Saturday, March 22, 2008

The, um, Whitney Biennial

In my world the Whitney Biennial was such a non-event that I almost forgot to write about it. I went two weeks ago during a rainstorm and rushed through, intending to come back another time for a closer look. Unlike the recent Asian Contemporary Art Fair, which I assumed would be a quick take but where I ended up staying for three hours, nothing in the Biennial entreated me to linger. Instead it came off as gloomy, dated and stagnant, a littered graveyard of academic post-conceptual art. Further, the curatorial offerings as well as the Breuer-designed museum were completely upstaged by the newly renovated Armory at 67th and Park (site of Part II of the Biennial, admission free), where we arrived soaked to the skin. Hardly any art had yet been installed but we didn’t feel the lack as we wandered from room to room, our damp condition forgotten as we reveled in building’s opulence. Built in the late 1800s, the place is totally OTT—a fusion of too many styles and motifs to reference—but its creators, happily, weren’t cool enough to care. They put everything they had into creating an aesthetic experience—and for soldiers, yet. It made me realize how weary I am of cool, of irony, of scorn masquerading as art. I can still handle profundity (no danger of over-exposure there), but I want something to look at, something that gives me faith.

After wandering around, three of us flopped onto a couch in the Armory's vast entry hall. Huddling together for warmth we stayed nearly an hour, while I got up every so often to look at the one of the few completed pieces, Swiss artist Olaf Breuning’s army of thirty blinking, shining, noisy teapot/robot “soldiers” laid out on the floor in the room across from us. At once playful and pompous, it’s a baroque piece for a baroque setting, one that seamlessly marries 2008--or even the future--with the archaic ornamentation of the building. As with musical covers and appropriation (see the post below), it’s the inspired merging of similarities and opposites that makes an art installation succeed in a given space, as Breuning’s does here. Perhaps it’s helpful to think of the use of space with installation as yet another form of appropriation—or better yet, distant collaboration.

And I like what Breuning said in a video interview, that he "finds creativity through pleasure," a fairly radical statement for an artist these days. I know all too well that there are horrid things going on in the world, but we also need something to live for.


Reviews of the Whitney Biennial:

Holland Cotter in the New York Times

Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker

Jerry Saltz in New York


Anonymous said...

those were so trippy. i really dug 'em.

Mr. said...

Great Biennial piece. I would love to hear your analysis of the various reviews of the Biennial as well.