Whitney Biennial review by Catherine Spencer
Even without attending one of the performances scheduled by the 2012 Whitney Biennial’s roster of artists-in-residence (including Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark), this year’s outing of the New York institution is a theatrical affair. The links between many works – whether sculpture, video, photography or installation – and performance creates an atmosphere of fluidity and flux, resulting in a discursive viewing experience. This labyrinthine quality is enhanced by curators Elizabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders’ decision to mix works by their selected artists across the Whitney’s five floors. Unmooring pieces from their didactic walltexts, their strategy prompts either detective work or joyful release, and makes for some subtly nuanced re-encounters with each artist’s output.
Lutz Bacher’s Selections from the Celestial Handbook (2011), comprised of multiple small black-and-white photographs documenting nebulae, stars and planets, is scattered throughout the exhibition in a broken constellation, invoking the inherent risibility of grand ambitions to map and catalogue. On level three, Bacher’s Pipe Organ (2009-11), an old electric keyboard operated by wooden piano-fingers controlled through a computer programme, provides a constantly modulated soundtrack to the whole floor. The piece riffs on the eerily deathly artifice of performance, while inevitably inflecting the experience of the surrounding works with its filmic, hallucinatory effect.
Sonic overlap is also present on level four, where music from the dedicated performance area intermingles queasily with the sounds of Last Spring: A Prequel (2011) by collaborators Giselle Vienne, Dennis Cooper, Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg. A prototype section from a larger gesamtkunstwerk, this house-of-horrors multimedia installation features the deathly, bone-white animatronic figure of a teenage boy called Charles, locked in traumatised dialogue with a blood-spattered puppet fixed to his hand. While dramatizing the specific possessions and obsessions of puberty, the piece also communicates a wider sense of unease with the schizophrenic structures of supermodernity. Charles stands, hounded and panting, against a wall blossoming with frantic designs of a complex interior space abounding with dead-ends, which the puppet refers to as a ‘labyrinth’ and a ‘hotel’, evoking dystopian post-modern architectural configurations that disorientate, and displace, their occupiers.
The fourth floor is the most explicitly theatrical, also featuring Wu Tsang’s Green Room (2012), in active use by dancers and actors. Merging ‘back’ and ‘front’ stage (a fusion comparably effected by Dawn Kasper’s latest iteration of her Nomad Studio Practice Experiment, which, as the title suggests, entails using her exhibition space at the Whitney as a studio), Tsang’s Green Room contains a video of a performer recounting, in according with orthodox Hollywood mythology, her journey to Los Angeles in search of fame and fortune. It’s at once a celebration, and Lynchian meditation on the illusions and delusions propagated by the entertainment industry.
Away from the manic fourth floor, Tom Thayer’s puppets, assemblages and low-fi animations exude a gentler, whimsical theatricality, exemplified by The Night Will Not Let Go (2012), a small black canvas headed with a line of fragile-looking spotlights crafted lovingly from paper and wire. Nearby lies Sam Lewitt’s immersive Fluid Environment (2012). Plastic squares cover the floor, dotted with small electronic and metal components. Onto these Lewitt pours ferrofluid – a material used in military technology and computing, consisting of magnetic particles suspended in liquid. These gradually agglomerate onto the scattered objects in oil-black, glossy little constructions like biomechanical sea anemones. Presided over by fans that move the particles around, they wave their stubby tentacles in the air, amoebas in a petri dish offered up for scientific analysis – the irony being that ferrofluid can’t normally be detected as it circulates through iphones, laptops, and weapons systems. Kate Levant’s Eyenter (2012) also presents an environment for negotiation. Constructed from hanging panels of scuffed material, with clogged loops of electrical wires and fragments of obsolete-looking technology, Eyenter creates the sensation of an old house, or even a city, splitting at the seams.
The urban, technological, post-industrial environment is the context for several particularly suggestive works. Forming a muted but eloquent counterpoint to the louder fourth floor works are several baleful artefacts, all called Untitled (2012), by sculptor Michael E. Smith. One is made from a Hawaiian shirt, burnt and scrunched into a strange semi-circular shape that clings to an air-duct in the ceiling like an old, ugly moth. Elsewhere, two more of Smith’s sculptures protrude from opposite walls, mirroring each other. Weed trimmers which have been coated in a black, viscous substance suggestive of oil or tar, then covered in rolled oats to create a sclerotic skin-like covering, they constitute an elegant take on urban decay and suburban disillusion, evoking the dark desires and compulsions never far beneath the city fabric.
Photographer Latoya Ruby Frazier documents the post-industrial decline of her hometown Braddock, making a clear link between environment and inhabitants, emphasising the human cost of industrialisation and its aftermath. Four photographs from the Homebody Series (2011) consider the effects of both on her great-grandfather, who worked in Braddock’s steel mills and suffered a series of chronic illnesses in later life, a legacy of his job exacerbated by a lack of medical provision. Wrapped in Gramps’ Blanket shows Frazer draped, wraith-like, in his blanket, her body and face blurring as she moves through the peeling, scrofulous walls of an abandoned room. Frazier fuses Braddock’s shared loss with a very personal grief, transforming the distressed walls and bleak emptiness of her surroundings into political metaphor.
Frazier’s works are perhaps the most politicised, together with Andrea Frazer’s contribution in the form of a wall text and catalogue entry. Frazer’s text (available for download on the Whitney’s website) emphasises the ‘contradiction between what art is socially and economically’ asserting that ‘this contradiction reflects fundamental conflicts that have intensified along with income inequality … art discourse, rather than reveal these conflicts, often serves instead to distance, disown, and conceal them.’ This, arguably, might be the most involuted performance at stake in the Biennial, the ramifications of which will last well beyond the ephemeral and transitory relationships it puts in play for the next few months.