Elizabeth Sussman's first Biennial, nearly a decade ago. Meanwhile, the Whitney guards act in kind, just as stiffly, warning people to stand behind the lines etched onto the floor, to keep away from the displays, to not touch, to not sit, to keep moving, keep moving. In the older museum's dark gallery halls, one can't shake the feeling of being watched by the minions of authority, as if one might somehow incongruously forget that one is in the home of the holy and consecrated, the precious and well-appointed.

Back at the top, we stepped onto the New Museum's upper floor, which features an open-air balcony overlooking downtown. Here and there, the unseasonably hot weather enticed a few groups of excited neighbors onto the rooftops to bid farewell to winter. Certainly, not everyone recalls Robert Moses' failed bid to slice a highway a block or two north along Houston Street—now undergoing a facelift that will ostensibly leave it more pedestrian-friendly than ever—let alone the flophouse next door known as the Sunshine Hotel, its ground floor now home to an upscale diner and a gallery run by the daughter of a former NY Stock Exchange president. From this high up, long-time phantoms of the district may note the legion of yellow cabs plying streets once avoided by all but the bravest, or the rise of modest towers among the industrial age walk-ups and depression era federal housing. Head in the sky, feet on solid stone, this initial immersion in daylight space reflects an architectural approach to an ideal function of art: a shift in perspective, a reminder that there are ways of seeing we may overlook, that await detection, that inform and inspire the artist and student of culture alike.

Inside, the New Museum's open floors, white walls and even lighting lend the art on display a weightlessness that contrasts the Whitney's overarching darkness. The older venue's somber atmosphere fixes the artworks to the wall like so much evidence of a criminal enterprise captured in flagrante. Curiously, while much of the stuff on view at the Whitney adheres to a more conservative aesthetic, the New Museum's younger coterie of artists seem to court the margins, even proceeding from the notion of art as crime as if it is a given. Great attention is paid to how objects are displayed—Argentine Mariana Telleria's Dias en que todo es verdadarranges found objects and created pieces on long, uncluttered shelves that suggest a studied lack of the personal; in Acepto que nada es mío, Peruvian Rita Ponce de León arranges scores of tiny pen and ink drawings that seem like the detritus fastidiously sliced from a whole kept intact by their confinement to a tabled vitrine (I immediately recall Stephen Millhauser's short story about a royal miniaturist whose detailed figurines grow increasingly imperceptible to all but the artist); Egyptian born Iman Issa presents a handful of works from her "Material for a sculpture..." series (...commemorating the life of a soldier who died defending his nation against intruding enemies, ...proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people, ...representing a bygone era of luxury and decadence, ...representing a monument erected in the spirit of defiance of a larger power) that effectively parody the function of art as memorial, erections rendering formal concerns—like the selection of materials—irrelevant. One of the first works one sees (assuming one follows the downward route), Jonathas de Andrade’s Ressaca Tropical (Tropical Hangover), incorporates a row of pages from a found diary displayed out of order but hung on a level plane that is occasionally interrupted by a block of found snapshots (this piece struck me as bearing more significance to the artist's exploration of questions of process and the random nature of memory than that of communication with the viewer). In O seculo! by Cinthia Marcelle & Tiago Mata Machado, a static video frame highlights the mayhem of numerous objects large and small noisily hurled at a sidewalk curb (the snapping and smoke of miniature explosives, the clanking of numerous tin cans and oil drums, the popping of fluorescent bulbs and the wail of a car alarm stirred my adrenaline), a rain of cast-offs that gradually subsides, leaving us to ponder the messy quietude and the leftover debris that remain, dynamics that serve as evidence of child's play or the devastation of war. The most narrative and—in my humble opinion—most successful offering at both shows, O seculo! (The century!) posits the use-value of objects by reducing their temporary "lifespan" to a tenable immediacy. What we see discarded is less relevant than the fact that consumerism transforms everything into the lowest common denominator; in the limited space of a single video time-frame, what we discard is what we reject, our refuse is our refusal to the bogus imperative that we consume. Danh Võ's We the People is a trio of full-scale copper forms made from identical—albeit, unidentifiable—sections of the Statue of Liberty laid on the gallery floor—presumably to achieve a smidgeon of the incongruous via the strategy of sledgehammer subtlety. Dave McKenzie's The Past Into the Future, in which he arrays found objects amid acrylic box fragments on a wooden table, and Amalia Pica's Eavesdropping (version 2) fixes the mouths of various drinking glasses to the length of an entire wall. All three of these works represent some of the less appealing examples of this frenzy for resituating objects. I'm reminded of how David Hammons once observed that one can place anything in a gallery and people will call it art. This attitude prevails in Eunjie Joo's New Museum triennial, though the results are more often dubious than not.

The titanic sculpture, A Person Loved Me by Triennial darling Adrian Villar Rojas (whose name proliferates on every press release and text about the show), is certainly a competent rendition of some sci-fi film prop—a realm rife with artistry—but hardly packs the wallop, despite its immensity, of a Louise Bourgeois spider or a Jeff Koons bunny. Its effect is more akin to that of a trinket, a giant tchotchke, a clumsy curiosity, that wonders aloud "What's that thing doing in here?"

