Biennial Exhibition 2000
Whitney Museum of American Art
There are really two Whitney Biennials. The first and most
exhilarating is printed on the wall plaques. Here is heady
socio-critical rhetoric to shame the booboisie and point us
toward the perfected future age. The other, infinitely tamer
Biennial is the stuff on show. Cultural policy MFAs and PHDs,
specialists in the marketing potential of intellectual pretension,
know this. That is why the press packet includes a 70-page
reprint of the walled pensées but no reproductions
of the work.
Sententious plaques part manifesto, part consumer
guide aim at an audience susceptible to blurbs on book
jackets. These are the same simple souls who transferred their
trust in the tooth fairy to faith in the cutting edge. Blinkered
by soft-headed notions of creativity, they cannot see the
clockwork driving the wreckage. Kiddies eating chips and right-thinking
pigeons who seek moral hope by shopping at Benetton will do
just fine at this Biennial. They can wander reverently from
one statement to the next, blessedly ignorant of the cynical
disjunction between what they read and what they witness.
They view art they way they watch TV, prospecting for images.
No matter if what they see is silly, reductive and dishonest.
Or even sad.
Watch Carl Popes video installation of his own disfigurement,
Palimpsest, 1999. We see a black man being being surgically
cut and branded, tattooed with the words of a poem written by
his sister. We watch the welts rise, painful and indelible.
Here is self-mutilation in the service of
what? The politics
of grievance, obviously. The wall plate explains that Pope is
using his own body "to address the history of dehumanizing
inscriptions both literal and figurative on the
black body." Using himself as a writing tablet, he intends
to "transform his body into a defiant rebuke of racist
myths and practices."
Which myths are dispelled here? Whose? Jews in Nazi concentration
camps endured being stamped with numbers; but were American
slaves branded in like manner? If so, was it routine? The
practice goes unmentioned in Roll, Jordan Roll, Eugene
Genoveses magisterial and authoritative history of slave
life. Pope seems not to know that scarification is a traditional
African practice, its intricate designs a mark of beauty,
not humiliation. The graceful calligraphy of Popes tattoo
artist is, visually, more evocative of African practice than
of the bitterness of slavery.
No matter. Its the stance that counts. If you cannot
actually create something, you can always display yourself
as a victim. Victimology is an art in its own right. And it
does not wear off.
Much of the exhibition was devoted to what I think of as
post-industrial folk art. On occasion it floats free of any
effort at significance whatever. Stop under Sarah Szes
installation, a whimsical, meandering raid on a hardware store.
Aluminum ladders are suspended from the ceiling and strung
together with step ladders,clamps, feathers, light bulbs,
sponges, flotsam from every bin in the shop. Why? The "just-for-fun"
defense does not go very far if you compare this to Calders
Circus, shelved somewhere in the Whitneys basement.
More typical is Rina Banjerees folk art lament over
the AIDS crisis in India. On the wall is solemn assurance
that this hodgepodge of medicine cabinet and playroom junk
more feathers and light bulbs, Silly Putty, plastic
tubing, fake eyelashes, Vaseline, turmeric, incense sticks,
Spanish moss, et alia "confronts disease."
Does it now? Judging from the slapdash, skills-deprived manner
of her mawkish entertainment, it is reasonable to to guess
that Ms. Banjeree has no clue to what rigors are involved
in confronting any disease whatever. Fourth grade science
projects display greater intellectual effort. Her uncertain
map of migration and transmission reveals no knowledge of
the fact that there are three different strains of AIDs. Only
one of them is peculiar to this country while the other two
have begun to mutate. Confront that, dear Rina. Can people
at risk sleep sounder because you are into art and crafts?
AIDS is a terrible thing but it is only one terrible thing
among many. Are there artists who have heard of any other
diseases and conditions? Malaria, anyone? Tuberculosis, alive
and also mutating? Malnutrition? Tay Sachs, for which there
is no cure? Do we hear it for cholera? And do homosexual men
have prostates? Indeed, isnt there something obscene
about this picking and choosing among diseases? It is politics,
not human suffering, that determines which illness is artistically
interesting. It is a squalid game for museums to play.
You are waiting for me to get to the Hans Haacke thing, arent
you. Sorry, but it really is not worth the effort. Besides,
every hack between here and Benettons anti-capital punishment
ad agency is already intoning over the carcass of this latest
dead horse. In an omnium gatherum of dead horses, one
less is a mercy. Just do not go away thinking that the episode
has anything to do with free speech. It does not. It is an
illustration of the hypocrisy of a curatorial agenda that
discriminates against authentic achievement while it pretends
that any act of prudential judgment (e.g. saying "no
thanks" to Hans Haacke) constitutes a fascist suppression
of free speech.
Our cutting edge bigots have certainly discriminated against
painting. There is bit of camp, a bit of girlie-girlie, some
trompe loeil, the obligatory melange of no-style. Overall,
the message is clear. Painting is a dead end street. Caput.
Sayonara. This should be a liberating relief to every serious
painter across the country. No more worrying about getting
a Whitney curator into your studio. Free at last!
Why spend any more time on this? No amount of mystifying
hype can plug the hole in the heart of the Whitney. Poor Gertrude.
Dear Reader, spare yourself the entrance fee. Do the laundry
instead; go out for a smoke; get a hair cut; open that riesling;
check your-email. And, if you really want to feel outré,
counter-cultural and subversive, go write a check to Giuliani.