Jan VAN WOENSEL
Probably the best thing about the Whitney Biennial is its website with countless hyperlinks to video interviews and other behind the scenes kind of information. The video on the Swiss but in New York based Olaf Breuning, shows the charming, stress-free artist in his SoHo studio. He talks about this and that, he works a little on such and such piece, and he shows us a picture of his wife. He concludes that making art brings him happiness and it makes his life better. Heart warming, calm and whimsical as it all may seem, two other Biennial artists weren’t as positive minded and relaxed about the whole show. Consequently, the Biennial team neglected to post a video interview with them on their website. Ain’t that interesting!
Much ado about something, but; what?
I had the privilege to meet in person artists Carol Bove and Corey McCorkle at a Whitney Biennial mini symposium organized by the department of Art and Art Professions of New York University. McCorkle and Bove talked almost exclusively about the specs of their artworks: the dimensions, the weight, the production price, the materials, the transportation, the museums’ freight elevator, the labor, and so on. However, occasionally, they critically commented on the rather impersonal organization of the Biennial, the lack of presence and engagement of the curators, the financial restrictions, and how they couldn’t get in at the VIP opening and thus decided to go for some drinks at a nearby bar instead. When I asked them what the concept of this exhibition is, they couldn’t give an answer, they haven’t read the essay of the curators yet. When I asked them why they want to be part of this Biennial, they couldn’t give an answer, it’s probably just cool to be part of such an important, although local event. The Whitney Biennial is nothing more than an institutional survey of today’s hottest North-American contemporary art. Not much concept, no critique, only display, sensation and awesomeness. Why is the artist of today okay with that? Carol Bove and Corey McCorkle don’t know.
Seventh Regiment Armory
Apart from the funky mayhem internal to the 2008 Whitney Biennial, which would be an interesting subject for further investigation, the exhibition does include some excellent artwork. To some of the most critical Biennial goers, it might not make much sense to have included internationally established rock-stars such as John Baldessari, Patrick Hill, Sherrie Levine, Jason Rhoades or Seth Price. It’s commonly known and recognized that these artists are still hot in and outside of the United States. However, the exhibition also includes some rather interesting, maybe unexpected figures such as Gang Gang Dance, Spike Lee, DJ Olive, Kembra Pfahler/the voluptuous horror of Karen Black, and Mika Tajima/New Humans. For the first two weeks only, the Biennial expanded its display to the impressive Seventh Regiment Armory, a fortress-like building located on Park Avenue that was constructed in 1877. Here, performances and video programs were organized as a counterpart to the Whitney Museum site. Coincidentally, the newly created pieces by NYU’s symposium participants Carol Bove and Corey McCorkle are among the more interesting works of the Biennial.
For his video titled March, McCorkle takes the drills of The Knickerbocker Greys, a non-discriminatory, leadership-developing corps of spirited boys and girls ages six through sixteen, as a point of departure. The main focus of their weekly meetings at the Park Avenue Armory is to learn traditional armed forces marching and drill routines. Greys learn discipline and the habits of orderliness, and from that they develop leadership capabilities or how to motivate others, deal with subordinates firmly but respectfully and command a group of peers. These elements of leadership will help them in all areas of their school lives and with their jobs and families later in life. Corey McCorkle’s unsensational and slow video swiftly maneuvers through the Armory building and unpretentiously observes the drills of the all dressed up Greys. Although much shorter and probably less mysterious, somehow, the video reminds me of Mark Wallinger’s magnificent three hours long video Sleeper in which a man dressed in a bear costume sits, sleeps, paces, and endlessly waits in an empty office like hall. McCorkle’s March has a similar interesting out of the worldness. His video has a peculiar spontaneity and a well-balanced way of observing both the odd activities of The Knickerbocker Greys and the majestic building they meet in.
The Night Sky Over New York, October 21, 2007, 9 p.m.
Formally very different but with a same quietness as McCorkle’s video work is Carol Bove’s sculptural installation titled The Night Sky Over New York, October 21, 2007, 9 p.m. She calls it a sculpture garden; a spatial combination of large installations, small, framed prints on walls, photographs, and a trapezium shaped window. Her combinatory practice turns it into a small exhibition within the exhibition; an introspective space where historical and formal references intermingle and, sometimes successfully, slow down the fast pace of the saturated exhibition goers. In an article, art critic Hans Michaud criticizes the unfortunate environment wherein this fine artwork is situated: the Whitney Museum. Bove, however, created this piece especially for “the interesting and just beautiful architectural characteristics of this museum.” Her decision to install an a-typical shaped window, cut from the museum wall, not only allows the rapid changing natural light to illuminate the work. It also brings the real New York City life of nervously honking yellow cabs, traffic jams and impatiently commuting 9 to 5’ers into the staged realm of the elitist Biennial. I suddenly don’t know where I’d rather be: at the Whitney, irritatingly jam-packed with unhappy looking arty people, or outside, in the vast, still cold and windy city jungle. Like me, Carol Bove lives across the East River, in Brooklyn, where you can actually see the night sky over New York. I’ve spent exactly 4 hours and 35 minutes at the Whitney Museum. It’s time to go.
Whitney Biennial 2008
March 6th – June 1st, 2008
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
Jan Van Woensel is an independent curator, art critic and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the curatorial advisor of Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer and curator of Studio Philippe Vandenberg. Van Woensel is professor at CCA, dept of Curatorial Practice in San Francisco; Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles; and NYU, dept of Art and Art Professions in New York. Office Jan Van Woensel, a team of assistant curators supervised by Van Woensel, works with international clients such as private collectors, art galleries and artists on exhibitions. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org http://icpabackstage.blogspot.com
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