Sunday, May 14, 2006

Scenes from the Biennial

It doesn't seem like all that long ago that I was visiting 2004 Whitney Biennial, and already it's two years later. Seeing the 2006 collection of exhibits, subtitled "Day for Night," after the Truffaut film (which I've never seen), was actually not as perplexing as I thought it was going to be. There were still a lot of baffling works, as I often find in contemporary art, but it seemed slightly more accessible this time around. A few scenes:

» Urs Fischer's The Intelligence of Flowers, which consisted of massive big-enough-to-step-through, jaggedly cut holes in the white gallery walls, exposing the inner metal brackets. Inside these huge openings was Untitled (Branches), a pair of silver-painted branches, each suspended from the ceiling, parallel to the floor, balanced with a burning candle at one end and a group of silver chains at the other end. Small motors in the ceiling make the branches spin ever so slowly, and as each candle burns down, it drips its wax onto the floor, creating a large Venn diagram type design on the floor. While I was near the gallery, I noticed a woman, likely a Whitney Museum employee, carrying a pair of white candles and a blowtorch. She reached into a utility panel behind a handle-less door, and shut off the branch-spinning mechanisms. Then she went to replace each candle in the artwork, using the blowtorch to melt the wax along the bottom and help the candles adhere to the branches. We the museum-goers watched this woman's work as if it were the performance part of the exhibit.

» Kori Newkirk's Glint. A four-sided curtain of hair beads, showing different abstract designs, created in response to the seeming obsession of tennis writers, fans and commentators over Venus Williams' own hair beads, and the likely paranoid fear of what might happen if her beads were to fall out during a tennis match.

» Fake, imagined obituaries for Rod Stewart, Nicole Kidman, Bill Clinton and Jeff Koons, using real facts and details but obviously not correct on the dates of death, blown up to wall-size proportions, at the entrance to each gallery floor by Adam McEwen.

» Nari Ward's Glory. A tanning bed (a thing of the First World), created out of battered oil barrels and other castoffs reminiscent of the Third World, and printed with stars and stripes on the glass inside, so that if someone were to actually tan themselves in the contraption, they'd be marked like an American flag. From within the device comes a recording loop taken from a CD intended to teach parrots how to speak English and whistle tunes like reveille. Sequences like: "(Laughter) You've got to be kidding. (Pause) (Laughter) You've got to be kidding. (Pause) (Laughter) ..." A reaction to post-9/11 nationalistic fervor, as stated on the title card.

» Francesco Vezzoli's much-talked-about, pitch-perfect, and pretty funny Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s “Caligula,” which runs five minutes and 35 seconds, and shows in a screening room with plusher seats than most others used for film/video works. The work seems especially of the moment, as trailers for fake movies like Titanic 2: The Sequel and Brokeback to the Future are making the rounds on the internet.

The overall experience of seeing the Biennial continues to strike me as walking through a funhouse made for adults, although there were several kids there today. The muted cacophony of audio tracks from the various multimedia works around the gallery floors are really kind of absurd when mixed together. But it's different from the feeling you get from walking through the hallways of a multiplex. There, the context of each vocalization or sound effect or musical cue is supposed to be obvious to the viewers in each individual auditorium. But the noises playing inside the Whitney feel even further removed from their sources. Whereas Hollywood filmmakers aim to obfuscate and deny the artificiality that goes into making their work (even as they follow such obvious formulas), so many visual artists today are focused on highlighting that same artificiality in their constructs. These aren't exactly new ideas about the entertainment vs. art debate, but they came to mind for me while walking through the carnival funhouse that is the Whitney through May 28.

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