Sorry, we didn't mean to offend

by Maia Damianovic

A desire for more personal and intimate access to the viewer seems to permeate the current Whitney Biennial, although the success of this undertaking remains dubious. For the most part this exhibition does not allow for any real intensity, psychological, or otherwise and only a few artists were able to break through into exciting territory. Few works are aggressive, or outrageous, or provocative,and most are somehow complacently half-asleep. But, this year's Whitney is no sleeping monster — I wish it were. The themes that emerge could be encapsulated by a new set of trendy critical precepts: let's be personal, let's be sensitive, let's develop an intimate dialogue, let's communicate and interact. In themselves, these represent quite admirable possibilities, but what we are presented with here is a multitude of artful, but unfortunately not very innovative or exiting works that seem to be either trying to play it safe or simply have nowhere to go.

The photographic works presented here set the mood, and expose much that is problematic about this exhibition. They all seem to try to orchestrate a subtle dialogue between different registers of voices: for instance, by featuring the public voice of the artist, while at the same time trying to offer access to a more private subjectivity. Wendy Ewald quite evidently exploits this modus operandi when she intimates an inner voice within the creative voice in titles such as Dalida Reyes, My First Communion Dress Hanging on the Wall or Denise Dixon, I am the Girl With the Snake Around Her Neck. Although the metaphorical fusion of different voices remains an interesting possibility, Ewald does so only in her titles, and the somewhat marginal, folklorist and Third World themes she prefers are by now a somewhat hackneyed mannerism and run the danger of be- coming a tired example of "cultural appreciation" politics. John Schabel seems to be searching for some hidden moment of intimate contact in his grainy portraits of passengers isolated within the frames of aeroplane windows. Similarly, Philip-Lorca diCorcia suggests a kind of individual and collective troubled visage in his color prints of relentlessly moving and presumably depersonalized urban crowds. Sharon Lockhart's C-prints not only depict quiet and fleeting moments, but also seem to be inspired by a similar form of emotional malaise or existential melancholia that gives the impression of being lifted from a Godard movie. All of these photographs, however, remain rather innocuous and display what has become a conventional aesthetic clichι. They offer little humor and assiduously avoid any awkwardness or peculiarity that might enable them to escape from their aesthetic confines. The ideas they uphold have become mainstream by now and their approach is all too illustrative. Only Doug- las Blau and Zoe Leonard bring in more imaginative narrative scenarios. Leonard scripts together a photographic collection that ranges from the casual, family snap-shot to what appears to be publicity and documentary photos, in order to depict the biography of an enigmatic character named Fae Richards. Leonard's archival process obliquely intertwines reality and fiction and in the end leaves us in a state of curious irresolution. On the other hand, Gabriel Orozco's undeniably handsome photographs depicting quiet and simple moments: a leaking hose or a dog's wagging tail leaving an imprint in the ground, struggle to convey an extra aesthetic and highly sensitive perceptual experience, but do they convey sentience or just represent its idealized presence? Although some of the Orozco photographs can be quite touching, the obvious machinery of communication involved in most of these creative strategies is disenchanting. Their formalized (re)presentation does little to fulfill the essential requirement of art to temporarily suspend disbelief, and does little to disturb our ingrained idea of an artwork neatly framed by the twentieth century institutions of the Museum and gallery exhibition space. This is a problem that also applies to all of the paintings in the show — they simply don't fit here.

As part of a new critical recipe, the biennial seems to want to emphasize intimacy, subjectivity, the personal touch, and a community of sensitive correspondences between artwork — artist — viewer, what Julia Kristeva a few years back labeled "inter-subjectivity". But, this also encapsulates the problem of this exhibition. We all agree that these are significant and worthy issues, but much of the work seems stilted, tightly framed in its own aesthetic and conceptual formalization as well as in the institutional framework of the Museum in a way that allows for little access into novel or interesting experiences that would enlarge its domain or expand the viewer's perception. Glen Seator's rather outrageous transformation of, interestingly enough, the Whitney Museum Director's office into a huge cube precariously and fantastically balanced on one of its corners at first seems to be a rare exception. Its raw visual appeal seems spectacular and fascinating, but the representation of instability is too clear and in line with his previous trademark architectural make-overs, suggesting that this is simply a benign and playful deconstruction of space, lacking in political punch.

