The 2006 Whitney Biennial: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Birnbaum, Daniel, Rosler, Martha, Artforum International
JUTTA, A CHARACTER in the Bernadette Corporation's exquisite-corpse novel Reena Spaulings (2004), has learned how to sidestep the pitfalls of selfhood, turning her own body into a kind of assemblage: "Books, ideas, movements, figures, photos, data, other lives," Reena, the book's protagonist, observes. "I can almost tell the place on her body where she has digested Artaud, Rimbaud." This elusive, recombinant concept of the self seems close to what Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne had in mind when curating this year's Whitney Biennial, "Day for Night" (titled after the 1973 Francois Truffaut film): Their exhibition is to some degree a celebration of the ambiguities of collective production and of fictitious personae so widespread in the art world right now. "Anonymity or invisibility might be the condition of absolute freedom today," muses Toni Burlap in a catalogue essay. And she should know, since she's one of these imaginary creatures herself--a nonexistent curator invented by Iles and Vergne for the Biennial. Jutta, on the other hand, is slightly more fact than fiction; her paintings even appear in the Biennial under her full name. I've always liked them, even if the "restless energy" attributed to them in the catalogue is apparent mostly to those viewers already familiar with the complete oeuvre of Jutta Koether, the real-life artist, writer, musician, and performer.
Desiring such slippages in identity some forty years ago, Michel Foucault wrote, "Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: Leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order." The imperative seems totally appropriate to our historical moment, and one wonders how its call for defiance and subversion is--or isn't--answered by individuals engaged with art today. Here, while groups such as Critical Art Ensemble and Deep Dish Television Network no doubt have real political visions and critical agendas, a biennial (and perhaps the art world in general) would seem to provide a dubious platform from which to communicate any program of resistance. There's also nothing implicitly wrong with Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija's recreation of a 1966 antiwar monument, Peace Tower, 2006, installed in the Whitney's basement-level courtyard; but on the rainy day of my visit, this structure didn't exactly emanate utopian energy from its lonesome hole in the ground. In fact, its placement reflected a generally ambivalent attitude toward the political in this biennial: Progressives would be given slightly desultory due, while purveyors of the sardonic and the darkly Pop took center stage. The top floor of the multilevel exhibition, where most visitors start their tour, set the tone with a suite of galleries in which Urs Fischer's ripped-apart walls and spinning kinetic sculpture (comprising silver-painted tree branches and dripping candles) gave way to a sort of shrine to Kenneth Anger, complete with red-painted walls, neon, and Hollywood Babylon memorabilia, which in turn opened on to rooms of Koether and Steven Parrino's scabrous punk conceptualism. The effect was exhilarating but far from upbeat. More than the dialectical equipoise suggested by the titular phrase "Day for Night," La Nuit americaine (the French title of Truffaut's film) seemed apt.
The foreign flavor would seem doubly apt, in fact, since the curators, in a much-discussed break with Whitney tradition, have presented a show featuring many artists who are not from America. Some, like Francesco Vezzoli and Peter Doig, don't even live in the United States. Given that biennial fatigue will likely reach critical mass next year, when "global" exhibitions will open simultaneously in Kassel, Munster, and Venice, one wonders, Is this really the moment to risk turning the Whitney Biennial into just another international event? After all, it's a show with a historically local mission. …