A Visit to the 2012 Whitney Biennial

I recently made my biennial pilgrimage to the Whitney.  If you have any Whitney Cummings jokes to make, please do so now so that we might proceed inside to the exhibit in an orderly fashion.

One of the first things you’ll notice about the 2012 biennial is that the curators have devoted almost all of the fourth floor to a performance space, making the overall show seem much smaller than in years past.  I can only assume this is the result of performance artists and performance curators feeling aggrieved at their perceived marginalization in biennials past.  In any case, the space really eats up the square footage, and from what I could see, appears to be dormant many hours of the day.  When I visited, for example, nothing was going on until, finally, a multi-generational circle of people gathered in sweats and street clothes to do some kind of synchronized calisthenics.  Was it a performance?  Was it a rehearsal?  Was it a YMCA extension course?  Who knows?  One thing is for sure:  If, like me, you go to the biennial for a cram session in the latest painting, sculpture, and installation work, then it's a bit of a letdown to emerge from the elevator, full of art hope, only to encounter an empty gallery covered with black rubber mats.  I felt like a kid at Christmas who rushes downstairs to the tree only to find that 40% of his gifts are tube socks.

This isn't a knock on performance art, especially considering how generous this form is for taking most of the incoming fire from those who still find Van Gogh a little out there.  It's more a complaint about space management.  Perhaps the Whitney should take a page from the Olympics here and divide the biennial into “summer” and “winter” divisions.  That way, those of us who look forward to browsing the exhibit as a type of avant-garde Walmart will have plenty of product on hand to look at,  while those interested in various modes of “performance” can have an entire festival centering on such activities.  And speaking ostensibly as a film/media person, I would be perfectly willing to see the filmmakers and video artists moved over to the winter games as well (then again, perhaps the Whitney's upcoming move to a bigger space will solve all these problems). 

"Last Spring: A Prequel"
In any case, if you are not dissuaded by your confrontation with this immensely negative space, around the corner you will encounter Last Spring: A Prequel (2011), a collaborative installation by Gisele Vienne, Dennis Cooper, Stephen O’Malley, and Peter Rehberg.  As pictured above (and at left), the piece centers on an animatronic adolescent boy wearing a “Chuckie”-like hand puppet (viewed in close-up, we see that the doll has either blood or lipstick smeared on its lips).  Once the piece gets fired up, boy and hand puppet engage in a nicely schizoid dialogue layered over an appropriately creepy soundscape (courtesy O’Mally and Rehberg).  When this piece began, I thought at first Vienne had simply appropriated the soundtrack of a forgotten Eurotrash horror flick, but as their chat progresses, Cooper’s authorial voice enters more explicitly into the proceedings.  

Given its foundation in the basic mechanics of the uncanny, Last Spring: A Prequel can’t help but have an immediate impact.  Beyond the Village of the Damned vibe, there is also an unsettling tension as to just how animatronic this animatronic boy will end up being.  The only problem here, arguably, is the length of the complete sequence.  Once the “gee-whiz” moment of robotic revelation is over, and once the spectator deciphers the schizoid dynamic between a boy and his puppet, the piece continues on for several more minutes, seemingly only to accommodate the lengthy text provided by Cooper.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but after a while, I found it difficult to remain fully attentive to the duo’s tortured mutterings (this may have been a function of the mix or the acoustics of the Whitney—but as I was sitting on the conveniently provided bench and listening fairly closely, I doubt I’m the only person having this trouble. Eventually my mind wandered over to the docent, wondering what it must be like to be trapped hour after hour with Abercrombie and Fidget as they attempted to hypnotize you into committing a murder).  Billed as a “prequel,” the piece will no doubt make more sense once integrated into a forthcoming larger project  “designed as a labyrinthine hotel, featuring a series of grotesque horrors and a teenage boy trying, and failing, to escape his own mind.”  Given that I could still use that description as my own bio, I would definitely stand in line for that one.  

Also notable is a multimedia installation by Werner Herzog, famed director turned intellectual America’s favorite curmudgeon (his voice work on The Simpsons was a true highlight last season--well worth the Hulu time). Measured in column inches, Herzog's "Hearsay of the Soul" is probably getting the most attention at this year's biennial, for the most part positive (although Art Fag City wants everyone to calm down a bit).

"Hearsay of the Soul"
Herzog’s contribution honors the landscapes of the 17th-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers, who Herzog advances here as the “father of modernity in art.”  That’s above my pay grade to have an opinion on—but there’s little doubt that Herzog’s piece is looking backward in an interesting and even progressively reactionary way.  It’s a very basic set-up: slides of Segers’ landscapes project on five screens accompanied by three extended pieces of music.  The musical centerpiece is a duo for organ and cello performed by Dutch cellist and composer Ernest Reijseger (music also heard in Herzog's recent Cave of Forgotten Dreams).   