Despite the apparent desire of the curators to expand form into a sentient dimension, much of what is displayed remains obdurately and stiffly formal. Bryan Crockett's Ignis fatuus is outright frustrating, by disingenuously promising more than it delivers. At first glance this huge, blubbery concoction of dangling forms made of epoxy resin, balloons and cord, seems to entice us into playful interaction. But, this is no squishy toy. This is a very virtual "organic" thing — carried to a very artful resolution. Nothing will disappear or transform by the end of the show, nor is any interactive interference intended, whether on the basis of some organic internal mechanism from within or externally from the public. It won't rot, it won't change. Ignis fatuus remains firm in its positions, tightly framed, preserved, institutionalized. Sentience, the personal touch, the concepts of smallness and modesty, seem to have been underlying curatorial preoccupations and come up in a number of works, but are unfortunately too often reduced to a rather disappointing "touchy-feely" quality. Antonio Martorell's slightly nostalgic drawings and lacy cotton works based on old maps allow a more generous merger of form and content, but the ones exhibited here flirt a little too openly with prevailing tenets of correctness. The two lacy objects are fabricated by local Puerto Rican Borinquen embroiderers, bringing in the idea of an extended, more collaborative art production into play, while their delicate handicraft suggests a kind of "get in touch with your feminine side" aesthetic. Although attractive and perhaps alluding to the passage of time, the crackling waxiness of the drawing surface in Unlaced Atlas / Mundillo Desencajado (The Caribbean) all too easily underscores a somatic metaphor.

Louise Bourgeois, Gabriel Orozco and Cecilia Vicuna are more effective in the area of sentient communication, although here they also reflect the crisis of formal presentation that is assuming ever greater critical attention. Displayed on low lying pedestals almost at floor level, Vicuna's delicate and rather gauche pieces are nonetheless formalized through their presentation. Clearly, in Vicuna's case, the curators were sensitive to this problem of presentation that has plagued Modernist practice and theory and already keenly noted by Brancusi. Bourgeois' very personal pieces also seem strangely stilted. They give the impression of being artfully embalmed in their glass vitrines, as — in a way — are Gabriel Orozco's small objects on their pedestal cum. table display case. Flexibly positioned between different formal possibilities and concepts, Orozco's art is usually quite exciting and often hints at some future horizon of creative possibilities. But, this table collection of small individual pieces along with miniature models and details of earlier works denigrates them to the level of little souvenirs and nothing more. Orozco, Bourgeois and Vicuna's work begs to ask, how can one find an exit from the rigid enclosure of aesthetic formulation and break into a less inhibiting sphere. Of course, standard museum policy, financial and insurance concerns, as well as the protection of the pieces are all arguments in favor of Bourgeois, but Orozco and Vicuna seem less dependent on these exigencies. In the context of this exhibition these artists reveal a central crisis of the late Modernist exhibition context, especially its unhealthy ability to pacify rather than to activate art. Ironically, at its most poignant, the Biennial undermines the prestige of the museum context, that souvenir of Modernism, with its hierarchical structures and archival impulses and tendency to frame and formalize.

By the time I got to Diana Thater's video installation Electric Mind, I was eager for something visually more engaging. Filmed during a behavioral training session with a chimpanzee, Thater's quasi- political images projected against the exhibition space walls shift positions and play with changes of scale and distance to quite smartly attract our attention. I only hope that the shifting "points of view" and the very theatrical integration of the viewer's shadow within the installation were not deliberate attempts to establish some sort of existential implication of collective complicity. Although it only succeeds in momentarily absorbing us, at its best the installation is quite canny — it entraps more than it embraces. Yet, even this potentially intense psychological situation is diluted, through its artful shadow play. Tony Oursler's elegant installation is also dependent on technical hardware. By now frozen and formalized by their very success, Oursler's works have become to epitomize pathos in art: but isn't the droning of the audio tape (I hate you, you hate me) just a shade too simplistic? Despite its attractive potential, the one — liner monotony of Oursler's design concept increasingly compromises intimacy.

