Rudolph Stingel's Self Portrait and Urs Fischer's Untitled
Can we call it the Tired Biennial? I mean that in a good way. It was a great show, and I say that even though I gritted my teeth through the whole thing, even though I saw lots of art I didn't like. Even though I went twice, and took notes and was very careful and attentive and still I am sure I did not see everything or get every inside joke. This biennial is not about good or bad, and that is what makes it smart. There are disturbing trends on view, and this makes sense because we live in a disturbing world. And thankfully there are little pockets of redemption scattered amid the piles of rubbish and extra heaping quantities of nostalgia and the word shit everywhere.
I like to start at the top and work my way down. So yes, it does disturb me that the Wrong Gallery has curated an installation on the Mezzanine floor, but not for the reasons you'd think. I am not pissed because news-flash-curators-are-not-artists. Curators have been made into artists. I am pissed that artists have become curators. I am pissed because the Wrong Gallery installation makes too much sense, and too-perfectly sets the tone for a biennial that has little invention and imagination to offer. Almost every single thing Subotnik, et. al curated into "Down By Law" was an artifact or artifact-like: pictures of prison farm inmates with real fingerprints. Real serial killers. Real pictures of poor people. Flat illustration re-enactments of real assasinations and the current president's head. Video verite of a woman who has really waited on GW Bush. And of course Chris Burden's shooting of a Boeing 737 photograph reigns over the whole affair, the granddaddy of artifact and reality art...
...Wait a minute! Chris Burden is one poetic motherfucker! And he used the sheer ballsy beauty and the impossibility of his actions to transform reality. His photograph is spooky and nostalgia-inducing in this post- 9/11 world. Who would consider restaging that one? But more importantly, it stands out in the Wrong Gallery effort as an actual artistic transformation, a poetic gesture captured so that what it evokes becomes more than what it actually is. The rest is strictly Wunderkammer--look at this freaky stuff I've found--whether an artist made it or not. The same sentiment abounds downstairs. Snapshot-look photography, collections of stuff and research-based art are everywhere. I am reminded of that childish Microsoft impulse to call everything "My:" My Documents, My Computer. My Katrina. My Parrot Joke. My Charlie Chaplin Monologue.
The only other generalization I can make is that it all felt so nostalgic. There were a number of heavy-hitters included. Much of the visual language was quite abject. When all this spraypainted shit-rock and sheetrock sits next to older (often more interesting) work, and there's this pervasive drive not to invent or imagine, the result is just deafeningly sorrowful and backward-looking.
I can handle wistfulness and sorrow, so I trudged on. Each floor begins with some pre-nostalgia to get you in the mood, and I love that it comes in the form of obituaries for the living by Adam McEwen (which, incidentally, are funny if you have the patience to read so much text in an already tedious environment). I love Rudolph Stingel's big unhappy and tired self-portrait--the Biennial mascot. I love the way he contemplates the Urs Fischer's swinging silver sticks as if to say "this, too, shall pass," and I love that the silver sticks are the hourglass of this biennial and will (hopefully) stop swinging soon because they will be frozen in hardened stalagtites of waxy buildup.
Adding to the nostalgia--speaking of Urs Fischer, I love Gordon Matta Clark! This is starting to feel like a greatest hits album. Are Robert Gober and Steven Parrino here to do anything other than make the younguns look like they need to get out and live more? Play with materials? Maybe do some funky experiments with their cameras? Pairing Parrino and Koether was a no-brainer, but she suffered for it here. Another slightly cruel, but more curatorially clever pairing was Monica Majoli's watercolors of extreme S&M scenarios next to Serra's Abu Ghraib redux. Opening night I was convinced that Majoli looked lightweight next to the more strident and defiant Serra. On second viewing, it was obvious that I was wrong. Stop Bush, indeed. Majoli's watercolors are tender and ambiguous and tend to transcend their research material. Serra managed to turn someone else's torture into a t-shirt design. This show skewered more than one blue-chip modernist who sincerely engaged the protest rhetoric of yesteryear to bad effect. Consistently clever on the part of Iles and Vergne, but I am not sure why they chose to beat this horse so thoroughly. We all know modernism won't save us. What do we learn by watching it fail on such a grand scale? It broke my heart to see the Whitney literally swallowing up the "Peace Tower".
My Icons by Kenneth Anger... and suddenly I am really starting to see all the ways that this show is a big fat reality sandwich. It isn't just that drive to present My Things. More subtle, but equally flat insistence on reality is everywhere. It's in Gedi Sibony's janky low-pile formalism, which recalls, of all things, a past show at the Whitney. This manages to create instant insider nostalgia using the least generous tools at hand. The echo chamber at its finest! In Dan Colen's ridiculously easy fake rocks. The material reality of these rocks is just like the art world. They come with their own commentary, are extremely lightweight but attempt to masquerade both as cultural foundations and as bad-boy nihilism. They can also fit neatly into the bed of a small pickup truck, no need to bother anyone, really. Eat shit and die, please!
Reality, inside and outside the Whitney, is overwhelmingly bleak. Pawing through all this detritus and rearranging it again and again just to showcase one artist's individuality at a time only highlights that bleakness, and adds loneliness. And looking into the past, whether it's the Smithson exhibit or the (now commodified) rhetoric of protest, just magnifies all that bleak loneliness.
But I am an optimist. In fact, every single time I thought about canning it because this show was giving me more wistfulness and sorrow than I could swallow, some brilliant sweetheart of an artist actually delivered what I need to keep living in this truly fucked up time. Paul Chan's "1st Light" seduced me and allowed me to laugh at myself. Yes, I do feel like everything's drifting away! Thank you, you generous creature! Francesco Vezzoli's Caligula trailer was hysterical and appropriate. Cameron Jamie's "Kranky Klaus" worked some serious magic, especially before I did my Krampus research. The action consists mainly of masked jingle-butted monsters in fur seriously messing up well-meaning folks who are just out having a drink or going to the pharmacy. And the funny part is that these people, who are getting their faces rubbed in snow and their shirts pulled off by really loud scary beasts, seem slightly amused, slightly worried, and very patient. Sure, every now and again a little girl cries or a little boy gives a true WTF? look. These little glimpses of what I would do in a similar situation only make everybody else's playing along more surreal. In America, "Kranky Klaus" reads as an institution out of control, a freaky meditation on complacency that carries real political weight. It is a deft sidestep that avoids the Serra/diSuvero pitfall because it isn't a slogan or a manifesto, and as such doesn't depend on the artist's power to back up its message.
Here's the takeaway: There is healing, generous work tucked into the 2006 Biennial. And all of it breaks away from the larger slavish attention to reality, makes no use of the artist-as-curator/researcher impulse, and denies nostalgia. The future is in dreaming and twisting, and in admitting how powerless we actually are. And that seems right, doesn't it? After all, we have to imagine our way out of the current mess.