Bone dry: From Marina Abramovic's Count On Us.Photo: Sean Kelly Gallery

The 2004 Whitney Biennial opens with Liz Craft’s Death Rider, a bronze sculpture of a skeleton riding a big Harley. He’s accompanied by a headless biker chick; his low-slung Hog has a beehive for an engine and a pinecone for a gas tank. Nearby, an Edenic jungle by Yutaka Sone contains some white marble slabs of freeway interchanges in L.A.; they look both ancient and futuristic, techno-altars that invite a timeless sacrifice. After walking into the elevator, which has been modified by Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, you’ll press a button and—instead of being left alone with elevator thoughts—you’ll hear various choirs begin to sing. Or, if you choose to take the stairs, you’ll find yourself among the transparent tubing of Julianne Swartz, through which is piped a sliced-and-diced version of people warbling “Over the Rainbow.”

In short, a typical Biennial introduction. Every two years, Whitney curators fan out through the United States and collect the work of dozens of artists—many of whom are not well known—to fill the museum. The general effect is busy. You are entering a bizarre bazaar in which artists (108 this year) working in many mediums present different and contrasting wares. There are usually lots of little rooms; garbled sounds coming from here and there; a subculture doing what you wouldn’t do; something blinking in the corner of your eye; college words like transgressive on wall labels; a painting or two; and art made of unexpected materials, like chocolate or hair or cornstarch. (The prize this year for unusual materials goes to Mary Kelly, whose ghostly and elegant image Circa 1968 is made from compressed lint she stripped from a clothes dryer.) The Biennials often arouse predictable resentments: The curators picked the wrong artists … They were too radical … They were too safe. The most ambitious Biennial game is called Zeitgeist, in which the curators attempt to capture the spirit of contemporary America or define an important, emerging movement in art. That game inevitably invites argument, because your Zeitgeist is never my Zeitgeist.

The 2004 version, while true to the essential Biennial form, is the least angry and raucous in many years. The three organizing curators—Chrissie Iles, Shamim M. Momin, and Debra Singer—did not begin with overarching ideas or themes. Instead, each proposed certain individual artists for inclusion. As a result, the exhibit as a whole is not sharply angled; it has no punchy headline. The Zeitgeist game is played in a mild, almost polite way. In this regard, the most revealing aspect of the show is what’s not there—namely, art that aggressively addresses “subculture” or “gender” or “politics.” A few Biennials ago, the photographer Catherine Opie showed portraits of pierced and tattooed people. In this one, she shows pictures of another subculture—surfers—but at an otherworldly distance. Her surfers are tiny beings floating upon the ocean’s gray immensities, peacefully awaiting a wave. Iles, perhaps anticipating criticism from the more vehement voices in the art world, even begins her catalogue essay with this quote from George Steiner: “Eras of decline resemble each other not only in their vices but also in their strange climate of rhetorical and aesthetic vehemence.”

“The prize for unusual materials goes to Mary Kelly, whose ghostly and elegant Circa 1968 is made from compressed lint she stripped from a clothes dryer.”

If general themes do emerge in this year’s Biennial, they are subtle rather than revelatory. The curators emphasize, for example, the “intergenerational” aspect of their show. This means that older, middle-aged, and younger artists influence one another and work with similar themes and attitudes. No surprise there. Nor is it news that certain artists today create fantastical private worlds, address pop culture, mine history, work with American kitsch, and toy with contemporary technology. And while this Biennial includes more painting than others of the recent past, it’s not enough to kick up any “Return of Painting” argument. Painting appears as just one medium among many, without its own internal story. Is a Biennial with such an approach boring? Not if some of the art is good. The value here lies in certain strong individual works—and in some provocative rhyming between images.

