Recently, visiting a gallery in Chelsea, I saw a Kleenex box on the floor with a few tissues splayed out. I believe this was intended as a work of art. And at the Whitney Biennial, Michael E. Smith takes a pair of dirty sweatpants, hangs it from a light fixture, and calls it art.
The Whitney Biennial certainly makes you think about what art is. Cameron Crawford, in “making water storage revolution making water storage revolution” admits that every element in the fabrication of these pieces intentionally involve an absurd amount of extraneous, doggedly wasted labor. The artist’s inordinately time-consuming process has resulted in absolutely no political or social utility. Crawford notes the sculptures are not formally attractive and therefore lack even the artistic use of being aesthetically beautiful. They hope to achieve a humorous presentation of a paradox.
Crawford’s observation can be made of many of the works at the Biennial, and in fact many works in contemporary art.
Reviewing the New York Armory show in The New York Times, Ken Johnson writes “…artists on the outer edge are like ants, each busily doing his own thing and unknowingly contributing to a whole whose nature and purpose they and we can only guess.” We react. We collaborate.
Three highlights of the Whitney Biennial, for me:
Lutz Bacher’s selections from The Celestial Handbook. Taken from found copies of a mid-century astronomy handbook, Bacher tears out the illustrations of astonomical phenomena, frames them, and hangs them throughout the Whitney. Their random placement, small size, black-and-whiteness and age make them standouts. She uses readymades to pose questions that are inscrutible and unanswerable. One is captioned “Splendor of the Heavens: In the vast reaches of the universe modern telescopes reveal many vistas of unearthly beauty and wonder…”
Tom Thayer’s cardboard marionettes, puppet theater, animation, obsolete computer monitors and record players. Even the video is projected on cardboard. That he carefully renders detail on a material as imperanent as cardboard is endearing. It also harmonizes with Calder’s “Circus,” a staple at the Whitney.
My “best in show” award, however, goes to Werner Herzog for “Hearsay of the Soul.” Herzog rediscovers 16th-century Dutch painter and printmaker Hercules Segers, who created fantastical landscapes. In a large room off from the second floor gallery — you enter through slats of flexible black plastic that makes its own haunting sound — Segers’ prints are projected large on about seven screens. Herzog accompanies it with loud holy music by cellist Ernst Reijseger. You enter this space and feel like you are in a cathedral, you are experiencing the divine.
Herzog said of Segers: “His landscapes are not landscapes at all; they are states of mind; full of angst, desolation, solitude, a state of dreamlike vision.” These images create, for Herzog, an illumination inside of us. This is not a factual truth, but an ecstatic one.