The 2008 Whitney Biennial

Overall, this Biennial feels much less overtly political, perhaps because it favors the progressive over the reactionary.

poster for Whitney Biennial 2008

Whitney Biennial 2008

at The Whitney Museum of American Art
in the Villages area
This event has ended - (2008-03-06 - 2008-06-01)

In Reviews by Matt Schlecht 2008-04-23 print

[Image: Phoebe Washburn 'While Enhancing a Diminishing Deep Down Thirst, the Juice Broke Loose (the Birth of a Soda Shop)' Installation views 2008 Biennial] Photograph by Sheldan C. CollinsLike any good public marketplace, the Whitney Biennial has always offered up the chance to see and be seen while checking out the latest fashions. It also attracts the disaffected ones – those eager to be unimpressed by their surroundings. Paradoxically, they come to point out that they would rather be elsewhere. They are the critics, and this year’s show is for them.

The 2008 Whitney Biennial has the whiff of an empire going up in smoke. We can’t even blame it on Cai Guo-Qiang, who is farther uptown at the Guggenheim. With so many Big things happening in the world at large, why have our Whitney curators chosen to retreat into “lessness”? Like the recent “Unmonumental” show at the New Museum on the Bowery, the exhibition features a number of works that emphasize the discarded over the refined. Many appear either unfinished or overexposed to the elements. There is a lot of untreated wood in this Biennial.

Stepping off the elevator at the 4th floor gallery, the visitor is greeted with a squat wooden crate opened on one side with the words “Sculptures Involuntaires” in spray paint. This Shannon Ebner work lays down a conceptual signpost, playing with the Surrealist notion of making the ordinary strange and vice versa. Her accompanying piece, STRIKE, uses photos of cinder blocks to build a language of protest. Putting words into concrete action, her process nods to the performative aspect of Allan Kaprow.

Overall, this Biennial feels much less overtly political, perhaps because it favors the progressive over the reactionary. In 2006, the first look most visitors got as they queued outside was of Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Peace Tower, which connected the Iraq War to the Vietnam era. This year the Whitney moat has been converted into a potential nature preserve, complete with informational plaques and guided tours on the kinds of animals that used to inhabit upper Manhattan. In reappropriating public space, Fritz Haeg’s Animal Estates is both a history lesson and a blueprint for a more ecologically friendly future.

The natural world, and the effect of encroaching human development, plays a big role in other artists’ work as well. Modeled on great blue heron excrement and made of urban detritus, Charles Long’s untitled sculptures explore the interstitial space between moment and memory in a gallery that is itself a hallway-like place of transit between two larger spaces. The haunting figures capture the process of decay, and its importance in the creation of new life. They look wonderful.

This emphasis on the environment continues with Phoebe Washburn’s While Enhancing a Diminishing Deep Down Thirst, The Juice Broke Loose (The Birth of a Soda Shop). Known for sprawling installations of recycled materials, Washburn here presents an eco-system based on the imagined creation of Gatorade. A secret shack greenhouse is stockpiled with aquariums and wine fridges full of bright flowers and golf balls. The whole thing is cleverly set next to one of the Whitney’s trapezoid windows, which gives the orange and yellow liquid a natural glow.

As usual, space is at a premium during the Biennial. With noticeably fewer artists represented this year, overcrowding is not quite the problem it has been in the past. The curators’ idea of lessness apparently applies to the number of works on display as well. Still, some works succeed in communicating with each other, while a few are drowned out in the ensuing conversation.

[Image: Walead Beshty 'Travel Picture Sunset' (2006-08) Chromogenic print, 87 x 49 in.]Walead Beshty’s contribution is one of the most successful, remaining coherent and striking amidst the other works. Photos of the abandoned Iraqi embassy in the former East Berlin echo the ruined tableau depicted after being damaged by airport x-rays. Surrounded by the photos, stacks of cracked glass cubes, some still in their cardboard Fed-ex boxes, sit on the floor. Beshty explores the fragility of the creative process and its relationship to commerce.

Other standouts include Matt Mullican, who approaches a private language through the use of hypnosis. The shodo-like scrawls, which his alter ego creates on pillowcases, conform to a kind of dream logic. Employing repetition and pop references, the artist addresses truth and beauty – subjects he claims not to concern himself with in his conscious work. Heather Rowe evokes Gordon Matta-Clark with an installation made of wood and mirrors that continuously shifts perspective from inner to outer, public to private.

Eschewing bloated statements, this is a Biennial that rolls up its sleeves and digs around in the dirt. Painting, and even video and photography to some extent, have taken a backseat. Whether or not this is a sign of the Biennial’s growing irrelevance is a matter for debate. While some may criticize many of the works as unfinished or sloppy, perhaps those very qualities indicate a vitality that has been missing in recent years.

Matt Schlecht

Matt Schlecht. Matt is an editor and writer based in Brooklyn. He is also Co-Director of Horse+Dragon NYC, an organization that provides editorial, publicity and design services for artists and nonprofits. » See other writings

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