The Biennial Question

Biennial curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne.Photo: Mark Heithoff

The Whitney Museum of American Art can never rest. No sooner does it complete one Biennial than it must begin planning another. The museum has become the art world’s Sisyphus, constantly pushing its heavy institutional rock up the hill. People new to New York naturally look forward to the spectacle—this year, it opens on March 2—but people older than 30 who have seen many Biennials suffer from a certain ennui at the prospect of yet another huff-and-puff. The predictable attacks. The predictable defenses. The predictable yawns. The great gaseous clouds of pretentious statement-making. It may be time to change the game—to bust out.

The show began in 1918 as the Annual designed to provide attention and encouragement to neglected American artists when European art was all that mattered. (It became a biennial briefly in the thirties, then went annual again until 1973.) In the early days, Americans were damned as “provincial.” In the fifties, however, American art finally lost its peripheral status. Instead of shining a light in a forgotten corner, the exhibit became a beacon. What fresh look was America giving to the world?

That perspective did not, in turn, last very long. Since the seventies, the show has increasingly emphasized work that challenges mainstream values. Elizabeth Sussman’s 1993 Biennial set the shock standard. (Visitors to that show received a button, created by Daniel Martinez, that said I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE.) After that show, outrage itself developed into a convention. More important, the situation of art once more began to change. To enclose art within national boundaries, as the Whitney was doing, suddenly seemed—history is full of wry jokes—provincial.

Back to square one? Provincial yet again? The Biennial embodies the Whitney’s eternal identity crisis. The museum cannot abandon its American focus, but today there’s every reason to emphasize global rather than national perspectives. (Besides, art fairs churn out surveys constantly.) What’s the Whitney to do with the Biennial? Its predicament is serious but also funny. I can imagine how the planning session might have gone for the “Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night.”

Director: Well, it’s that time …
Old Curator: It’s always that goddamn time.
Director: Any ideas?
(More silence).
Old Curator: I forget what we actually did last time. Was it vomit, body parts, and chocolate?
Director: That was years ago.
Young Curator: Would it be wrong to suggest that controversy is useful? Our audience welcomes being challenged.
Director: We could emphasize painting—
Old Curator: You can only do “The Return of Painting” shtick once a generation.
Young Curator: It seems to me that America’s becoming a land of shadowy definitions, of complicated relationships between the authentic and the ersatz. Some people here are arguing for a show organized around “The American Simulacrum.”
Old Curator: Isn’t “simulacrum” a sleeping pill?
Young Curator: And your idea is?
Old Curator: I’m too old for ideas. I just like pictures.
Director: Where’s the margin today? What are we excited about that we can’t admit?
Old Curator: Okay, come on. There’s no boo left in taboo.
Young Curator: Are you drunk?
Old Curator: I wish. Could we make the Biennial a quadrennial?
Director: For 2006, perhaps we should try a theme. What’s happening in America?
Young Curator: Let’s give the entire building to a collective from Los Angeles. They could call it “Fortress America.”
Director: Or break down the walls of the fortress … America’s relationship to the rest of the world, with expat art, immigrant art, art that isn’t specifically American or not American. Now that would be—
Old Curator: We can become the Whitney Museum of Mostly American Art.

And thus it is. For the 2006 Biennial, the Whitney has hired two curators who aren’t Americans—Chrissie Iles, an Englishwoman who works at the museum, and Philippe Vergne, a Frenchman from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—to pull a new American rabbit from the old hat. Like earlier curators, they went on the road, visiting hundreds of studios, but they’ve also included artists with only vague links to America, like Dorothy Iannone, a 73-year-old expat who lives in Berlin. And for the first time in Biennial history, they’ve given the show a title, “Day for Night.” They’re trying to turn the Biennial into an angled interpretation of America today, in other words, rather than a sprawling survey.

“Day for Night” evokes François Truffaut’s celebrated 1973 film, which is about darkness and light, illusion and reality, and, not least, the process of making movies. It’s a movie concerned with the shadowy business of creating an identity, also an important theme of this Biennial. (Its French title, La Nuit Américaine, refers to the filter than can make day look like night.) In short, just as the Whitney is struggling to find its own American identity, many artists in this particular show are playing with the edgy and unstable forms of the American character.

Two artists in the show have created fictional personae. Several have banded into collectives or groups—one is called Bernadette Corporation—that simultaneously attack the idea of the artist as a romantic solitary and subvert monolithic social identities, such as those associated with brand names or racial stereotypes. “Day for Night” even includes a fictional art-star named Reena Spaulings, who’s been pieced together by a group. Is a famous artist, nowadays, just a windup doll? To be an American artist today is to be intensely conscious of the tricks, stratagems, and showbiz of contemporary art. This hall of cracked mirrors itself reflects a culture that makes a fiction of reality programming.

Not surprisingly, in an era of uncertain identities, the half-seen becomes particularly powerful. Iles and Vergne hope to create a show that, Iles says, is also “preoccupied with the irrational, the religious, the dark, the erotic, and the violent, filtered through a sense of flawed beauty.” Vergne describes a “twilight zone” in which artists work between day and night and “between the history of forms and the forms of history.” Phrases like “lavish abandon” and “shock and awe” are being bandied about. There will be plenty of political art on view, much of it about the war in Iraq. Of course, political art is rarely subtle, confused, or shadowy about issues of identity; artists almost invariably have very clear ideas about identifying good guys and bad guys. But the great smoke clouds of secrecy and the vulgar politicizing of the war do contribute to the sensation that, in America, the truth lies behind a vast scrim.

I like twilight zones, flawed beauty, and the dark side. And meditations upon identity, already popular in ancient Greece, never go out of style. But what’s heartening about this Biennial (whatever its success as an exhibit) is the sight of curators trying to clarify the moment rather than just passively presenting what’s happening. The challenge today is not, as it has been in the past, to get an audience for art. It is not to attack or not to attack. The challenge is to make distinctions of value and extract what matters from the rotten, and growing, clot of art-information—that is, to do exactly what sloppy surveys and art fairs do not. Curators should try to find the important shapes and essential lights in our evolving culture. They should even declare what’s good and bad. It doesn’t matter much, in the end, if they’re right. History comes to its own conclusions. But the effort to make judgments of value is bracing to the present.

To develop a vital new character, the Whitney must give up part of its traditional identity, its narrow focus upon the homegrown. With boundaries in art eroding, the Whitney actually has little choice; it will otherwise subside into a fuddy-duddy museum that isolates what cannot be isolated. It’s lucky that America itself is not a place of fixed identities. It’s a place of immigrants, a mongrel nation; that’s its glory. Perhaps the Whitney can embody the American idea at its most expansive. An anxious institution uncertain of its place may even, paradoxically, be in a good position to hold a mirror to America itself. At a gathering of past and present Biennial curators staged by Artforum, someone suggested a Biennial called “Post-America.” Iles herself thought it was no big deal to have European curators organize an American show, since this country has so many connections to other Western nations. But imagine, she said, if a Chinese curator organized a Biennial! Imagine if an artist did one! Klaus Kertess, who organize the 1995 Biennial, observed, “The beauty of the show is its impossibility.” He was striking an old existentialist chord about the human condition. And invoking a traditional American idea: Chase that whale.

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The Biennial Question