Temporal Tenuosness: Whitney Biennial 2008

Mika Rottenberg, Production still from Cheese, 2007.
Digital video, color, sound; approximately 12 min.
Collection of the artist.

Below is the original article I wrote and submitted for publication

“A biennial is an exercise in imposing temporary order and control onto a situation that is, essentially, out of control,” writes Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in the foreword to the catalog for the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

The Whitney Museum opened in 1931. The first Biennial was introduced in 1932 and remains a cornerstone of the museum’s mission to support living artists. Purchasing art from the biennial is the foundation of their permanent collection.

However improbable, the biennial attempts to provide a snapshot of “where American art stands today.” At least that’s what the ads say.

Eighty-one artists were selected to participate in the biennial by two young curators given a mere 13 months to pull together one of the most high profile exhibitions in America. Henriette Huldisch, 36, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Shamim M. Momin, 34, associate curator at the Whitney and branch director and curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria were entrusted the much hyped task. Weinberg then assigned Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator and associate director for programs to oversee Huldisch and Momin. The team also worked with advisors Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem; Bill Horrigan, director of media arts at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University; and Linda Norden, independent curator and writer.

Weinberg writes in his foreword that the artist selection process is exhaustive, explaining that the curators “distilled artists into a collage of artistic expressions that resonated to reveal networks”—a sort of invisible reticulation. These threads tenuously hold together this biennial that fills more than three floors of the museum. The result is a show that is highly cerebral featuring a lot of art with complicated back-stories.

Huldisch and Momin write in their introduction: “Many of the projects presented in the 2008 exhibition explore fluid communication structures and systems of exchange that index larger social, political and economic contexts, often aiming to invert the more object-oriented, ends-driven operations of the art market.”

Well, yes, I suppose intellectually that is the idea. But in the end, being in the Whitney Biennial means that many of these artists will now be the stars of the art fair world (if they are not already) where one can truly find out where art stands today. And, after all, the Whitney is going to buy some of this art, too. So as much as we may want to glorify process and experience, in the end the intellectual idea does become a product sitting in a museum.

Some of the products are made with very modest materials. Take for instance Charles Long’s sculptures made from detritus found along the banks of the Los Angeles River. Feathers, cans, bottles, cigarette butts, you name it it’s bound together in his desiccated effigy’s that echo the frail figurative sculptures of Alberto Giacometti. Great Blue Heron bird droppings found along the riverbank inspire the sculptures. Long made albumen prints of the droppings and then translated the images into three dimensional sculptures describing them as somewhere “between beauty and anger.” Long sees his tall ghost figures as harbingers of death that paradoxically assert the resilience of life. There is something treacherous and yet life affirming about the work.

Charles Long, Untitled, 2006.
Papier-mâché, plaster, steel, synthetic polymer, river sediment, and debris, 144 x 72 x 7 in. (365.8 x 182.9 x 17.8 cm). Collection of the artist; courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Another paradox inducing work is Mika Rottenberg’s video installation “Cheese.” It is an artwork one enters like a womb. Inside the maze like shanty made from wooden debris, several video screens show crowded pens of goats and a group of women with extremely long hair in floating white dresses. These Rapunzel’s milk their locks and the goats they live with to make cheese. There is something erotic about the piece, yet objectifying, something mysterious and magical, yet earthy.

In contract, Daniel Joseph Martinez creates work that is unapologetically uncomfortable and explores complicity. “Divine Violence” is a room-sized installation filled with 125 rectangular, sleek, gold panels with crisp black lettering spelling out words like Al Qaeda, Central Intelligence Agency, Army of God, Iduwini Youths. Martinez aims to name all of the groups in the world currently attempting to enforce politics through violence. The title comes from Walter Benjamin’s coinage for a form of violence that function as pure means with knowable ends.

Daniel Joseph Martinez, Divine Violence, 2007 (installation view, The Project, New York).
Automotive paint on wood panel, dimensions variable.

A biennial is not pure means with a knowable end and this is but a smidgen of the work on display, most of it installation and video with a smattering of sculptural objects and a few token paintings and photographs. This is a biennial about what is bubbling beneath the veneer. While on the s
urface it may seem uncharismatic, beneath the surface there is something to think about.

If you go:

Through June 1, 2008
Whitney Biennial
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison @ 75th Street

artsjournalist@centurytel.net Leanne Goebel attended the Whitney Biennial as a project of the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts’ Writers Grant Program.

List of Artists in the Biennial and links to their online Biennial catalog page:
Rita Ackermann
Natalia Almada
Edgar Arceneaux
Fia Backström
John Baldessari
Robert Bechtle
Walead Beshty
Carol Bove
Joe Bradley
Matthew Brannon
Bozidar Brazda
Olaf Breuning
Jedediah Caesar
William Cordova
Dexter Sinister (Stuart Bailey)
Harry (Harriet) Dodge and Stanya Kahn
Shannon Ebner
Gardar Eide Einarsson
Roe Ethridge
Kevin Jerome Everson
Omer Fast
Robert Fenz
Coco Fusco
Gang Gang Dance (Lizzi Bougatsos, Brian DeGraw, Tim DeWit, Josh Diamond, Nathan Maddox)
Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler
Rashawn Griffin
Adler Guerrier
MK Guth
Fritz Haeg
Rachel Harrison
Ellen Harvey
Mary Heilmann
Leslie Hewitt
Patrick Hill
William E. Jones
Karen Kilimnik
Alice Könitz
Louise Lawler Spike Lee
Sherrie Levine
Charles Long
Lucky Dragons (Luke Fischbeck)
Daniel Joseph Martinez
Corey McCorkle
Rodney McMillian
Julia Meltzer and David Thorne
Jennifer Montgomery
Olivier Mosset
Matt Mullican
Neighborhood Public Radio (NPR)
Ruben Ochoa
DJ Olive
Mitzi Pederson
Kembra Pfahler/The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black
Seth Price
Stephen Prina
Adam Putnam
Michael Queenland
Jason Rhoades
Ry Rocklen
Bert Rodriguez
Marina Rosenfeld
Amanda Ross-H
Mika Rottenberg
Heather Rowe
Eduardo Sarabia
Melanie Schiff
Amie Siegel
Lisa Sigal
Gretchen Skogerson
Michael Smith
Agathe Snow
Frances Stark
Mika Tajima/New Humans
Javier Téllez
Cheyney Thompson
Mungo Thomson
Leslie Thornton
Phoebe Washburn
James Welling
Mario Ybarra Jr.



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