Built for Comfort

Lost in the supermarket: A still from Doug Aitken's Electric Earth (1999).Photo: courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

The Hans Haacke work called Sanitation – which likens Mayor Giuliani’s attack last fall on the Brooklyn Museum to the Nazi assault upon “degenerate” art – inspired most of the advance buzz for the 2000 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum. In other words, the air of flatulent mediocrity that surrounded the “Sensation” show still lingers in the New York art world. The Haacke work is really nothing more than an ordinary bit of radical political rhetoric that no serious audience should waste time arguing about. But the quarrel is irresistible to both the left and the right because the arguments are so easy to make and create among those in heat such exalted feelings of self-righteousness (fighting for truth, justice, and your American way is more stimulating than discussing art). The actual work consists of a darkened room containing twelve garbage bins. Around a version of Jasper Johns’s Three Flags in which one of the flags is drooping, we see six quotes from Giuliani and right-wing critics of the Brooklyn show emblazoned on the walls in Nazi script. The First Amendment, framed, lies fallen on the floor. The ear picks up the distant sound of jackboots. Get it? Sanitation succeeds in making New York politics seem important and the Holocaust trivial.

The Haacke piece does not represent the larger show. Like the large survey of contemporary art now at P.S.1, this Biennial actually contains little angry political art about fascists, racists, or sexists; nor is there much spiky X-rated material. Six curators from different regions of the country, led by the Whitney’s director, Maxwell L. Anderson, jointly selected the work. (The curators are Michael Auping, Valerie Cassel, Hugh M. Davies, Jane Farver, Andrea Miller-Keller, and Lawrence R. Rinder.) You might guess that a show selected by six different people would appear discordant, reflecting a clash of outlook and taste. Not at all. The work is certainly varied, but compared with other Biennials, this show is strangely uniform in outlook. The installation appears clean and tidy. The wall labels are inviting and cheerful. The best word I can find to describe the 2000 Biennial Exhibition is comfortable.

What creates this impression of ease? It comes from artists working smoothly and fluently – that is, comfortably – with the various conventions that have dominated art in the past two decades. Conventions that are by now old and well understood. Even the political fires in art have dimmed. This results in work that is studied, knowing, self-conscious, mannered, and academic. Little new ground is broken in this exhibit, and few chances are taken. To begin with the painting in the show – well, there is very little painting per se, for it’s taken for granted among many artists that painting as traditionally understood no longer captures our contemporary reality. It’s also taken for granted that an artist must “challenge the conventions of painting.” That, paradoxically, is now the ruling convention in painting. After more than a century of such challenges, however, there is not much authority left to subvert.

As a result, many artists turn to eccentric means and methods in order to create an illusion of originality. Instead of paint, Vik Muniz uses wet chocolate as his medium, with which he makes versions of old masterpieces; he then photographs the results. (Sporting with the old masters is another hoary convention.) Ghada Amer uses thread to create her delicate lines; Al Souza fashions an image from thousands of puzzle pieces. Numerous artists in the past twenty years have tried to take Jackson Pollock one step further. In this show, Chakaia Booker makes a writhing, all-over image from tire rubber. Ingrid Calame traces the stains on city streets, then puts the imagery into a picture on the wall that also spills onto the floor. Some of the most sophisticated painters in the Biennial are involved in elaborate endgames, hermetic researches into the far reaches of picture-making. Richard Tuttle’s arrangements of colored shapes on plywood are a kind of endgame that also looks like a beginning – an exploration of first principles.

Outside painting, the conventions are just as familiar. One could be described as “Aren’t artists wild and crazy? Can you buh-lieve what he/she made?” Most recent Biennials have included a full-size vehicle of some kind, which always arouses the sort of gasp one hears when the elephants appear in Tosca. This time, there’s a delightful 1963 MG, which Kim Dingle has transformed into a pink girlmobile; froufrou lace decorates the hubs. Most recent Biennials have also included the work of eccentric tinkerers, who doodle their art from trinkets and pop effluvia. Sarah Sze presents what the curators liken to a household gone haywire: Spoons, safety pins, little magnifying glasses, plants, and endless bits of junk rise into the air like a Rube Goldberg contraption without the plot. There is less autobiographical art than usual in the show, but what there is looks fairly routine. Often, confessional art actually seems oddly impersonal and bland – almost interchangeable with anyone else’s confessional art – because the eye sees only the common conventions of autobiography that dominate the individual artist. In art, the personal can quickly lose its personality.

No convention is more important today than that of the Dada gesture, in which the artist finds some eccentric, magical, and memorable way to evoke various social truths. The conversation piece of this Biennial is Yukinori Yanagi’s Study for American Art – Three Flags. Taking the same iconic image employed by Haacke, Jasper Johns’s Three Flags, Yanagi has turned it into an image made of sand. For an ant farm. The ant critics burrow into the American icon, bringing it down to earth.

As at P.S.1, much of the work in this Biennial is based on video and the new technologies. The curators have included nine Internet artists in the show. (You can review their sites by going to www.whitney.org.) No doubt extraordinary effects will soon emerge on the Internet, although my own surfing did not turn up much beyond a sort of dabbling, superficial playfulness. (But I liked the one-liner from Mark Amerika’s Grammatron site: “I link therefore I am.”) The show also contains many films and video projects, including some that are presented in the museum’s theater. The worlds of movie-making and the visual arts are obviously mingling. In Fervor, the Iranian émigré Shirin Neshat – who also has an astonishing work called Rapture at P.S.1 – contrasts the veiled, private longing of a couple with a loud and public Islamic gathering. More than most contemporary artists, Neshat has an eye for form. Her use of blacks and whites is at once severe and lush, vividly evocative of the tensions in Islamic society.

It is in the technological sphere that this Biennial often seems least convention-bound. Many artists use technology in a seemingly primitive way, opening paths of meaning apart from the slick razzle-dazzle of pop culture. Krzysztof Wodiczko – a Polish-born artist deeply concerned, as many immigrants are, with the problems of communication – has built an armature of screens and microphones that you can wear; at the sound of your voice, screens (in which you can talk to images of yourself) emerge on either side of your head like the spreading of an awkward angel’s wings. In BimBam, Dara Friedman displays two images, which have the rich graininess of old film, that depict a woman repeatedly opening and slamming a door. The sound of the slam is not in sync with the action, and the images themselves are turned sideways. This establishes a kind of elegant formal distance. Yet the piece also has great emotional force. The viewer waits for the sound of that slam, as one waits for the pain after a lover’s slap.

Doug Aitken has made music videos, so he knows his way around razzle-dazzle. In his large four-room video installation, however, he transcends the platitudes of pop culture. Electric Earth is a beautifully bleak nocturne built around a solitary figure who dances to the discordant tune of the city. The city at night is a great subject of modern culture, of course, the realm of Dostoyevsky, Hopper, and film noir. Aitken advances the subject by looking past the conventions of art and history to what the actual experience of the empty city streets is now like. He seems to recover our lost, in-between spaces – such as a parking lot, for example, with an abandoned supermarket cart. He knows the dead radiance of fluorescent light in an empty store at 3 a.m. He hears the sounds that we hear but do not acknowledge, such as the techno-gagging of a Coke machine rejecting a crumpled dollar bill or the chuck-chuck of a digital gasoline pump. Electric Earth provides that shock of recognition, which is finally the only shock that really matters in art.

Built for Comfort