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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.

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