Radical Meek

From Francesco Vezzoli's Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula, 2005.Photo: Mathias Vriens/Courtesy of the Whitney Museum

As part of his installation for the “Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night,” Urs Fischer cut enormous, gaping holes into a gallery wall, raggedly framing other works of art. Viewers tend to creep toward the holes, wondering if they should step into the breach. (They eventually do so, smiling like the boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.) According to the advance word, the Biennial’s European curators, Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, would also break down walls, reframe art, and push into new territory. This Biennial would be the first with a title. Its perspective would be global. It could be revolutionary.

Well … the walls are still standing.

The 2006 Biennial, like other Biennials, is an art browse that will please, bore, titillate, fascinate, and dumbfound viewers. It has more focus than usual—and more foreign inflections—but not to a revolutionary degree. Its stated theme, “Day for Night,” an elegant riff on the title of François Truffaut’s movie, refers to the way filmmakers can shoot night scenes during the day with certain dark filters. The metaphor is so broadly suggestive, however, that it could be applied to almost any art. In fact, this Biennial is conservative at heart—not politically, of course, but artistically. It embodies the well-worn conventions of our time. It has a familiar glare even though some work is by unknown artists. I found little that was truly dusky, dreamy, or what the curators like to call “liminal.”

That’s not intended as a criticism. One of the jobs of a Biennial is to report, much as the Salons once did in Paris, upon what’s fashionable in the studios. Chilly, joyless conceptual art is common now; this Biennial reflects that. It’s the job of a critic, however, to report that this kind of work—naturally presented as fresh by an art world that wants to think well of itself—has become stale. We live in a period of conceptual mannerism, one steeped in academic practice. The ideas of Duchamp, Beuys, and Warhol, exciting in their time, are rarely being challenged or advanced in a significant way. They’re just being diddled with. The same goes for political art, which as now practiced is typically a variant of conceptual art. Consider the Whitney’s reworking of the “Peace Tower,” which artists erected in the streets of Los Angeles in 1966 to protest the Vietnam War. Not only is this one an academic retread, but it’s been placed in the basement courtyard. The museum put the tower in a hole.

Earnest, well-meaning art is usually boring. Self-righteous art is worse. Political art must first be good art; otherwise, the denunciations will interest mainly their proud creator. If a work is essentially a one-liner, for example, it must be a great line. Francesco Vezzoli’s trailer for Caligula succeeds because it’s not preachy but, instead, a scabrously funny send-up of moral corruption. Florian Maier-Aichen takes photographs of sublime American landscapes, then suffuses them with bloodred tones. A simple but memorable idea. In RWBs, Liz Larner creates a tangled mass of red, white, and blue tubing. Here, the message—America is a wreck—becomes too obvious. Perhaps artists should leave the flag shtick alone for a decade or so. Jasper Johns, whose flag paintings from the fifties were indeed liminal, started something that looks like it may never end.

Many contemporary artists regard America as a wasteland. Nothing new in that outlook. They make art with odd materials and bits of cultural flotsam. We’ve seen that for decades. Playing with iconic Hollywood remains popular, as does spoofing consumer culture. Stop the presses? You could argue that, well, the old genre of landscape painting also evolved over centuries and that, in the Biennial, various ideas are developed in new ways. That’s possible, but I don’t see much that escapes the “school of” perspective—as in “school of Warhol.” Certain old hats are worn at a slant. Many artists, for example, play with the idea of artistic celebrity, corruption, and identity; in one instance, a group has invented a fictional artist named Reena Spaulings. But Warhol remains the master of this subject. Too many artists have ideas instead of intuitions. We could use more introverts.

My favorite works at the Biennial did not billboard a message but, instead, had a perplexing quality that does suggest “Day for Night.” Mark Bradford makes large collages out of the conventional detritus, yet his pictures also convey in a startling way the tawdry but twinkling glitter of Los Angeles. Pierre Huyghe’s film about penguins, Antarctica, and Central Park is a surreal dream that I can’t shake out of my head. Cameron Jamie’s film about a bizarre Christmas ritual in rural Austria—costumed men who look like the offspring of Bigfoot and a Wookiee go around mugging ordinary people—is set to heavy-metal music and has a hard-to-figure perspective. It could be funny, it could be monstrous, it could be idiotic, it could be intelligent. Sometimes Rome needs a barbarian.

Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night
Whitney Museum of American Art. Through May 28.

Radical Meek