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Whitney Biennial 2014

This year’s Whitney Biennial featured many works of Conceptual art, which, though not my favorite flavor, I nonetheless found intriguing.  I briefly tagged along with a tour group, and I got the feeling that each piece in the exhibition was imbued with multiple layers of meaning which could be peeled back as one researched the artist and his / her style and sensibilities.  Accordingly, the museum cards were rather lengthy, detailing biographical information about the artist as well as a breakdown of the particular piece.  My overall sense was that the physical objects in the museum were only one (perhaps marginal) part of the overarching process or set of ideas that comprised the “work of art.”  In many instances, the painting, sculpture, or video was just a taste of the artist’s full intent, and I therefore recommend that for the 2016 exhibition, all artists are present during regular business hours to explain their pieces and engage in constant public dialogue.  If this is not feasible, I recommend that anyone visiting the museum arranges to walk through with one of the knowledgeable tour guides.

Dave McKenzie’s video, The Beautiful One Has Come, delves into the archaeological / art-historical issue of “What from history gets preserved and what is neglected?”  The video starts off with frantic glimpses of a portrait bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, placing the viewer amid a crowd of onlookers trying to catch a peek at the famous statue.  We are tossed into a public realm where a certain art object has been deemed significant and immortalized as it sits on display.  The video then transitions into a slow-motion sequence showing the decaying interiors of an abandoned building.  Although the walls are peeling and are covered with graffiti, the outdoors viewed through the windows is bright and verdant, and the viewer gets a sense of tranquility and timelessness inside this forgotten structure.

One of the alcoves featured work revolving around a now-deceased political protestor from Chicago named Malachi Ritscher.  (The intensity of Ritscher’s convictions is evidenced by the fact that he set himself on fire in protest of the Iraq War in 2004).  Public Collectors is the name of the group presenting these artworks, and they aim to highlight work by people not widely considered artists.  In this sense, the work is an institutional critique because it declares that images and relics from a political activist’s life are as much art as a video or painting produced by someone who everyone agrees is an “artist.”  Included in the small room are photos of Ritscher holding up protest signs in front of a wall of police, as well as the man’s collection of experimental jazz recordings.

Matt Hanner’s sound installation, No Jets, comes in the form of an individually-pressed vinyl record playing the ring of wind chimes, an ambient humming, and the occasional bounce of a basketball.  The piece’s title derives from the fact that it was recorded in the period immediately following the 9/11 attacks, during which all airplanes were grounded.  The piece is thus a meditation on absence and presence; the viewer is content to listen, not knowing that the location of the sound’s origin is usually filled with the roar of jets.  It is only when we understand the artwork’s title that we are bothered by the absence of such raucous noise pollution.  Again, there is a separation between the artist’s hand and the “presenter” of this work.  Steven Lacey, a friend of the artist, went through Hanner’s belongings after the artist’s death.  His selection of this sound recording elevates it to the level of fine art, but this may never have been Hanner’s intention.  What the listener experiences in the museum is a “personal object art” mediated by a third party.

Clockwise Pastels

Lotte Reiniger

German filmmaker and animator Lotte Reiniger made over 40 films in her career, predating Walt Disney’s animations by a decade.  She is famous for her Adventures of Prince Achmed, an alternate take on the story of Aladdin.  Her films are essentially grayscale animations on a solid-colored background.  Silhouetted shapes move whimsically across the screen and interact deftly with one another.

Reiniger was inspired by shadow theater as a child, creating her own puppet shows at an early age.  Her work often features her unique interpretations of fairy tales, in which each character is constructed out of black paper, pinned together at the joints, and placed on a backlit animation table to be manipulated.  In planning each film, she produces detailed storyboards and aligns each frame with the corresponding measure of the film’s musical score.  Thus, she can make figures step and jump in time with the rhythm, and can place the narrative climax at a high point in the music.  Reiniger’s husband was also an accomplished filmmaker and aided her in the creation of her body of work.




