Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Whitney Biennial

Here are my 2 cents:
Saturday afternoon and it's more crowded than Trader Joe's on opening day. The social x-ray volunteers who man the ticket booth are real snotty bitches and they bark. Now, I can understand that they are overwhelmed by the mobs, but the Met and MoMa are always crowded and nobody ever treats you like that over there. The Whitney with mobs is a very unpleasant experience. In fact, the Whitney is a very unpleasant museum.
Now, as for the Biennial: I did not see the whole thing. That would require repeated visits. I saw only the first and part of the second floor. I know it's a tradition to bitch about Biennials and I must confess this was my first one. It did not disappoint my expectations, which were "there is probably going to be a lot of self-indulgent crap and a few interesting pieces".
Call me an old fogey, but I like my art to be about craftsmanship and emotion, and an ineffable aesthetic quality, not about half-baked conceptual ideas. I work in advertising. If concepts is what I want, I can watch commercials or music videos, some of which frankly are far more visually interesting than most of the video offerings at the Biennial. I don't know how people don't get tired of simplistic installations with supposedly outrageous political topics. They bore me to tears and they are ugly to boot.
For instance, the Caligula trailer by Francesco Vezzoli, a piece that has been much talked about. I was very underwhelmed by it. It was horribly lit, badly acted, looked cheesy and I don't think it made its point (whatever it was) compellingly. If it's supposed to be an ironic comment on the Bush Era, anything viral you see on the internet or, for that matter, the spoofs of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart are more interesting, funnier and less calculated. So you can see Karen Black and Benicio del Toro and Courtney Love and Milla Jovovich hamming it up, so the indifferent costumes are by Donatella Versace, so what? Any of the Brokeback spoofs, like the one about Top Gun with Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer, are more biting and funnier and actually have more to say about our culture than this pretentious piece.
On the first floor there was a lot of stuff that made me feel like I wandered into a gallery in Williamsburg specializing on untalented hipsters that was having a yard sale. Puerile, self-indulgent, extremely OBVIOUS stuff with lengthy curatorial explanations where really none are needed. My feeling is that if there is such a compulsion to have to explain a piece with such minute pretentiousness, we are in the realm of what is commonly known as mental masturbation. That may qualify as art, but not in my book. I have higher standards. I want art to amaze me, move me, enthrall me. I don't want to have to think about it too much. It's a visceral reaction. Either it speaks to you and draws you in or it doesn't. A lot of the stuff at the Biennial seems calculated to drive you away.
There is a mildly interesting video about some kids jumping rope to several versions of a Bob Dylan song. You can sit there forever but it isn't either enthralling, nor particularly moving, not competently made. There is an explanation about it almost as lengthy as the video itself. It still doesn't do anything for me.
However, I spent a long time watching Zoe Strauss' slideshow. She took many pictures of the damage of Katrina in Gulfport and Biloxi and others of the very depressed inner city of South Philly. The pictures were not photojournalistic. There was an artistic coherence and a strong point of view to them and the cumulative experience of seeing empty streets with ironic signs intertwined with photos of the forgotten poor of America was very powerful. It certainly was more eloquent than many of the strident agitprop pieces around it. I liked Richard Serra's iconic image of the Abu Ghraib hooded guy. You've seen that image a hundred thousand times already, but it was beautifully executed, with an urgent, strong, almost violent hand.
The other piece I liked was a video of a hanging crystal chandelier that twists one way and then another. It was shot on 35 mm at 48 frames per second, which made it look sharp and magnificent. The quality of the image was hypnotic and I thought it was absolutely beautiful.
If I were filthy rich I would get it for my mansion and project it on a wall.
There were photographs made by a woman who used to be a forensic photographer. I thought they were creepy, disturbing and lovely. There was also a guy who has jars of pickled film. I thought that was well done and mildly amusing. I guess it speaks to the sorry state of the video arts, if the Biennial is any indication.
But then there are artists like the woman who does big watercolors of men in rubber suits in fetishistic S&M poses. There is craftsmanship to them, but there is also a lengthy pretentious explanation about what they mean. Why does everything need to mean something so desperately? Do I give a fuck? No.
Most of the rooms with video installations gave me a headache and put me in a bad mood.
But I'm going back, because I want to understand if I am completely missing the point or if the curators of this unwieldy show are just yanking our collective chain.

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