Political art is usually as subtle as a hammer, for example, but Marina Abramovic’s Count On Us and Catherine Sullivan’s Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land transcend the air of obvious complaint that typically diminishes such art. In her multi-screen video installation, Abramovic responds to the torment of Yugoslavia—and the failure of the U.N. to bring relief to the region—by cloaking herself in two skeletons. Her iconography, which includes a black star to symbolize the death of communism, is simple enough. So is her irony: The skeleton conducts the children in the official choir of the United Nations School. What’s arresting is her simultaneous use of close-ups of a boy and a girl. They are usually silent, staring upward like clichés of socialist realism. But each child also comes unexpectedly to life, escaping the murderous ironies—as fools and children can—to sing plaintive folk songs with lines like “Where is that yellow flower that all the forest knows?” Sullivan’s video installation is based upon the play that was being performed when Chechen terrorists burst into a Moscow theater in October 2002. The theatrical artificiality of the actors is as jumpily powerful as that found in Expressionist film of the twenties. It creates a kind of strange visual echo with our own time, as if the past were observing the horrors of the present—or the play were watching the audience.

Critics too often argue that artists “reflect” a society. Instead, many recoil from their environments, emphasizing what’s being overlooked. The body-beautiful obsession in our culture is a particular irritant today, and in contemporary art, the anxiety around the body is inescapable. Countless artists insist upon its decay, weakness, and ungainliness. But the stronger sensibilities do not just make ugly, violent images of the flesh. They work the edges between pleasure and disgust. David Altmejd creates glittering, jewel-hard altars—or tombs, or morgue slabs—upon which Gothic creatures rot and rest. Cecily Brown’s recent paintings recall more than the sexually sugared art of Boucher; the nightmarish winged creatures of Goya also seem about to erupt from the painted flesh. Katy Grannan’s photographs of strangers who want to strip down have something of the frank poignancy—or is it cruel tenderness?—of Diane Arbus.

Certain artists seek to escape or transcend the body altogether. There are two works of blissful meditation in the show: Opie’s series of surfers on the ocean and Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water, which will probably become this Biennial’s crowd-pleaser. One at a time, viewers can open a door into Kusama’s work and walk out into a dark mirrored room, filled with water, in which hundreds of tiny starry lights dangle. The effect of the piece, while astral, is neither remote nor abstract. The water in the room makes the air humid, close, and velvety.

Artists also respond to their culture by trying to transform its junkiness. Kitsch, in particular, has become a cultural challenge, a kind of holy grail for many spiritual scavengers. Who can do the most astonishing thing to fanciful crapola? Who can turn kitsch into a kind of redemptive delirium? In Grow Room, Virgil Marti created a rippled mirror interior imprinted with macramé webs based (no kidding) on the work of spiders that were fed (no kidding again) drugged flies. From the ceiling hangs an example of delirious kitsch, an antler chandelier in Venetian-style glass. Other artists work with those junky no-name, in-between, nowhere spaces found everywhere in America. Mark Handforth’s art, which includes bent signs, warped interiors, and glittery neon, seems fashioned from the environment around a highway. Still others engage in romantic gestures of Internet martyrdom by, for example, attacking the violent games played there. A group called the Velvet-Strike Team makes it possible for you to pop the bad guys with peace signs. Of course, the bad guys will splatter you in return.

Many artists in this Biennial work with history and the nostalgic aura of the old—a postmodern obsession in a society without much memory. Dario Robleto has given ephemera an enduring weight, creating objects with an almost impossibly worn patina. At War With the Entropy of Nature/Ghosts Don’t Always Want to Come Back is a tape cassette created from, among other things, every bone in the human body and glass produced during an atomic test in 1945 when the heat melted sand. The psychedelic sixties and seventies are now decades that are attracting strong interest (you can work with antique kitsch), though people who actually remember those years will find such art rather weak tea. For those who love painting, the most memorable work in the show will probably not be a painting but Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcazar, an astonishing video that shows Velázquez painting Las Meninas. As the master paints, we see the king and queen, the dwarf, the little prince, the burly dog, and the servants wandering about the room. Sometimes, they are talking, but what we hear is like the murmur of voices from another room. The work is uncanny. The characters have stepped out of art into art, our art.