Benicio Ex Machina - Francesco Vezzoli's Caligula
You are supposed to start at the top and go down -- work your way down as opposed to up. I suppose it is easier. I might have been reminded of this convention by the artist list, which begins with the fourth floor and ends with the lobby, had I actually gone through the formality of paying. Instead, I grabbed it on the way out when no one could bother me about my missing green sticker and didn't realize my mistake until I was well on my way home. As it were my friend and I walked down into the gift shop and took the elevator up to the second floor where we began our tour with what I realize in retrospect, was meant to be the grand finale. After an exhausting confrontation with broken museum walls (thank god we took the elevator up and walked down the stairs!) difficult to view tropical landscapes and a dark recreation of the 1938 Exhibition of Surrealism consisting of imitation Duchamp ready-mades, we are finally rewarded by the appearance of Benicio Del Toro, Courtney Love and Gore Vidal among others.* And there are seats!
The trailer for a remake of Caligula that was never intended to be made, with its high production value is a welcome bit of entertainment after all that non-sensical ugliness. Posing as a clever commentary on reproduction, Caligula is no more than an over-priced joke hidden behind representations of sex that could only be seen without an ID in a museum. Responding to the criticism that Caligula looks too much like an actual movie trailer to be art, Mr. Vezzoli stated in a NYT article that the viewers clearly "did not get the joke." "The art world has become a place that has turned itself, willingly or not, into some sort of entertainment industry," and this is what he claims to be commenting on. I do get the joke. I just think it is too poorly thought out to actually be funny. This is not commentary it is acquiescence.
It isn't so much that it misses its mark. From the reproduced faces to the reproduced author this un-kept promise of a filmic reproduction of an historical film remains faithful to the plaque lying to the right of the theatre entrance. What is upsetting, on the contrary, is that its aim is so flawlessly accurate. The reproduction of Duchamp's ready-mades wasn't exactly a coup, but at least its subject matter retains a certain amount of ambiguity -- and at the very least you have to stand up and walk around to see it. You even have to squint a little.
I can't say that I didn't enjoy this little bit of popular entertainment and I am, like the rest of my generation, reluctant to actively distinguish art from non-art. But there comes a time when these distinctions need to be made by the spectator because they are in fact being made all the time by the producer, consciously or not -- and the viewers' resignation to the idea of art as something that can no longer be defined is no more than a refusal to acknowledge the aesthetic choices that make up the Whitney Biennial, among many other things.
What does it mean to install something so blatantly entertainment driven in the middle, or rather at the end of an art show? It is not completely misplaced -- the rest of the floor devotes quite a bit of space to video, and very involved videos at that (one piece, shown on a small monitor near the elevator, runs over forty minutes, a curatorial choice that seems odd to me) so we could draw the conclusion that it is an attempt to encompass a whole spectrum of visual culture, to show the grainy, narratively confused videos along with what they are reacting against. But I suspect that Caligula is not meant to provide an illuminating social or historical context for the rest of the videos that we clearly do not have the time to watch (standing up and sometimes with headphones). Whether intentional or not, Caligula serves to eclipse the rest of these projects, making them seem diminutive in comparison.
When we go home this will be the easiest thing to relate to our friends and family, not to mention the most potentially entertaining. Who isn't fascinated, in one way or another, by porn? The story is familiar, you barely have to say anything about it -- this added to the fact that it was the last thing that you saw on the way out and more than likely the only project that you watched from start to finish because it was the only thing you could sit through.
Because the Biennial itself does not seem to be making many positive claims about what art is, it is impossible to say that Caligula is not. But while I cannot say that Caligula should not be there for aesthetic reasons I can say that it should not have been included for ethical ones. To put it very simply -- this is not fair.
Everything in that museum is at an automatic disadvantage and while I do not want to think about this as nothing more than a juried competition it is difficult to ignore the discrepancy in budget and expertise. Even more upsetting to me than its obvious financial advantage is the comparatively large amount of public space already given to Benicio Del Toro's face and Gore Vidal's name. This type of money can afford ad space -- where most can only afford to be the consumers of images these people have the opportunity to be producers. Not surprisingly, the images they produce are, in their style and clarity, identical to the billboards and movie trailers that one sees whether they want to or not, and in their content part of a narrowly defined tradition of Hollywood's historical film. A genre so rigidly defined and absolutely recognizable at this point, that one need no more than a trailer to have a good idea of what they're in for. The immense store of images that this one piece taps gives it a specific, well-defined (over defined really) meaning to which anyone who rides the subway or walks down the street has immediate access. And I suppose here I am indicating some sort of aesthetic criteria -- if the images are not challenging neither is the content.
Claiming that something's availability necessarily decreases its value as art or more accurately the commodified art object, is patently elitist, but I do think that there remains something wrong with the immediate readability of Caligula. Or actually that lack of readership that goes into its interpretation. We are so familiar with these images that we don't even have to confront the production in front of us. It made sense before we walked through the door. And upon leaving there is not much left to the imagination. By not only using the story of Caligula (which could potentially play itself out in a million and one ways) but specifically Gore Vidal's version, the piece pre-empts any creative narrative reconstruction by the viewer. In fact it pre-empts any active involvement at all. Instead of loosely suggesting a story to be filled in by the spectator, the trailer (and specifically the re-appearance of the author) pre-empts the very possibility of creative engagement.
I do not believe that the rest of the world should be left at the entrance of a museum, but I do not expect to see an exact reproduction of the images that bombard me on a regular basis -- ventriloquy does not count as confrontation. This does not produce dialogue because it refuses to ask questions -- it merely fulfills the essentially empty yet definitive statement on the door while satisfying our voyeuristic pleasure, accomplishing its dual function of art and popular entertainment. The problem is that I don't think the two can co-exist if only because of this major advantage on the side of Hollywood -- this image bank that does not exist in the same capacity for its secondary function as art. Art is therefore subsumed by popular culture and limited by its demonstrably narrower field of aesthetic expression.
If you can say nothing else for the rest of the show it didn't lack in variety. In striking contrast to the story of Caligula the biennial was totally lacking in coherence. The story told by the other pieces defied definitive summary of the Cliff's Notes variety to which the story of Caligula is so easily lent after decades of preceding notoriety. To say that exterior narratives do not enter into the interpretation and enjoyment of art is naive. But the incorporation of visual culture lying outside the walls of the museum is not synonymous with an enforcement of received narratives.
--- * The Intelligence of Flowers, by Urs Fischer, consists of broken walls of the Whitney -- literally exposing the structure that houses the art on display. Incidentally, this hole in the wall is owned by the Ringler Collection, Switzerland.