Whitney Biennial

by Rob Horning

14 May 2006


I didn’t get a whole lot out of the art at this year’s Biennial, but that may be because I was so distracted by the fatuous wall cards purporting to explain the significance of the works to me. Maybe it’s because I always need to tamp down my own proclivity to write hedging, obfuscatory sentences like you find on the cards that I’m so fascinated by them, by the one place in the world where they are considered appropriate rather than absurd. Consider this description of an artist who pickled jars of film and exhbited them in a cabinet: “He took the Structuralist engagement with the apparatus and materiality of the film medium to its conclusion by transforming film into sculpture through cooking, frying or pickling the film.” Of a painter of everyday objects like buckets: “In these paintings Norsten’s cultural anthropology incisively debases its themes while challenging the modes of representation appropriate to them.” One workwas dubbed “a paradoxically staged reality”.  I wish I could quote them all; I was copying nut sentences furiously in my notebook. “Both an expression of rembrance and a gesture of reclamation, Throwback acknowledges the allure of violent protest while suggesting its ultimate ineffectuality.” Of what I thought was the best work in the show, the photographs of Hanna Liden: “It transforms the pointedly sublime tableau of the human subject dwarfed in an immense but romantic landscape into an uncanny apocalyptic vision” These were pictures of topless women outside wearing goat heads or masks. (In general the photographs seemed like the best work; the least pretentious by nature of the medium, perhaps. My taste runs against concept art, which is more typically usurped by its wall card. Sometimes it relies on the wall card for its very existence if the concept’s not inherent in the piece and would be totally lost without an explanation. I’m more affected by bravura displays of craft over ideas, I guess. Tours du force stop me and make me think about what drove them; petulant spats of ideas dashed off in some monumental fashion—a slogan painted on a board in front of a decimated gallery wall, for example—make me want to run, the way I would flee the campus of an art school, where I’d surely be expected to feel uncool.) By far the most pretentious wall card was for Sturtevant, whose concept is to meticulously reproduce the works of other artists: “Despite the formal similarities bewteen Sturtvant’s work and its sources, she maintains that the “brutal truth” of her works is that they are not copies but conceptually ‘authentic’ artworks…. They thus deconstruct the mechanisms of art production and consumption, shifting the emphasis from objects to ideas.” My favorite wall cards, though, were the ones that had to describe works where the artists refused to admit they were “about” anything. “She shifts responsiblilty for an answer from the artist to the viewer.” “Through the elaborate process of demolition the point of the joke is lost.” “Munro relishes the enigmatic and avoids clearly resolving any potential narrative.” “These works create liminal space where narrative resolution is suspended in favor of creative interpretation.” (That reads like a graduate seminar parody.) You wonder why art that is open to interpretation requires an explanatory card saying as much. You’d think the artists would just forbid it, since they are clearly distracting and undermining.

It seems the key to writing wall cards is first to cast everything into verbose abstractions: “The work is suspended from the ceiling thus enabling the viewer to circumnavigate its four-sided form.” A work made of trash demonstrates “a recovery of entropic material.” “Physically sited at the entrance of the exhibition, they blur the boundary between the gallery and the street.” You should always point out how the artist is “blurring” or “challenging” or “questioning” or “reconfiguring” or “transforming” something, but preferably two opposite-sounding things simultaneously. “In Sheeploop Snow investigates spatial dynamics and physical disjuncture.” “She activates a dialogue between presence and absence.” “The awnings also question the mythic status of artistic originality and challenge art’s status of permanence.” “He conjoins these opposing aesthetics of the pragmatic and the whimsical.” In fact you should never use one abstraction or verb when you can link two, preferably with “while” or “both”: “The implicit danger of erotic desire is heightened by the glamour of fashion photography as Minter both questions and celebrates its role in defining sexual display and constructing the self.” “...challenging notions of self-portraiture, the resulting images raise questions about the many devices we use to conceal or transform our own identity.” “He often explores the materiality of film and dissects cinematic appartuses and processes in what he calls ‘thought experiments’ “. “Blakemore’s stolen glimpses are meditations on fragility and transience. Nebulous in appearance and incomplete in narrative, they fleetingly appear and then quietly recede in the past.” “People caught in profound and mundane moments of life are presented in all their poignantly ephemeral luminescence.” (Note the passive voice there, always good for evoking the institutional tone that discourages questioning and attributing responsiblity for what amounts to the writer’s speculation.)

I’m guilty of all these stylistic tics; they constitute the diction that makes one sound important in academic circles. What’s so tempting about the discourse is the way it seems to wrap things up, embalming a living artwork in verbs like “interrogates” and “raises questions” and “problematizes” so that you can move on and put the finishing touches on something else. The discourse obviously has a deep distrust of art’s capability to speak for itself, and in audiences being able to come up with its own sense of a work’s signifcance, even if it wouldn’t be able to articulate it. When you try to supplant art with words, you end up with these abstractions, generalizations and dismissive gestures piling up. You have to assume people want to be able to dismiss the art rather than understand it when you write such sentences, and certainly you feel like you’re doing people a favor explaining what they probably wouldn’t have bothered to deduce from the work in question. My idea for a conceptual art piece? An exhibit that is only wall cards, no works. That will really question and interrogate institutional space and the process by which work is rendered both meaningful and circumscribed in meaningfulness while elaborating the matrix within gallery-goers, artists, historians, and critics conspire and labor to produce concepts themselves.

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