Contemporary SMS-art. The 2008 Biennial at the Whitney Museum, NY

Natella Voiskounski

Magazine issue: 

A biennial is an exercise in imposing temporary order onto a situation that is, essentially, out of control.

Adam D. Weinberg

I happened to be in New York in March this year and naturally did not miss a chance to visit the 2008 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This most important survey of the state of contemporary art in the USA today should by all means be of special interest for me - a representative of a country which has very little (or better to say no) experience in organizing such cultural events: 74 in the Whitney in New York against 2 in Moscow! Nevertheless the idea to make a comparison seemed real - each large-scale survey mirrors the most vivid tendencies common for the state of contemporary art in general. My expectations came true. As it was put by Donna de Salvo, the Whitney Chief Curator and Associate Director for Programmes: “The Biennial is a laboratory, a way of ‘taking the temperature’, of what is happening now and putting it on view... In dealing with the art of the present, there are no easy assessments, only multiple points of entry. For the Whitney, and for our public, we hope the Biennial is one way in."

Over 80 artists (no iconic figures among them!) were selected to participate in the 2008 Whitney Biennial to exhibit the results of their creativity in the entire three floors of the Museum — the eldest of whom was born in 1931, the youngest in 1980. For the first time since 1932 the Biennial expanded beyond the Breuer building into the Park Avenue Armory in order to present there some interactive installation works, music and other performances, and the like.

As for me I like the very Whitney Museum, its architectural organization and its permanent collection, its grand exhibitions and the possibility to be in touch with contemporary American art, to come face to face with it... Really, each time you come in you are satisfied with what you see. It is not that you always like what you have seen; it is not a rare occasion when you completely reject the exhibits, that you do not comprehend, that sometimes you are even irritated, but you can never say that what you saw was meaningless, non-qualified, or neglecting the space of the Museum and the sense of the Present.

It was the same with the 2008 Biennial. As Adam Weinberg puts it: “People come to the Whitney Biennial expecting a great many things: to discover new artists, to experience fresh and important art, to be challenged by experimental ideas and forms . and, perhaps, above all, to gain some understanding of the present moment in art.” To realize what this artistic event means one should keep in mind that since the first biennial in 1932 its “mission was to advocate and support living artists”. The curators of the event considered it of importance to remind about this mission, as it explains all the titanic efforts undertaken by the curators, the staff of the Museum and many galleries, institutions and individuals in order to make a reliable and trustworthy selection of the participating artists. This echoes the experience-based evidence of Vladimir Visson, who since the 1940s was the art director of a leading private art gallery of the USA “Wildenstein”, in New York, expressed in his book “Fair Warning: Memoirs of a New York Art Dealer” (1986): “I don't think there is any country in the world as anxious to discover and propagate the talents of its living artists as the United States.”

In considering any biennials of contemporary national art we are aware of the fact that within a two-year period there cannot be any revolutionary, dramatic changes. One should really have a very keen and accurate vision, be always on the alert to feel something new in the bud, to develop deep intuition to be able to see a grain of truth and a rational kernel in the “multivalent response” of the living artists to the challenge of the Present. In short, to be able to read their message through their artwork. Thus the curatorial activity resembles that of a magician — to construct the “Future”.

Here is the landscape of contemporary American art through my eyes — through the eyes of the I’etranger. One cannot fail to note the prevalence of videos — a tendency not particularly characteristic of American art. It seems this kind of visual art should win its own place under the merciless sun of the international artistic universe and become separate from what is (or probably already “was”?) traditionally understood under the term “visual arts”. In the majority of cases I felt pity for the artists — there were really few viewers, and among them — even fewer of them who had patience to watch a video from beginning to end to catch the idea, to get into the core, to see to the bottom and to get the message. It might be said that somebody would see this, another that, a third something else — the choice is really great. But one thing bothers me and never let me escape: imagine there were no videos — what remains?!

Fortunately there are still artists — adepts of sculptural forms, painting, and graphic art. I feel I sound very old-fashioned indeed, as though I have never read any writings of contemporary art critics, or at least, was so lazy that I never bothered myself to look through the articles published in the Whitney Biennial 2008 catalogue which right now is on my desk. But revenons a nos moutons — to our selected artists, our offerings to Art.

Can one depict contemporaneity using traditional kinds of arts? Or using traditional media and techniques would mean not being contemporary? Or a contemporary artist cannot reach a highest point of self-realisation through a painting or a drawing as such? Of course, one can. But any artist would always strive to something new, crave for the yet unknown and not yet discovered and would prefer his/her own perception against that of somebody else. Nevertheless are we not pushing the contemporary viewer to a perception of nothingness — a kind of effect of the “naked Emperor”, making nakedness blindly accepted as a norm...? I mean something like Olivier Mosset’s two “Untitled” polyurethane sprayed canvases in which the radical idea of “deskilling” has reached its highest point: Any viewer while meditating before these paintings could come to his/her paradox point — why not me? Just take a paint and paint, and probably I could find a nice title to my doings... why not?

As for the videos, I really appreciated two — Javier Tellez’s (a New Yorker from Venezuela) “Letters on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See”. Very long indeed, this film combines documentary and fiction and provokes the viewer to think where the boundary between the normal and the pathological can be set. Something in Tellez’ cinematic approach seemed Fellini-esque — a reminiscence of Fellini’s processions, of circus people and even Fellini’s merciful vision of hope.

