Whitney Biennial 2012
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Closed May 27 with scheduled events continuing until June 10
by Ursula Davila-Villa
Almost twenty years ago, in 1993, the Whitney Museum of American Art surprised the art world with an exhibition that still lives vividly in the memory of those that saw it and even those that lived it through the eyes of others. We could critically analyze the 1993 edition from vastly different perspectives, but two elements stand as the pillars of the project: the biennial was daring and the chosen works, rather than introductory labels, effectively mirrored the curatorial proposal. Whether we view this exhibition as a tour de force for the museum’s biennial history, 1993 became key in the history of exhibitions in great part due to that year’s Whitney Biennial. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the exhibitions latest edition, currently on view at the museum’s Breuer building. After spending some hours in the Whitney’s galleries, as soon as I left the museum my experience of the biennial became little more than a fleeting memory.
In the introductory catalog interview, the museum’s director Adam Weinberg states that each biennial has responded to its particular moment in time as much as contributed to the program’s long history. His words certainly call to mind editions done in past years. However, the 2012 iteration mirrors little of the time in which we live and speaks poorly of the great legacy the Whitney Biennial has built. The biennial’s premises—or better, connecting threads—are the concepts of performance, understood beyond the aesthetic definition of performance art, and process, as a platform that can stretch the perceived limits of art. True, these two ideas have dominated debates and exhibitions in recent times, yet, the exhibition’s mise-en-scène lacks clarity of purpose and most of all, it seemed short on dynamism, an intrinsic quality of both performance and process.
The Whitney’s Breuer building has long been one of my favorite places to view art. The Breuer’s galleries are special given their scale. They normally accommodate intimate displays that truly offer the visitor the right conditions to connect with a work of art—something rare in most museum experiences. Surprisingly, the layout for this year’s biennial does not capitalize on the building it occupies. Rather than creating spaces in which artworks could be shown at their best, the biennial mostly feels like a incoherent art fair display. For example, the wonderful work of Latoya Ruby Frazier suffered from the lack of space and intimacy. Hung in a corner, her series Campaign for Braddock Hospital (2011) lost potency. Her gelatin silver prints posses a cinematic quality that, together with hand-written sentences, create a compelling narrative based on the closure of Braddock Hospital (Pennsylvania), the main healthcare provider and employer in her hometown. Her work invites us to understand the struggle for economic justice and fight for equal benefits as experienced by the individuals she photographed. However, the museographical conditions in which her work is shown prevents the visitor from connecting with the scenes she captured, and instead emphasize a voyeuristic setting that enhances a disconnect between the reality in many American towns and the museum visitor who wanders the galleries of an institution located in one of the most wealthy neighborhoods of New York City.
The three-month performance and multimedia installation by Dawn Kasper, This Could be Something if I Let It (2012) from her continuing series “Nomadic Studio Practice Experiment,” could have been a great project. As the title indicates, this piece is the installation of the artist’s entire studio inside the museum, where she is supposed to live and work for the length of the show. When I visited the exhibition she was not present, and instead, the objects, tables, books and mattress seemed like a sleepy storage area. The evident problem of having a piece that is only active when the artist is present represents one of the biggest limitations of this biennial. While the idea of inviting an artist to take-over the museum’s space by placing herself at the center of the work is a great way to challenge the audience and the institution, especially its ability to reflect life with utmost transparency, a project of this type becomes completely silent if the artist is not occupying the space. This was the case of several projects that were meant to embody performance and demonstrate process. I champion the idea of artists reinventing the role of museums, but if a museum engages in such a practice it most do so in full, while considering all that is needed to activate a gallery space through the artists’ work, the viewer’s presence and critically, the engagement between these two.
Two works that made my visit to the Whitney worth the trip were Wu Tsang’s installation GREEN ROOM featuring his film WILDNESS (2012) and letters and paintings by Forrest Bess (1911–1977). The dynamism of the former and the limit-less spatial reality of the latter truly embodied the ideas of this biennial: performances as a natural state of being and process as the continuum of the creative act. The work of several artists in the biennial— such as K8 Hardy, Moyra Davey and Andrea Fraiser, amongst others—could have also spoken just as powerfully as that of Tsang and Forrester. Unfortunately, either due to a poor display or a dormant context, these voices were silenced, leaving me starving for some real engagement, which was meant to be the heart and soul of the 2012 biennial.
Ursula Davila-Villa is associate curator at the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas in Austin