The Art and Noise of Proclamation Nation


“Wan.” says a bored Blake Gopnik. “Fun.” enthuses Kelly Crow. “Budget.” proclaims Holland Cotter. “Looks more like us than we care to admit.” politics David Weiner. “…a giant burst of happiness for the infinite creativity of America.” gushes Jerry Saltz.

“Shopping in the “Ambienelle.” intones a fashionable Todd Eberle. “When will there be a Shaquille O’iennial?” quips a commenter on a blog.

“Are We There Yet?”, asks and answers Elena Brower.

“I Proclaim!”  The Whitney Biennial is consistent for the response of “Let’s Always Be Critical of It” and yet it in the end it proclaims the state of contemporary art emphatically anyway.  Although I have been more excited by past Biennials with art and conclusions from my own proclivities, for example, “Handmade Everything!” “Visionary Drawing!” “We’re Morphing into Animals, Animals are us!”…I aimed for a decidely 2010 experience of the exhibition in honor of the title and orientation: the democratic Friday night “Pay What You Wish” line at The Whitney.

Waiting. The March night sky is light at 5:30 pm, the air carries a crisp spring anticipation of sweetness and sound. We chat on the line with strangers before and after us, getting to know each other briefly. In the courtyard below a wooden box structure is moaning like Tibetan monks. I am stamping my Jimmy Choos in anticipation like horse hooves as it still cold.

The first and second floors were a “seen it before” tapas plate featuring war and pretension and loud “theatre” voices, studies in cacophony or a serving up of our mindless cultural fare. I was impatient and bored.  The much-talked about Nina Berman photographs of a dismembered and disfigured war veteran registered a strong sensation but we have all endured this kind of visual shock and then we walk over to the next piece, like shopping. I recalled the recent Virginia Heffernan New York Times article on the sound in movies celebrating a new level of films that “revisit and rethink the sounds of breath and breathlessness.” It is this kind of outer experience and inner penetration of art and sensation I am seeking.


Stimulus-saturation and art puffery made me choose not to stand and watch the movie on the screen of the most touted piece in the show.  I knew without reading any reviews before I went that this was “the piece”, whether from the energy of the room or the “art show” quality of The Bruce High Quality Foundation‘s “We Like America and America Likes Us.” A Ghostbusters white ambulance with mesmerizing TV, film and online visual edits projected on the windshield sat in a dark room emitting light and sound like Oz. The installation was influenced by Joseph Beuys’ 1974 Action piece in which the artist/shaman went from plane to ambulance to a gallery space, where, swathed in grey felt, he spent 3 days with a coyote. His feet never touched the ground and returned to the airport, he jetted to Europe.

Michael Jackson photographs paired with Charles Baudelaire lined the walls and all I could feel was a desire to cover the whole room with gobs of grey felt for a stronger statement about art and feeling. My favorite take-away was actually a small girl, in a tartan dress and apron standing in the headlight of the ambulance like lawn sculpture while the crowd transfixed stood around the room helpless and searching for meaning with “art-stare” eyes.

Later at home, I watched the video.

My “impatient American” choice to experience this video alone instead of a gallery, was so reflective of the subject and identity of the piece.  In the film, America is portrayed as a witness, a lover, a participant and an intimate friend or family member with changing age, gender or race addressed by a smug, self-absorbed, TV commercial-like woman’s voice.  After watching this mesmerizing collective history, like the film of one’s monkey mind before it slags with a light bulb pop onto the meditative state, I was silent. I looked at my notes.  Like a transfixed therapy patient, I had written down three phrases, which perfectly encapsulated my childhood experience brought into my adult ego consciousness that I had never paired before. The effect was stunning and life-shifting.

Our synthesis of individual and collective experience is at the crossroads and as this piece, and so many reviews of the show, ends with a question of “Waiting?” This may be “The Message” of the Biennial as seen by its curators. That I brought the show home with me and realized we were sleeping together and sharing neurons is the satisfaction we seek. The job of the artists and curators is complete. Although I paid the budget fare, I was a satisfied consumer of American art and culture. Thank you, Whitney.

…and so I moved on.

The third floor elevator opens to the literal gasp of Pae White‘s 40 foot tapestry of smoke and it is thankfully, one of the show’s most visceral moments. From the corner of your eye you can see a video of men in a vast gym performing rote 19th century German chastity exercises on mat islands. As a counterpoint that speaks of the robotic self undoing of smoking and our mice-like obedience to life productivity missives contrasted with the sexy smoke snarl like a snake to a flute, Jesse Aron Green‘s video “Arztliche Zimmergymnastik,” reminded me of the show’s playful spirit that will always engender a lively debate.

Watership Down Utopia.

My notes are simple and wishful as artist Roland Flexner‘s methods.  “Movements within a plane. Sumi ink paper. Ink, breath.” The wall cards said this about us as potential human viewers on these Avatarish landscapes, that we have a “…tendency to project landscapes from ambiguity.” The black and white scenarios are reminiscent of 1930’s mystical stage and screen sets which feels strangely appropriate for today’s mood. The tool of breath upon the work feels like the ambiguous lover and creator America in the Bruce High Quality Foundation piece. This watcher pose of much of the art, is the waiting, and like a wizened old Guru staring back at a seeker’s gaze, the answer is the question.

