March 2008, Whitney Biennial

 Carol Bove, The Night Sky Over New York, 2007. Bronze rods, wire, expanded metal, 146 x 192 x 96 in
 (370.8 x 741.7 x 243.9 cm). Collection of the artist, courtesy Whitney Biennial

Some Introductory Comments on The 2008 Whitney Biennial

The Biennial, more than most groupings of art inside of museums and galleries, contains work that rubs elbows with other work, everything bumping up against everything else, plus the museum-goers, adrift in this tight maze, nearly bumping up against each other. The experience begs questions concerning space, the use of space and presentation, and aesthetic issues of placement. Certainly, to be fair, the Whitney has its work cut out for itself and then some. In short: how does one actually fit all this stuff together? And how? These issues came up for me time and again and even with the moving image within a gallery setting I was not content to let it go at that. Why not on the wall, out in the open? And why, for instance, does Daniel Martinez's piece, Divine Violence, work so well being cut off from everything else in a separate room? Of course it needs to be in a separate room, it's an installation. But this misses the larger point: how does the Whitney's layout affect and pre-apprehend anything set up within it in some form of proximity to other works and museum elements (a wall, some elevators, etc.) and why, if something is cut off from the rest of the works, does it stand more on its own? Among all of the pieces on display at this year's Biennial, small handfuls jump out in front of the rest. At the press opening and then days later among the general public, the commentary I was privy to betrayed the fact that, as usual for the Biennial, there were absolutely no clear-cut "winners" in everyone's eyes. There was no general consensus. Each interpretation was radically differentiated from the next, whether it be grumbling (part and parcel of each Biennial) or inspired commentary or (most common) some form of stream-of-consciousness banter. The purpose of this piece is to provide some rudimentary narrative on only three pieces, works, in my opinion, certainly deserving of more column space but constrained by the nature of the beast, the Biennial's gathering and clustering of works across and up and down the span of the museum.

 Gretchen Skogerson, Still from Drive Thru, 2006. High-defintion video, color, sound; 19:40 min
 courtesy Whitney Biennial

One artist I've been keeping my eyes on is Gretchen Skogerson. Her high-definition video piece, Drive Thru, was shown at the 2006 New York Film Festival/Views from the Avant-Garde. It captivated my attention there, and it did the same at the Whitney; however, screening in a gallery museum context alters it, subtly. Though this delineation happens with some moving-image pieces, it doesn't happen nearly as much with Drive Thru. Is it the aesthetic stillness of the images? It is, really, in the end, a series of stills, where nothing or nearly nothing moves within the frame. Neon and fluorescent signs at night, 3am truck stops, convenience stores during the slow hours, overpasses lit with cold-as-February mercury-vapour bulbs well before dawn…these are the "stills" which compose Ms. Skogerson's work. Considering that the history of the art gallery comprises "paintings on a wall", her HD video pieces fall into this historical progression very clearly and cleanly. An HD flat-screen monitor on the wall would not be nearly as effective as a darkened theater, however. Or would it?

 Daniel Joseph Martinez, Divine Violence, 2007 (installation view, The Project, New York). Automotive paint on wood
 panel, dimensions variable, courtesy Whitney Biennial

Daniel Joseph Martinez's installation, Divine Violence, occupies different terrain at the same time. Both an ongoing saga (Martinez claims that the overall project is to name each and every violent political group in the world) and a focused indictment of the modern state (with its accoutrements: murder, coercion and enslavement), the installation is, at first glance, stunning. Upon further lingering and absorption, the effect is the same but contextualized with unexpected emotions like laughter ("We Will Win", "World Punishment Organization" and "Fires of Hell" sound like fantasy assassin cults from a video game). Other responses follow, from awe (why are the placards not only painted metal flake gold but also done with automobile paint?), to profound sadness. I was both impressed and flabbergasted. The fact that the installation resembles a mausoleum may very well point to another world, one in which murderous nation-states and the groups that partake in the blood-stained character of government, democratic or otherwise, have died out and solemnly memorialized. Quite possibly, this piece is a finger, or an arrow, aiming in two different directions. One direction is focus and accusation, and the other direction is the escape-hatch for the rest of us.

For sheer, awe striking beauty, nothing else at the Biennial claims more ground than Carol Bove's The Night Sky Over New York, October 21, 2007, 9 p.m. Culled from bronze rods, wire and expanded metal, I longed desperately to be alone with this piece, in a quiet chasm, perhaps, anywhere but in a museum. I'm sure the effect would be sufficiently amplified. Although the work is composed of a vast number of individual components, there is an almost daunting singularity to it, and it feels very much like the deafening silence one experiences in any desert in the middle of the night when the coyote aren't howling. Truly, the only criticism I have of this piece is its environment in the Whitney. It begs the obvious question: what and where, exactly, would be the "perfect" environment for Ms. Bove's work? I have not yet come up with a satisfying answer.


Hans Michaud

Hans Michaud is a freelance journalist in New York.

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