Tribal Counsel: Nico Israel on the Whitney Biennial. (Preview)

Article excerpt

"SO YOU GOT THE LIST?" ASKS LAWRENCE RINDER, chief curator of the Whitney Museum's 2002 Biennial, as we settle into his office. I tell him it was faxed to me that morning. "Let me see if you got the right list," he says, perusing it carefully. "The list" is, of course, the closely guarded roster of contemporary artists included in the mammoth exhibition, whose works will occupy three floors of the museum and spill out into nearby Central Park. "That looks kosher," he says. "All right then."

Given the high stakes of mounting the much anticipated and always controversial Biennial, Rinder, the Whitney's Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art, can be forgiven some inventory anxiety. West Coast--based before arriving at the Whitney just under two years ago (he was director of the CCAC Institute of the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland), he is no stranger to the New York scene--nor to the Whitney. He served as an advisor to the 1991 and 1993 Biennials, and was one of the six regional curators for the 2000 Biennial, which, with its curate-by-consensus approach, was criticized for its lack of direction and daring. Judging by his plans, one senses Binder won't make the same mistake.

There are at least 113 artists on Rinder's list, depending on how you tally several collectives and collaborative groups. Some artists--Kiki Smith, Vija Celmins, Lorna Simpson--have long-standing international reputations. Others--Tim Hawkinson, Kim Sooja, Arturo Herrera, Jeremy Blake--are increasingly familiar. But an astonishing number, at least ninety-five, are first-rime Biennialists, and therein lies Binder's greatest gamble. These include sound, film and video, and new-media artists, whose works were selected, respectively, by Whitney curators Debra Singer, Chrissie Iles, and Christiane Paul, in conjunction with Binder. They also include such difficult to categorize artists as Jose Alvarez, who, Binder tells me, "has been traveling around the world for the last half-dozen years doing a quasi performance project in which he appears to channel an ancient spirit named Carlos."

What links artists as diverse as Alvarez and Celmins or photographer Collier Schorr and the music collective Destroy All Monsters? Binder responds by explaining the inception of the show. "I asked the three curators and asked of myself to have what I call a research direction--not a theme, but say an attitude-which was to cast a really wide net across an unusually broad cultural spectrum." Rinder speaks in amazingly writerly sentences: "Everyone has some limits in our purview of contemporary art practice, so I simply asked the curators to stretch those limits, and if and when they came across something they were really excited about aesthetically or artistically or culturally, which they felt was not the kind of thing that could or should be shown, to stop and ask why, to be analytically engaged with the work." Each curator went on an extended road trip-Rinder covered twenty-three states in three months. As a shortlist was created, rubrics presented themselves: "In beginning to make possible floor plans, I d iscovered relationships between artists and works, and tried to come up with words to describe [those relationships]. They are 'beings,' 'spaces,' and 'tribes."' These three themes--"connective tissues," Rinder calls them--will each constitute a floor of the museum in what will amount, square-foot-wise, to the biggest Whitney Biennial since 1981.

"Beings" and "spaces" are philosophical terms, I mention, but "tribes" has a slightly more contentious resonance. The artists, says Binder, are "looking at subcultures, whether they're snowboarders or punk rockers or Burmese pro-democracy insurgents. To call them tribes is provocative, especially at this point in history when we're witnessing a kind of tribal warfare." How does Rinder think that the events of September 11 affected the conception or execution of the show? …