Is there an order in which it’s ‘best’ to encounter a series of artworks? Does such a question matter, or is it irrelevant? (And might the answer well depend on familiarity or expertise?) How do we, as viewers, respond to – and marshal coherently for others – the subjective associations that accumulate during individual paths through objects, images, sounds, events and performances presented as shared experiences? The 2012 Whitney Biennial with its subterranean theme of the labyrinth, the dark twists and turns of which thread through many of the works on display, gently formulates such questions, encouraging its audience to move around the space and pieces as they see fit, to meander, deviate, turn back and digress. Works by the participating artists are mixed across the five floors of the Whitney’s distinctive grey concrete monolith, often unmoored from their didactic wall texts, prompting either a little detective work or joyful release. One piece by Lutz Bacher, Selections from the Celestial Handbook (2011), comprises multiple small black-and-white photographs of nebulae, stars and planets scattered throughout the exhibition in a broken constellation, underlining the inherent risibility of attempts to map and catalogue. There is, of course, more than a hint of anxiety bestowed by such apparently total freedom, a fear of taking the wrong path, of getting lost or trapped.
Propelled by this dual dynamic of aleatory liberation and nascent panic, I bundled myself into a lift and selected the fourth floor at random, emerging into a large white, light space where dancers were laconically warming up for their afternoon show (this is the first year that a large part of Whitney floorspace has been specifically dedicated to performance). Feeling as if I had already made somewhat of a wrong turn, but attempting to convince myself this was part of the larger curatorial MO, I meandered through to a series of smaller, darker rooms, to find a house-of-horrors style multimedia installation by collaborators Gisele Vienne, Dennis Cooper, Peter Rehberg and Stephen Vienne. Consisting of a deathly, bone-white, blond-haired animatronic figure of a teenage boy in a blue hoodie called ‘Charles’, locked in traumatised dialogue with a demonic, blood-smeared puppet attached to his left arm, Last Spring: A Prequal (2011) evokes at once the specific pain and confusion of puberty and the lurid stereotypes of young masculinity propagated by the mass media, as well as a wider sense of unease with the schizophrenic structures of supermodernity. Charles stands, hounded and panting, against a wall blossoming with frantic designs of a complex interior space abounding with dead-ends, which the puppet refers to as both a ‘labyrinth’ and a ‘hotel’, evoking dystopian post-modern architectural configurations that disorientate, and displace, their occupiers. Conceived as part of a larger theatrical gesamtkunstwerk (Last Spring), the exchange between Charles and his interlocutor concatenates mental and physical disorientation in a way that plays on the morbid curiosity of the viewer.
Down a level on floor three, the atmosphere is less intense, but Elaine Reicheck takes up the theme of labyrinthine wanderings in a work entitled There’s No Need (2011), a panel of linen embroidered with a schematized maze design. At the centre sits a quote from Borges (go-to guy for metafictional interweavings): ‘There’s no need to build a labyrinth when the entire world is one’. Reicheck’s oeuvre repeatedly reworks the Theseus myth using both hand and digital embroidery, neatly blending material (the skeins of thread that take the hero to the heart of the labyrinth and back) with concept. There is a danger perhaps that this conceit is a little too well worked out: when you add Auster and Dante references to Borges and Theseus, the combined pieces verge on being a little heavy-handed, despite the tiny stitches. Nearby, Kate Levant’s Eyenter (2012), a three-dimensional environment requiring careful navigation by the viewer, combines hanging panels of scuffed material with clogged loops of electrical wires and fragments of obsolete-looking technology, managing to create the sensation of an old house, or even a city, gradually falling apart at the seams, white walls of the Whitney notwithstanding.
Other pieces, while less explicitly labyrinthine, also seem concerned with activating a spirit of exploration or investigation on the part of the viewer, as with Sam Lewitt’s Fluid Environment on level two. Plastic squares cover the floor, dotted with small electronic and metal components. Onto these Lewitt pours ferrofluid – a material used in military technology and computers, composed of magnetic particles suspended in liquid – which gradually agglomerate onto the scattered objects, resulting in oil-black, glossy and plump little constructions reminiscent of bio-mechanical sea-anemones. As time progresses, the plastic sheeting also attracts particles, so that parts of it had attained a patina reminiscent of aluminium foil thick with burnt, blackened cooking fat – Lewitt’s Fluid Environment is also, inevitably, a polluted one. Presided over by small fans that move the particles around, the anemones wave their stubby tentacles in the air, like rock-pool life or amoebas in a petri dish offering themselves up for scientific analysis – the irony being that we can’t under normal circumstances see ferrofluid as it circulates through our IPhones, laptops, and weapons system.
Latoya Ruby Frazier negotiates a different kind of damaged environment through a series of powerful photographs on level two, documenting the post-industrial decline of her hometown Braddock. Persuasively, Frazer does not deliver the kind of aestheticized ruin porn indulged in by photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre in their much-publicised images of a crumbling Detroit, but instead makes a clear link between environment and inhabitants, emphasising the human cost of both industrialisation and its aftermath. Four photographs from the Homebody Series (2011) reflect on the effects of both on her family members, such as her great-grandfather who worked in Braddock’s steel mills and suffered a series of chronic illnesses in later life, bequeathed by work and exacerbated by a lack of medical provision. Wrapped in Gramps’ Blanket shows Frazer draped, wraith-like, in her grandfather’s blanket, her body and face blurring as she moves through the peeling, scrofulous walls of an abandoned-looking room. In Covered in Gramps Blanket, the garment’s shroud connotations have become even more apparent, obscuring Frazier’s face as she crouches in a corner which could easily play a part in Vienne et-al’s labyrinth or have provided material for Levant’s installation. Yet Frazier fuses Braddock’s shared loss with a very personal grief, transforming the distressed walls and bleak emptiness of her surroundings into political metaphor.
Frazier’s works are perhaps the most explicitly politicised works in an otherwise somewhat muted selection, which is particularly intriguing in light of Andrea Frazer’s contribution to the exhibition, in the form of a wall text and catalogue entry. The wall text (available for download together with the catalogue essay here), a metafictional excursion a la Borges and Auster in which Frazer explicitly notes her ‘authorship’, states:
‘The artist elaborates on the contradiction between what art is socially and economically—often, essentially, high-valued luxury goods and investment vehicles—and what artists, critics, curators, and historians say that art does and means. She suggests that this contradiction reflects fundamental conflicts that have intensified along with income inequality and that art discourse, rather than reveal these conflicts, often serves instead to distance, disown, and conceal them.’
Of all the tortuous pathways navigated by audiences at the Whitney Biennial, this was perhaps the one that by the end of the exhibition I thought might particularly demand further exploration – the proposal that in writing about a given set of images, objects and performances, we write them into certain constructions that write out certain less palatable elements of their history. Our critical maps of artworks leave a lot out – on a literal level (I haven’t got around to mentioning the many other artists on display, including a series of etiolated puppets and low-fi animations by Tom Theyer, Werner Herzog’s foray (or not) into ‘art film’, Matt Hoyt’s crafted collations of mute ‘object lessons’, or Dawn Kasper’s nomadic studio in which she plans to work for the entirety of the exhibition, let alone the multiple performances scheduled throughout the biennale) – as well as the socio-political and economic. The Whitney itself, with its air of institutional validation and its eyrie on the Upper East Side, might almost be in danger of quashing the suggestive issues of orientation and access it sets so intriguingly in motion.