It’s hard to say if I found the Whitney Biennial a little busy because I saw it Friday evening, or because it was a little busy. I think both. It made me call into question what these people think we are doing at museums and galleries, anyway. What do they think?
Just as the reader’s experience should be in the writer’s sights, the experience of the art-looker should be part of being a curator, right?
There were a lot of cases of piles of stuff, and stuff on paper, and a lot of stuff to read, in the Biennial. While I actually sat and read an entire little booklet on Duchamp and laziness, that was because there were benches provided and I am very much in love with Duchamp. Other cases and piles and work that required a lot of explanatory reading made me think, is this the right time and place? There were quite a few places where there were headphones to listen to someone talking, and I can dip in and out of those, sure. I’m not going to give each one ten minutes. Especially without a chair. An art museum isn’t a library.
If you have a lot for me to read, I would like it in my hands and on paper. If you have something big for me to look at, a painting or something 3-D, an installation, I want it in a gallery, sure. If there’s words for me to listen to, I would prefer a podcast for Sunday afternoon that I can, if needed, fall asleep to. Music I prefer while in transit.
There were several films. They present an especially difficult problem in galleries, as I never feel sure how much time I need to give them. Two or three minutes, okay. Longer than that, again, I think, isn’t this for a movie theater, or online?
Maybe the Biennial is a survey course, maybe it is didactic, and needs many examples, but I still found it cluttered.
On individual pieces:
The elevator had a piece that played elevator music and showed us video of lots of kinds of sunglasses and stuff. Eh. It was hard to know what to do with that, too. Keep riding up and down to see enough?
The fourth floor had quite a few pieces that used fabric, a material I have no interest in unless I get to wear it. But I liked those pieces more than I thought I would. Dona Nelson’s paintings with stitching here and there, like a switchboard. The pieces are hung at an angle to the wall so you can walk back and see the other sides. And hung like a butterfly, two wings half-out.
Amy Sillman’s “Mother” I was crazy about, as a composition, crooked enough to be natural and stark enough to feel taken apart and put back together. Some depth, a little bit of rainbow, just enough fuzziness and just enough messiness to show how deliberate it is.
Gretchen Bender’s “People in Pain” was reconstructed from a 1988 piece that was damaged. It confused me that this piece, and a few others, were actually quite old (by The This Is Now standard I expected). Two other spreads of work were sort of studies or tributes of work by artists who have been dead a while. What is that about? Is this a museum or a museum? MoMA is resolutely a museum, proud and calcified as it may be, I say that with all my deep conservative love of marble and huge buildings that could survive a war. To return: “People in Pain” is a long wall of black vinyl melted and crumpled around the blue alit lettering of movie titles. All these people, stuck in movies? Melted down? Stuck in weak-colored backlit words?
I loved all of Etel Adnan’s paintings, no surprise. They are, happily, brand-spanking new, and good work in my favorite vein, loose abstracts that smell like nature. Paintings that make you know your life is both big and small, and color is still alive, reinventing how it relates to itself.
There were beanbags set in the room where you could see “Leviathan.” I watched a whole lot of “Leviathan” because my feet hurt and the beanbag was so comfy. I think I could have fallen asleep in there if I had tried harder, no fault of the artist but I am a teacher and it is May.
“Leviathan” shows churning water, a storm, lots of darkness, scared and angry seagulls, a ship, all those sea creatures that have been caught, the colors of them, which are palely horrible or red, and the shape and slipperiness of them, all like internal organs to people with their insides on the insides like us. The fishermen are the monsters, cutting the heads off the fish with lots of thin, salty blood, lighting each other’s cigarettes, their eyes, their gloved hands in yellow. It was pretty scary. Then, my feet were very tired. I don’t know why I walked so fast so many blocks except that it was spring and it felt good at the time.
I sat and read “Marcel Duchamp and the Refusal of Work,” which deserves its own discussion, here I will just say, I am working on laziness, but I already made French toast and wrote this piece today. It is not going well.
Travis Jeppensen’s installation caused an old man to say to me: “It is too much…. But it is a way of life.” I love when strangers talk to each other about art in public. I wish that would happen more, and that people would chuckle more when looking at art because so often it is funny. Why did the old man say this? Well, the room was full of rainbow colors, video of war, cheap-looking mannequins, one of whom was touching herself in a very private way, some of whom were sticking their breasts out like they would stick out their tongues. It was all out there, all right. I appreciated that on one wall, there were headphones with recordings of some weird talky shit and glasses that were blacked out so you could listen in the dark, on your own. The dark glasses were my favorite part. There was war and there was sloppy lust, but I preferred my eyes closed.
On the second floor, when I was almost at the finish line and weary, I found five giant pins stuck into the wall, stuck flying saucers or giant hatpins.
In the stairwells, Charlemagne Palestine (I am quite jealous of this name) played his music, spooky stuff, on speakers that were guarded or covered by shabby stuffed animals. If you’re into that kind of thing.
This is the last Biennial to be in the “old” building. I love almost everything “old.” To be honest, that building has grown on me. At first I found it oppressive, but I have come to find it cozy and manageable, so unlike a Major Art Museum or like the gorgeously cool MoMA or New Museum. It has something of the dirt, something of the wilderness, in it. Maybe the new building will be less of a museum, or better suited to what the Whitney wants to do, with more flexibility to show more kinds of art. I’ll miss the old warren, though.