This American Life, Notes on Camp

What I find enticing about Notes on Camp is the use of a variety of different overlapping sounds and sonic textures to create a unified whole.  The artist uses narration, ambient noise, quotations from the campers, songs, announcements over the loudspeaker, and other such “camp sounds” to weave a tapestry of the entire experience.  This technique makes the documentation more interesting to listen to, and helps place us in the physical and social context of the scene, producing vivid images in the listener’s mind.  The various episodes are connected with instrumental harmonica tunes, providing a unity throughout the segments.  The narrator’s voice is soothing, articulate, and unobtrusive.  He only adds to the story when necessary, letting the “primary source” audio do most of the storytelling.

Leave Me Alone!

The Mirror

How would you react to encountering a mirror for the first time?

John Cage & Allan Kaprow

John Cage’s performance, 4:33, takes anticipation to a new level: the artist sits at a piano in a public space (like Harvard Squre) and performs a “silent piece” with no noise whatsoever except the crowd’s chatter.  Cage’s interest in the extra-sonic qualities of music is evidenced by his book Notations, a collection of written music notation “chosen by circumstances.”  The work combines the sheet music with quotations from composers, offering up some lively contradictory statements on the state of music education, for example.

Allan Kaprow’s meditation, Art Which Can’t Be Art, chronicles what happened to the artist philosophically when he carefully observed himself brushing his teeth each morning, reflecting upon the automatic movements of his arm and hand.  Kaprow is interested in blurring the lines between art and everyday life.  However, he warns against the practice of exalting the non-art object to the status of art by virtue of its inclusion in an art “institution.”  Marcel Duchamp’s initial bold statement, The Fountain, is trivialized, writes Kaprow, as more and more nonart is exhibited by others.  “Why should we want to estheticize ‘anything’?” asks Kaprow.  The author concludes that the art arising from the everyday both is and is not art.  This is his paradox.  The art is in the noticing of and reflection upon our automatized behavior.

In How to Make A Happening, Kaprow lists rules and gives examples of artistic events that can be executed in the real world using everyday objects and people you know.  For example, a hairdresser and client can set up on a subway train and perform a cut and color in public, completely disregarding the surroundings.  Kaprow meditates on the world/art duality, arguing that the randomness of the Yellow Pages is a better starting point than the disconnected works of Beethoven or Michelangelo.  Happenings are a flavor of performance art with no rehearsals, no encores, and no audience.

According to The New York Times, Allan Kaprow was a “painter, assemblage artist, and pioneer in performance art” who was born in Atlantic City, NJ.  He attended NYU as an undergraduate, and studied art history at Columbia before serving on the art faculty at many universities including Rutgers.  Kaprow pioneered the “Environment” as a brand of installation art, and the “Happening” as a premeditated style of performance.  He was influenced by Jackson Pollock and John Cage.

Dada Manifesto (1916) – Hugo Ball

German dramatist Hugo Ball’s 1916 treatise on the new Dada movement contains playful language, contemporary references, and a critique of the bourgeois and their use of words.  First read at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, the work shows Ball’s high expectations for the new philosophy: “tomorrow everyone in Zurich will be talking about it.”  Ball notes that “dada” means rather different things in different languages, thus its meaning is subjective and context-dependent.  He alludes to the global impact of the first World War, and cites Dada as the remedy and solution for everything, namely “everything nice and right, moralistic, europeanised.”  Finally, Hugo Ball critiques people’s use of language, desiring his own invented words that match his own personal rhythm.  The final line indicates his desire for truth in meaning: “The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.”

On her informative blog “Art History Unstuffed,” Dr. Jeanne Willette explains that Dada was a reaction to the “psychological catastrophe” that was World War I.  It was an “anti-movement movement dedicated to anti-art,” with deliberately nonsensical tactics and a Nihilistic message, i.e. that life is essentially meaningless.  During the war, many artists and writers went into exile in response to the violence.  Dada was founded by German artists who sought escape from their disillusionment in Zurich, Switzerland, a neutral territory.  Hugo Ball and his wife were employed in the Berlin theater before moving to Zurich.  In his new city of residence, Ball attempted to combine music, literature, visual art, and daily life into a “total work of art” or gesamtkunstwerk.