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Life by Design


2010: the Whitney Biennial

Posted by Carren |

Celebrating its 75th iteration, this year’s Whitney Biennial reflects the belt-tightening zeitgeist of the times with their scaled back exhibition. Gone are the overwhelming surveys of American contemporary artists (as in 2006’s edition) and the extra venue to hold them (as in 2008’s edition), what remains could arguably be a classic case of quality over quantity.

Simply called 2010, curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari have put together a minimalist, almost stark survey of American art today exhibited at the first four floors of the museum. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, they’ve also curated a retrospective of sorts culled from past biennials on the fifth floor called Collecting Biennials.

Though loosely themed, common threads eventually appear within the works of the presenting 55 artists—the second smallest Whitney Biennial ever.

America’s constant involvement in warfare is inescapable here as in the daily news. Nina Berman’s photographs document in micro the tragedy of conflict through the story of Marine sergeant Ty Ziegel. Severely disfigured, the series of colored photographs begin with an unhappy marriage photograph with the bride glumly posed off to the side, as if loath to stand close to her new husband. Progressive photographs depict the slow, inexorable deterioration of an already doomed marriage. The viewers gentle torture ends as Ziegel is captured poignantly standing by a bar with a Budweiser sign asking, “Why ask why?”

Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair similarly trains her camera on the victims of another kind of war in Afghanistan. Horrendous burns and shriveled flesh are captured on film as Afghan women from Herat attempt suicide by burning to escape abusive marriages. The women are shown at their most vulnerable lying on a hospital table and their gazes trained at the photographer. Within each frame, there is no hiding the truth of the continuing violence against women.

Art becomes truly American in the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “We Love America and America Loves Us,” a title adapted from Joseph Beuys. This collective of five artists have assembled a memoriam of America it seems. A white Cadillac hearse is parked on the exhibition floor and the windshield acts as a window to American history.

Hollywood clips, newsreels, YouTube pranks and television sitcoms flash one after the other in no discernable order, while cool female voice calmly begins, “We like America. And America likes us. But somehow, something keeps us from getting it together.” The narration eventually evolves to become a Romeo and Juliet story of sorts, as gender pronouns (and lovelorn angst) are introduced to the dialog, “We wished we could have fallen in love with America. She was beautiful, angelic even, but it never made sense. Even rolling around on the wall-to-wall of her parents’ living room with her hair in our teeth, even when our nails trenched the sweat down his back, and meeting his parents, America stayed simple somehow.” The piece was enthralling—and judging from the crowd alongside me, I was not the only one hypnotized.

Other gripping pieces also populate the rest of the exhibition to a smaller scale. David Adamo’s Untitled (Music for Strings IV) whittled canes and wood shavings on the floor, reflects helplessness and futility—a sentiment shared by Americans still in the throes of crisis perhaps?

Roland Flexner’s ink on paper on the other hand depicts the vagaries of chance. Using a Japanese technique of floating ink on water, Flexner uses breath and gravity to release fantasy landscapes from the paper. A limestone cave here, a coral reef there, his pieces are beautiful, lonely Rorschach landscapes of the mind.

Though restrained, the Whitney Biennial has succeeded in its underwhelming promise of embodying a “cross section of contemporary art production rather than a specific theme.” From conceptual to realist, 2010 is a reminder that a lot can be done with only a little.

2010 runs from February 25 to May 30, 2010. For more information, visit The Whitney online.

Photo credit: Carren Jao


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