While the other two pieces of music simply play under the slides, here Herzog devotes two full screens to capturing Reijseger’s intensely expressive performance.  It is fairly basic documentation—Herzog frames Reijseger so that we can appreciate the virtuosity of his technique and the play of emotions on his face.  While it might be a clich√© to say that Herzog “gets out of the way” and simply allows Segers’ images and Reijseger’s performance to amplify each other, that is precisely what happens here (and in an interview before the biennial opening, Herzog steadfastly resisted being called an “artist,” preferring instead the honorific of “soldier.”  Some might accuse him of being disingenuous, but I don't think so.  Hearsay makes no pretensions to being an original or innovative art object, but is instead a more stylized example of Herzog's new emphasis on the documentary format).

Reijseger in performance.
“Hearsay of the Soul” looks backward, not simply by refocusing attention on Segers, but as a kind of threnody for European modernism generally.  What struck me most was its overt nostalgia for virtuosity, technique, and affect as legitimate components in a contemporary aesthetic (again, for Segers and Reijseger, Herzog’s voice isn’t really an issue here).  Reijseger’s playing is so beautiful and heartfelt that it almost makes you uncomfortable, followed by the realization that this awkwardness is a tension produced by the punishing demands of possessing an increasingly brutal form of the  “aesthetic disposition"--as Bourdieu once famously called such acculturation. Trained, as we are, to mirror back the detachment and disinterest performed by so much contemporary art, Herzog’s rather straightforward appreciation for these images and this performance is almost too candid.  After the full half-hour, I left feeling like Herzog had created not so much an "installation" as a very personal mix-tape.

Film folks might also want to check out the program of shorts by California experimentalist Laida Lertxundi.  The Whitney describes her work like this:

The enigmatic cinema of Laida Lertxundi resists easy categorization. Her works could be described as landscape films, set as they are against the backdrop of Southern California’s deserts and mountains, its blue skies and wild shores. These environments are sparsely populated with non-actors, who are sometimes wandering, sometimes still. Sequences are repeated and reframed, calling back to one another; recorded music plays within the world of the film, taking on the character not of a soundtrack but of a field recording. Narratives are hinted at, flirted with, yet never realized. Her films function as both exactingly arranged experiments with the syntax of film language and lovesick daydreams, fragmented and full of longing.

Lertxundi's "Footnotes to a House of Love."
Translating the museum speak here, I would describe Lertxundi's "enigmatic cinema" as another example of the calculated blank minimalism/studied indifference dominating so much recent film and video work (the phrase "resists easy categorization," meanwhile, is art-speak for "I'm not really sure what is going on here exactly, so I'm not going to take a position on it."  Fair enough).  In Lertxundi's films, various young people lie around, not doing much of anything ("sometimes wandering, sometimes still"...yes, I guess that would cover just about any film ever made). Meanwhile, the camera occasionally wanders off and finds an object.  There is a fascination with early sixties pop music. When the Whitney writes "recorded music plays within the world of the film, taking on the character not of a soundtrack but of a field recording," that is their rather complicated way of saying Lertxundi uses a lot of diegetic music in her work. And when they write, "narratives are hinted at, flirted with, yet never realized," that is their way of saying most of the films obey some limited coherence of time, space, and character, suggesting a scenario of some sort, but nothing definitive ever really develops from the situation. 

Bored youngsters hanging out in 'Stranger Than Paradise"
Whether or not the curators wanted to place these films in dialogue with Herzog's unabashed invocation of the sublime, in dialogue they most certainly are.  In fact, seeing the two artists' work side by side left me thinking about the history of this particular style of blank, desultory filmmaking over the past few decades.  There's one "scene" in Lertxundi's program, for example, where a couple of people (one with an accordion) are simply hanging out on a motel bed watching TV.  Cranky old modernist that I am, this made me think of Jim Jarmusch's early studies in dead time and immobility, most notably Stranger than Paradise (1984).  Whereas filmmakers of that era often used this kind of impassive minimalism to invoke a Beckett-like black comedy of our collective cosmic screwing (waiting for Godot or waiting in Cleveland--very similar in the end), contemporary filmmakers seem to have honed this down to a kind of sedate resignation, a way of inhabiting more than representing the world.  The Whitney describes the tone as "lovesick daydreams, fragmented and full of longing," but for many these films will no doubt evoke Baudrillard's sentiments about "nullity" in contemporary art.

Therein lies all the duplicity of contemporary art: asserting nullity, insignificance, meaninglessness, striving for nullity when already null and void. Striving for emptiness when already empty. Claiming superficiality in superficial terms. Nullity, however, is a secret quality that cannot be claimed by just anyone. Insignificance -- real insignificance, the victorious challenge to meaning, the shedding of sense, the art of disappearance of meaning -- is the rare quality of a few exceptional works that never strive for it ("The Conspiracy of Art"). 

Distinguishing the accidentally null from the calculated null from the meta-null from the null sublime remains a major challenge for most critics, armchair or pro.  Where Lertxundi fits into this spectrum, if anywhere, will depend on the spectator, and no doubt there is a generational component at work here also.

Some will find Herzog's piece too earnest; others will find Lertxundi's work too elliptical.  But I did appreciate having them side by side, if only to force myself into thinking about how these two faces of the documentarian impulse continue to figure in contemporary filmmaking.   

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