By contrast, the Bruce Nauman audio-visual installa- tion is sensitive, captivating and sexy. Visually striking, accompanied by haunting music, it invites us into an embrace we don't want to relinquish easily. It creates access to a perceptive moment, not some artful cineastic fabrication. Like Nauman, Charles Long attempts to expand communication into a broader perceptive model. Long's Amorphous Body Study Center, a Sci-Fi lounge, complete with bar stools, headphones and water cooler, suggests a quasi-functional aspect and proposes a somewhat more enclosed communication in the sense that it seems in some strange way ordered or programmed. Frivolously, and with acuity, Long manages to extend a normal phenomenon into something a little more alien and unchartered. Jennifer Pastor's unashamedly visual objects from the series titled The Four Seasons are equally appealing. In all four pieces exhibited, the artist shows a sensitive sense of scale. Everything is slightly off, from the oversized colorful cornflower to the shelf of miniature ever- greens with their allusion to kitschy Christmas window displays. Although it's simple, Pastor's work floats before us like a breath of unpretentious fresh air. It lets us imagine and dream on our own.

The Chris Burden installation, ridiculously titled Pizza City, 1991/96 is one of the more provocative exhibitions. This elaborate stage-set of toys and model buildings mounted on 25 tables is at once visually appealing as it appears inviting. What interested me most about this installation was its naughty depreciation of the whole concept of a Museum show. The artist must have known of the difficulties such an intricate and seductive installa- tion, that naturally calls us to play, would provoke within the inherently authoritarian and claustrophobic context of a museum. It is carefully guarded and the circulation of viewers constantly monitored, so that we can't really come in and play in its garden of innocent delights. Hence, it enacts a number of contradictions. There is nothing harmless and innocent about this conceptual tour de force. Like all vintage Burden works, it is insidious, aggressive and ingeniously disingenuous. What a world of difference lies between the complexities of Burden and Jason Rhoades' very one-sided installation! Rhoades' mixed media extravaganza, a seemingly chaotic scattering of various things and objects occupies a whole room and is also very much about control, authority and access between artist, artwork and viewer. But, in Rhoades' rec- room, fun, play and chaos are structured by the artist, and solely for the benefit of, the artist. As in- stalled here at the Whitney, Uno Momento / theater in my dick / a look to the physical / ephemeral, makes a very forced, artificial impression. The circulation pattern for the public is strictly delineated, the borders between artwork and viewer are too obviously regimented and only synthetically scatter our gaze. In an interesting way, Rhoades' project is rather sophist, it is deceptively playful.

The best works in the Biennial exhibition search for a communication that can go beyond apparent artfulness and involve the viewer in expressive situations on their own terms. A good example is Ilya Kabakov's mixed media installation Treatment With Memories, 1997. At first it seemed quite didactic, but one is quickly diverted to a different set of concerns. The artist interfaces art and a real life clinical situation practiced at hospital wards for the elderly in Russia to invigorate memory function. The viewer will either go for it or not, which is a matter of taste and choice, but will very likely also become more actively invoked by this distinct situation. Such work is able to splinter our consciousness of what art is, to capture the eye and the mind, and move us from one moment of perception to another and beyond. If nothing else, this Biennial discloses the pivotal problem of crea- tive communication at the end of Modernism, that translates into the necessity of finding new methods and structures that will forcefully convey expression. For the most part, however, this Biennial lacked fine nuances, resulting in an overall feeling of ennui that in the final analysis reflects an all too summary and middle-of-the-road approach to art. In their zeal to be sensitive, the curators seem to have misplaced the prerogative of provocation. It is sometimes better to be outrageous.

Copyright ©1997 Maia Damianovic & REVIEW All Rights Reserved