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2002 Whitney Biennal

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA

Two disembodied heads, both made from silicone and sharing a cardboard box, are having a conversation. While somewhat halting, it is unmistakably a dialogue, and one with a decidedly existential bent. Never less than maddeningly inconclusive, it is also somehow compelling. The voices of the heads sound inexpressive at first, but gradually come to suggest a melancholic mood not inappropriate to their apparently hopeless position. In If/Then (2001) Ken Feingold applies 'artificial pseudo-intelligence' software technology to the construction of a Beckett-like tableau, the language of which recalls the lost art of computer poetry. Veering from the fundamental to the fundamentally absurd, appearing at times rather clever and at times utterly at sea, Feingold's players might easily stand in for the curators and audience of the Whitney's most recent biennial.

The largest show in the series since 1981, this year's survey included some 113 artists and collectives and was as troublesome as ever; but how could it be otherwise? Lawrence Rinder and his team travelled to 43 towns and cities in the process of researching their selections, knowing all the while that most Americans would still find reason to complain. And sure enough, for every move they have made in a new and potentially exciting direction, there is a trait or tendency in which they have persisted, seemingly in a calculated attempt to annoy. So, for example, we have an overdue and for the most part sympathetic presentation of sound art, but also another superfluous and premature bash at Internet art, still a work in progress by any reasonable standard (and at its least effective in a museum environment). It's hard not to feel a momentary twinge of sympathy for these artists; of course their careers will be enhanced in the long term, but at the cost of their current output being explained away by vacuous wall texts or forced into superficial juxtapositions.

That said, the overarching conceptual structure of the show is at least tolerable. Each of the three main floors of the museum that it occupied was made into one part of a thematic triad - Beings‚ Spaces and Tribes - that was loose enough to avoid being prescriptive and even afforded the occasional nugget of meaning. This biennial was the first to include architecture (a comprehensive presentation by The Rural Studio, a radical training programme based in Hale County, Alabama, being the outstanding display), and it looked more at home than much of the art. Considering the scale of this year's event, most works certainly didn't suffer from lack of space, to the extent that some even felt isolated. At its worst this resulted in a tendency towards 'installationism' - the gratuitous expansion of a work to fill the available space (stand up, José Alvarez) - but at its best it allowed the audience to immerse itself fully in an artist's work without having to indulge a curatorial will to experiment that may or may not add to our appreciation (score one more for Jim Campbell).

However, stuff enough art into one space and connections are bound to occur, the most interesting of which will generally have little or nothing to do with the vision of the institution responsible. A renewed commitment to the handmade and the lo-fi reminded me, this time around, of nothing more than Squat Art. ABC No Rio, a Punk-driven community centre on the Lower East Side, recently staged its own biennial. While not consciously intended either to compliment or to critique, a number of its inclusions would have fitted in rather well alongside the Whitney's. The ramshackle aesthetics of Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen and Hirsch Perlman plainly have their roots in untutored practice. Rinder and Co. have also been boning up on their underground comics; Chris Ware, creator of the masterly Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth (2001) was a smart inclusion, even if his genius is best appreciated in book form (since original drawings for comics have the same distracting aura of memorabilia as cells from cartoons).

It was tough for quieter work to make itself heard amid such a hubbub of competing voices, but when it did so it lingered in the memory. Painter Vija Celmins and quiltmaker Rosie Lee Tompkins may appear incongruous selections among so many younger artists, but the unhurried intensity of their work spoke volumes. Sculptors Evan Holloway and Vincent Fecteau are arguably on their way to a similar achievement, working subtle magic with unpromising materials and impure ideas. By contrast, this year's crop of whizz-bang special effects works, which included the likes of Robert Lazzarini's Payphone (2002) - in which the eponymous street fixture is bent and stretched in digital space before being reintroduced into the physical world - and Tim Hawkinson's Emoter (2002) - a grotesque mechanically animated photo collage of the artist's face - are mostly entertaining one-liners.

It is probably just as well that the selections for the show were made before 11 September. A mountain of work has been made in response to the events of that day, but to assess its quality remains a problematic task. Conor McGrady's terse charcoal vignettes of life in Belfast and Stephen Vitiello's contact microphone recordings of the World Trade Center creaking in the wind (he had a studio on the 91st floor) were the only two hints at impending disaster. As a whole, the 2002 biennial was mercifully optimistic - energetic even where it lacked discipline, and forward-looking despite the conventional nature of its greatest triumphs.

Issue 68

First published in Issue 68

Jun - Aug 2002
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