Charles Ray‘s ink flowers were made in his spare time like doodles.  The curators filled a whole room with these simple and naive repetitive obsessions reminding me of flowers I drew on my school notebooks in the 70’s. Like bland but hopeful smile faces it is served up like a remedy, no artistic distance, perspective or contemplation other than itself, like a Rothko, but more frustrating for our evolved complexities and expectations. However…ok…this is a happiness pill I can swallow and a powerful statement in the end. Thank you, Whitney.

The Box Lunch thankfully, comes with Video.

Video is always my favorite part of the Biennial. Kate Gilmore‘s “Standing Here” opens with a view into a box and for its prescence and metaphor speaks to the macho-heavy Whitney’s first real significant inclusion of women artists. (It is 2010 after all and the 75th anniversary of the show, so thank you Whitney.) The red polka dot dress is the first shot of color infiltrating the box, shoes follow kicking the way outside-in thru a four foot enclosure seen from above, its scale unknown until she begins breaking through.  On the Whitney’s site, the video experience began with the exciting peek into Kate’s World, as she explains the piece on a shopping excursion for shoes to wear during the piece, only to end on a dropped note, with a pair she likes to wear everyday and a standing on line…waiting…as if the filmmakers ran out of funds.  See the video here and tell me if this is an artistic statement or…?

Rashaad Newsome‘s video of solitary Voguers silently posturing and popping in a similar all white room just opposite Kate Gilmore, affectedly anesthetizes a vibrant art.  The commentary says this effect, without music or sound, is to equalize the art with contemporary dance forms. OK, thank you, because dance has borrowed from this art before Michael Jackson, but without music, for me it is 10,000 times removed. Both videos easily metaphors for the pervasive culture that boxes both in, keeps the appropriators in and understanding out.

Invited into the room-size box created by Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher promising an immersive video and environment, lured mostly by the text about a Sun Ra and Kennedy connection, I suddenly was back on floor two, feeling hoaxed by hodge podge art for art’s sake. The craftiness of the message had no humor which only came off pretentious to me like a 1980’s hedge fund lifestyle. The description on the wall said it was “visual poem” which I had read as “visual porn” and maybe my hopes were too high, but this was not even a a good 80’s redux, it was just ridic.

So I went back to the box where it began to get another look…this time from the inside…of Theaster Gates‘ “Monastic Residency” piece in the courtyard overlooked by the temporary cafe.  A simple stage set which will host artists, historians and street musicians during the course of the show and showing the hand of the makers, it felt much more 2010.

I opted for barbacue chips in the pop-up cafe, “Sandwiched”, pretending I had a hidden camera focused on the emphatic mouth and conversational arm movements of the patrons of a Friday night in an art cafe which amused us more than anything I had seen in the actual show. There was not much “delight” or “humor” in this show contrary to other years, which is a shame as humor can enlighten much more than earnest artist statements that end up being “wan” or leaving one “waiting.” However, with a very full performance schedule, the show invites return and re-experiencing, a smart engagement for the 75th anniversary. Jeffrey Inaba’s architecture collective INABA and C-Lab designed the cafe space with huge and funny lanterns, a bold comment on quick bites and our search for big illumination that summed up the show for me.

Popped out onto the sidewalk exiting, there was still a long line and a masked girl with layered sweaters and frocks blessing glittery gold rocks in her hands which she had lined up to spell the word “C R E A T I V I T Y” on the sidewalk, while the night air still had a young feel and the crowd waiting to get in went around the block.

As I made bold and suddenly cold steps to walk up Madison Avenue towards my home, I thought of my yoga teacher, Elena’s Brower’s message of “Home” and how it will always be the answer to end our “Waiting” for something outside of ourselves to offer transcendance or expansion or a message.

“The only definite is that expansion is always occurring. Gratitude is the most expansive attitude we can claim: when we are thankful, we invite levity, more space, more abundance. With thankfulness, we imprint receptivity on our bodies- we can take in more. With every incident of focused gratitude, we return home to our expanding hearts.” Elena Brower

With gratitude to the curators, guest curator Francesco Bonami and co-curator Gary Carrion-Murayari, for they encapsulated a paired down, watered down, back-to-basics, climbing out of boxes and hopeful Spring, a year and some after Obama and the most challenged year many of us ever had.

“We need not find our way back home to our divine beginnings; we need only appreciate that wherever we wander in Consciousness we are already where we need to be in order to be fulfilled.” Dr. Douglas Brooks

Tell that to reviewers, America’s lovers and the spirit of a culture that relishes art and freedom. This is Home.

5 Responses to “The Art and Noise of Proclamation Nation”

  1. 1 Monique Baron

    Bravo, Jade. Rich interpretations of the show mixed with high spiritual teachings and reflections for the day. Thank you for your presence.

  2. 2 Michelle

    Thanks for capturing beautifully what I could not attend. It was like having my own art critic report back to me!

  3. Thank you Monique and Michelle, I look forward to sharing with you in person many times in the future. Next post includes the experts @ Armory show debating digital vs. spatial experiences of art. Looks like 2 votes for digital working…and from 2 of the most experience+environmentally rich kids I know.

  4. “A new level of films that “revisit and rethink the sounds of breath and breathlessness.” It is this kind of outer experience and inner penetration of art and sensation I am seeking.”

    Your comments made me think of this incredible piece of footage:

    Amazing how “art” is being created almost accidentally these days due to the ubiquitous nature of cameras and videos.

  1. 1 Give Me No Title, Give Me an Aura « Jade Dressler

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