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When Cool Turns Cold

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Mika Rottenberg’s Cheese (2007–2008).  

This kind of caught-napping relish dawned on me in front of Cheney Thompson’s almost-monochromes that are meticulously painted patterns that are themselves hard to identify. It’s a welcome change to be lowered into the trapdoors of perception this way. Those doors crack open as well in Jedediah Caesar’s Larry Bell–meets–Donald Judd–meets–Lynda Benglis block of iridescent Styrofoam—another work with an unpredictable surface and hard-to-determine reasoning.

That kind of engaging strangeness is at work in the best films and videos on view. It becomes tragic in Omer Fast’s outstanding dual-screened projection of an American solider recounting stories of dating a German girl and his accidental killing of an Iraqi civilian. We see the relationship and the shooting reenacted on separate screens, blending together. A death has rarely seemed more pointless; the end of empire, so sad. This sadness turns outlaw in Natalia Almada’s Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side), a stunning 66-minute work documenting the Mexican music known as corrido, a style that has gone from telling stories of troubadours to recounting tales of drug-runners and “coyotes”; as one musician bitterly sings, “I didn’t cross the border; the border crossed me.” A subtler rupture permeates Amie Siegel’s excellent exploration of the former East Germany.

The three most effective films in the show are the craziest. In them you sense humanity tugging on the bit, mired in uncontrolled emotions. These are Coco Fusco’s indoctrination into the interrogation techniques of the U.S. military; Olaf Breuning’s treatise on hapless American ecotourism; and Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn’s wild woman walking around L.A. with Viking horns on her head and a hunk of fake cheese under her arm.

The best chance viewers have of escaping the art-school gravity is to see the show in reverse. Start by visiting the performances and installations at the glorious Armory on Park Avenue. And go at night (the place is pretty empty during the day). It’s possible that the looser and more experimental atmosphere, the hanging out, the free tequila, and the amazing architecture will give your experience a boost. So far, among others, I’ve seen outstanding performances by the legendary “loser” Michael Smith in which he dressed in a baby diaper and interacted with audience members, Gang Gang Dance playing a twenty-minute set of tribalistic trance music from behind a huge mirror, and, best of all, Marina Rosenfeld’s Teenage Lontano, in which she had 40 teenagers from New York public schools stand in a long line as they sang the vocal section of György Ligeti’s 1967 Lontano, a piece of modernist music from the 2001: A Space Odyssey era. Watching this piece, I felt the opening of a portal between a failed utopian past and the possibility that the more real present is already something to love. I was transported.

This show comes at a restless, discontented moment. Institutional critique has become an institutional style, and the socioartistic movement known as “relational aesthetics”—that is, art that’s all about your own relationship to being in public with it—has gone mainstream. Most in the art world want more than that. They’re longing for art to be more than just a commodity or a comment on art history. They yearn for a less quantifiable, more vulnerable essence, perhaps what Lawrence Weiner called, “the eternal little surprise of Well, is it art?” I still have faith in Momin and Huldisch, but while some of the art in their biennial has this essence, much of it simply looks like what art looks like these days.

The Whitney Biennial
The Whitney Museum of American Art.
Through June 1.

E-mail: jerry_saltz@newyorkmag.com.


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