Stephanie Sinclair, "Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help", 2005.

Imagining and Witnessing the Whitney Biennial: A First Look

Theres no theme to the recently opened Whitney Biennial, in a year when the themes of collapse and disillusion that haunt the real world and the film world couldnt be more apt. This themeless-ness may be the only way in which the Whitney is bucking trends in the show that has defined the museum.

The other theme might simply be that all the artists are American, which could mean anything these days. As the curator Francesco Bonami points out in his introduction to the exhibition catalog, its not so much about American art as it is about art in America.

With its stress on young artists and on novelty, the biennial has much in common with the Sundance Film Festival, which showcases independent film every January, skewing younger by the year.  Sundance is overwhelmed with applications. It looks at 900 features a year for each of its competitions of dramatic and documentary films, with 16 chosen for each category, even more for its shorts competition, in which films are comparable to the videos that the Whitney shows. Why cant he Whitney do that every year?  With vast commercial fairs operating annually, whats the point of a biennial?

Critics will say that every two years for the Whitney is frequent enough.  There is a glut of biennials, plus more art fairs for those who want the all-you-can-eat approach to contemporary art. The effect is that whatever primacy the Whitney once held has been diluted.

Nina Berman, "Ty with gun", 2008, from Marine Wedding, 2006/2008.

Nina Berman, "Ty with gun", 2008, from Marine Wedding, 2006/2008. Pigment print, 10 × 15 in. (25.4 × 38.1 cm). Collection of the artist, courtesy Jen Bekman projects

Its not the only museum to lose status. As an abundance of modern art museums have displaced the Museum of Modern Art as the foremost arbiter of what is modern, a biennial glut makes the Whitney far less essential as a judge of what is new.

Still, the Whitney is seizing the new moment, as an institution might with an annual social event. The show has a fashion sponsor, Tommy Hilfiger, even though its not showing wearable fashion. Theres even a wine sponsor, Bear Flag.

In that context, a lot of the art at the Whitney seems atmospheric, as if made to be completed by the crowd. Pae Whites huge Smoke Knows, a textile hanging with giant wisps of smoke has a gestural power, but it evokes an oversized cocktail lounge as much as it updates the venerable craft of tapestry.

What strikes you among the works at the Biennial are those that cant be reduced to atmosphere. Take Marine Wedding, a series of photographs by Nina Berman. Ty with Gun, left. The 2006 ensemble is not new, certainly not by the standards of contemporary art. Nor does it come from a chic and edgy source. Berman assembled the pictures for People, a magazine that, one assumes, exists for the Biennial crowd only as a product to be appropriated with derision.  The Whitney people probably read Interview.

Yet sometimes witnessing is as important as imagining. The view of the home front in Marine Weddings narrative ensemble, one might argue, is only art because its in an art museum. Ty Ziegel, the protagonist of its story, is an ex-Marine whose face was blown off by a suicide bomb in Iraq. We see him in Bermans ensemble after more than 50 operations. His head is contained by a plastic cone, his skin is one big scar, and his ears are a set of holes in his head. Grotesque would be, as they say,  an understatement. The understated low-lit pictures of everyday life point to the obvious paradox. Ty is back home, but hes something other than what he had been, and hes the last thing that the society that sent him off to fight wants to see.

Nina Berman shows him in a range of settings like a resurrected martyred saint with his attribute – in Tys case, a ghostly head. The ensemble reminds you of paintings from the early colonial era that depicted colonized people dressing in fine clothes and being civilized. You never forget who they really are.

In Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help, a photo series by Stephanie Sinclair, Afghan women who have set themselves on fire to draw attention to abuse by their husbands are shown with scars from burns on their bodies. One is photographed under a gauze covering. We can assume that shes dead. You can question whether this journalistic series of images – which wary American magazines might consider too disturbing – should be considered art. But showing the pictures in an art museum forces us to consider our expectations of what a work of art can do, or be.

At first glance, the pictures suggest a backstage experience, as if the women are being made up for a theater performance, a typical subject for an artworld journey into performance art exoticism. The wall labels clarify that. The horror that these women are burning themselves to escape from a worse fate than setting oneself on fire tells you how desperate they are. The vacant expressions of the same women being photographed reminds you of how limited even photography is in recording or communicating such suffering. Yet photography is as close as most Americans will get to “the war on terror.”

The assumption here is that the persecution of women in the photographs will continue, whether the US succeeds in controlling Afghanistan or not. Vietnam, anyone? You cant help but think of the huge challenge that the US has set itself up against in its latest war, a gambit to transform the country that has been called the graveyard of empires.

More on the Biennial to come.

Top photo: Stephanie Sinclair, “Self-Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help”, 2005. Digital print, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist; courtesy VII, New York
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