The second one was Mika Rottenberg’s (a New-Yorker from Argentina) — her “Cheese, 2007”. In spite a direct allusion to the Sutherland seven sisters with their remedies for long hair and a clear reference to the Brothers Grimm’s “Rapunzel” with her very long beautiful hair, the artist managed to reach a highest degree of the Pre-Raphaelite’s aesthetics with their special attention to women’s hair. The free wavy magic movements of the six women’s heads crowned with thick long hair captures the eye, and you are ready to follow their movements again and again as if participating in a mysterious performance — live hair dances.

My introductory text introduces me as an advocate of traditional art forms or of those contemporary artefacts in which I can trace them. Therefore it is no surprise I liked Rita Ackermann (a Hungarian living in New York) and her bold combinations of everything with everything even if it is “Not Yet Titled”, from 2008. In general in everything she does she remains an artist exposing her ability to paint, to draw, to make collages, to combine materials and messages, to present images that are attractive in their ugly beauty and beautiful ugliness.

Naturally, my searches in aesthetics were completely satisfied by Ellen Harvey (another New Yorker of British origin) and her “Museum of Failure: Collection of Impossible Subjects & Invisible Self-Portraits”, from 2007. Through an opening in a rear-illuminated mirror wall turned by the intricate hand-engravings into the imitation of the salon-style exhibition, one can see the artist’s invisible, spoiled by the camera splash self-portrait in her studio. Ellen Harvey’s non-failure in bringing together the artist and the museum, frames that work and paintings that do not work might be a “transparent” hint on some paintings that hang on museum walls looking worthy of attention only because of their frames.

Joe Bradley (an American living in New York) was another attraction, whose bright monochromatic canvases in different geometrical combinations formed some installations a la Mondrian. Laconic to a minimalistic degree they are constructed to make either animal-like or human-like configurations which co-exist to compose a large scene of a would-be action.

My particular attention was given to Charles Long (who lives in LA). He created his pieces from river junk and I called him to myself “A Catcher in the River”. I believe he was appreciated not only by me. In accordance with his family name he has made his frail sculptures really long, prolonged, ghost-like, having added some fantasmagoric aura to these Giacometti-associated figures. Long’s sculptures made of great blue heron excrements and modeled after these birds reminded me of the poetic lines of a great Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova:

I wish you were aware from what stray matter Springs poetry to prosper without shame,
Like dandelions which the children scatter,
Or pigweed of the lowly name.
An angry shout, the molten tar's hot stinging,
A magic growth of mould upon a wall...
And straightaway the verse is gaily ringing To gladden one and all.

A set of really impressive polished bronze body masks by Sherrie Levine bridges Tanzanian ritual masks with Rene Magritte’s “The Rape” of 1934 and “Representation” of 1937 in a shaped frame (Edinburgh Museum). Another unexpected reminiscence of the great Belgian came from Seth Price with his “Gold Keys” — a surrealistic vision of hands passing the keys turned into that of two birds...

I cannot say that my desire to see “real traditional art” was satisfied by Robert Bechtle’s photo-realist paintings. The eldest of the participating artists did not manage to achieve the degree of the emotional and visual impression to be able to overpass his renowned predecessors.

To cut my story short I concentrated on those things that were appealing to me due to their bold creativity and impressive artistic results. As for the majority of the exhibited artefacts, “therapeutic” projects, video-speculations on gay-porno-art in the pre-AIDS era or reconstructions of world-known fairy-tales I would prefer to make no comments following the advice of Ludwig Wittgenstein formulated in his “Tractatus”: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

In conclusion I would like to mention Bert Rodriguez and his vinyl letterings on the elevator doors saying “The End” — it was the first thing I saw and read in the elevator taking me to up to digest the Whitney Biennial 2008 — a symbolic message and a rather ironic one indeed. But in any end of any process the beginning of something is implied. In contemporary art there are a multitude of beginnings and starting points. What will make the new art of the Future? What will be appreciated by new generations of viewers and connoisseurs of art? 21st century art would be concrete, sensational, emotional, reflecting on everyday life and more and more and more technogene-tronic.

Cardinal changes characteristic of all kinds of arts though different in their tempo tell first and foremost upon contemporary artistic language, facing dramatic changes in all its fundamental elements, such as subject, composition, and stylistic devices. Language as a means of communication in the 21st century has become another language, using non-traditional means to build an image or to bring a number of images together in a certain interaction, to form a message or to reveal or conceal some sense.

Here it should be pointed out that an attentive viewer, taken aback by an exhibit, very often feels at a loss unless he/she reads those explanatory texts of the curators (sometimes provoking the effect of the “naked Emperor”) that have become a kind of an obligatory accessory of contemporary art. In other words, contemporary visual art needs verbalization.

At the same time the language of contemporary radical non traditional literature — this primarily verbal art — rejects synthacsis, struggles against metaphor, eliminates stylistics. Not long ago a new kind of literary work was introduced to the world — a new example of the old-fashioned literary epistolary genre — a novel in letters, written on the part of a Finnish top-manager of the Microsoft division. Its author Hannu Luntiala “wrote” his novel with SMSs only. Those SMSs became a fundamental element in the description of the subject and collisions that are taking place in the novel. Literature seems to have left the literary text, giving place to the letters.

Is contemporary visual art taking the same path? What will become its minimal discrete element — an equivalent to SMSs? What will become a new visional unit to encourage the new art of the Present to become that of the Future? And can the coming national and international biennials offer answers to these questions?

The Editorial Board of the Tretyakov Gallery Magazine express their gratitude to the Press office of the Whitney Museum of American Art for cooperation in the preparation of this article.





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