Mumbai-based Minam Apang's two large drawings, He wore them like talismans all over his body and How the wind was born inspire a shortness of breath due to the mastery of material and technique not found in the surfeit of conceptually arduous works exhibited in the show. The series of portraits by Londoner Lynette Yiadom-Boakye exuberantly meld traditional and popular styles. The canvases seem to borrow from black-light paintings in the liberal application of black paint to both the figures and backgrounds she portrays, such that the subjects and the brushstrokes that convey her images share the weight of eternity. In effect, Yiadom-Boakye has fixed these paintings in a time of their own, one that references the past and the present without carrying either too deeply into the resultant mix. For whatever reason, these pieces stand out as the only examples of what one customarily thinks of as art, overwhelmed as they are by what was called "new media," "conceptual art," and "institutional critique" twenty years ago.

There are other pieces in The Ungovernables, audio and video pieces that endure in their multiple perspectives, referencing archival, commercial, and industrial practices. The four pieces I offered my attention did little to maintain it, so I will refrain from naming names. Sadly, my visit to the Whitney left me feeling similarly inattentive overall, with a few exceptions.

I began the biennial by speaking to a member of Red Krayola that left me feeling underwhelmed. While I attempted to discourse on the familiarity of Skype technology and how Red Krayola imagined subverting and/or highlighting this everydayness, I got the feeling that the person on the other end was distracted. Instead of badgering him or monopolizing the connection, I bade farewell and stepped aside, expecting some one of the many other museum-goers who had listened to us to take a turn. Only one young woman stepped forward, and that was to do nothing more than to name-drop. Apparently, she knew someone who knew someone and thought it important to tell the band member so. Having gotten that off her chest, she left. I could go on about art and technology, the difficulties of participatory, two-way communication, the pratfalls and pitfalls of interactivity, the fundamental similarities between hammer and computer, telepathy and remote control, spider-web and internet, the inevitable supremacy of human users over whatever tool one might reference, but I've done that elsewhere, repeatedly, and at length. It merely astonishes that we believe we've come so far in this realm, when in fact, the ubiquity of digital gadgetry has changed very little in terms of fostering communicative and technological relationships.

While the Whitney curators felt that a Michael Clark dance rehearsal would fit the bill as art (and, I assume, process), the performance This Could Be Something If I Let It by Dawn Kasper reprises the familiar resort to living in the museum/gallery with no significant twist or spin. An animatronic dummy spouting text by transgressive scribbler Dennis Cooper is nothing more than a Disney World display gone bad and shabbily produced. ISP graduate Sam Lewitt's decision to cover part of the floor with magnetic liquid might hold my sons' attention for an hour, if they could touch it. Because they won't be able to even get close, it might make my younger boy holler in protest while the older one would depart in another prepubescent huff at the hypocrisy of grown-ups.

Nicole Eisenmann's portraits are a joy to behold, as is true of the majority of her paintings for the past twenty years. I was surprised to see so many of Richard Hawkins' collages on display. His paintings have always featured an element of borrowing, and it's great to see him submit his skill as a painter to the craft of collage, not to mention his furious and steady output. Latoya Ruby-Frazier's photo campaign for a hospital in blighted Braddock, Pennsylvania recalls the fabricated images of Les Krims1 in their employ of architecture as entity; the series succeeds at reflecting a singular eye for the humanity of documentation, communicating both real need and visualized history in every image. Kai Althoff's shimmering and riotously-colored hanging is nothing less than a thing of beauty that almost invisibly transforms the room it bisects. My favorite discovery was the work of Tom Thayer, who mixes media to create works that live somewhere between the diorama of childhood craft and the scenography of ritual drama. I lingered longest in the room holding these shadowy plays on darkness as light. Other than these works, I found little of appeal at the Whitney and so, in keeping with former art critic Jim Lewis's decision not to criticize the hard work of others, I remain silent in this respect.

 

While I had initially hoped to compare these two shows, each to the other, the sheer number of artists in each makes such an endeavor next to impossible. In addition, both shows serve as hubs for film and video programs, public art projects, performances, lectures, workshops, and other events at venues throughout the city. One would have to possess a rather outsized ego to declare a knockout without catching every round. One would also have to spend a few visits to these institutions, as well as tour the farther reaches of the city, to take in every offering selected and included by the curators. Given this challenge, I can only point to the profusion of light that gave the Ungovernables a better feel than the somber Biennial. But even this qualitative difference may reflect the New Museum's mission to focus on young, "emerging" artists, as opposed to the Whitney's dedication to showcasing those who have endured the art world's shifting fancies for at least a couple of decades. Such effects have less to do with the particular shows than with the implicit positions of the venues that showcase them. In either case, both shows add to the abundant opportunities for inspiration—both positive and negative—offered by the arts in the city. For that, one hardly requires the amblings of one who puts words on a page, cataloguing the unclassifiable in a futile bid to stave off a slow fade into the dustbin of mystery. Go forth then, and spectate...

1  A photographer who has staged most of his output since the late 60's, and who parodies "concerned photographers" in his Chicken Soup monograph.

Steve CannonTribes