ArtSlant editors Natalie Hegert, Joel Kuennen, and Charlie Schultz met up at Agra, an Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue, to discuss the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, its surprises, best in show, and disappointments. They touch on trends and themes of scale, archives, lists, dongs, and objectness—parsing the line between artwork and artifact.
Charlie Schultz: I guess I’ll start by saying I found this year’s iteration of the [Whitney] Biennial to be far less crowded than in past Biennials, which struck me as a surprise because I thought I read that there were more artists in this Biennial than in previous years.
[Indian music plays in the background...]
Natalie Hegert: I felt like the last edition was very spacious as well…This year I was very struck by this tendency for the curators to go from very large objects to these tiny details you had to study – little notebooks and small archival photographs and things like that – so my attention was constantly being drawn from these sort of monumental sculptures and large, abstract paintings to tiny little details.
Joel Kuennen: Yeah, on [Michelle] Grabner’s floor there are large abject works like Molly Zuckerman-Hartung and Sterling Ruby, and then going into these archive pieces which are presented in tables and behind glass draw an interesting parallel between fulfilling a cult of personality while working against a cult of personality by humanizing figures like David Foster Wallace, breaking away from the idea that these are sacred objects.
Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Notley, 2013, Latex housepaint, enamel, and spray paint on dropcloth (hinged, in two attached parts), 96 x 132 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago / Photography by Tom Van Eynde
[Someone clanks a glass, drops a fork, papadums arrive, the waitstaff says something...]
N: Thank you.
C: Yeah, the shifts in scale are definitely prominent. There’s a lot of really small stuff! [everyone laughs]
N: A lot of things to read…
C: A lot of things in vitrines, which is a pretty standard way to display paraphernalia. There was a lot of paraphernalia on account of the various archives that were curated into the show.
C: I thought the archives were a really interesting aspect of this Biennial. I enjoyed all of them, and the way they played off one another. The rooms for Semiotext(e) and Triple Canopy bookended Stuart Comer’s floor. I spent a long time hovering over Joseph Grigely’s vitrines, and listening to the experimental recordings in Malachi Ritscher’s room.
N: Joseph Grigely’s piece was the one that surprised me most, because I didn’t know what I was getting into until I started exploring around, and then that reveal, coming later, is what I found pretty interesting.
C and J: Mmmhmm.
J: Yeah, I found it interesting that a lot of the archive pieces were kind of rock star stuff, David Foster Wallace and Allan Sekula. They were paraphernalia that literati would be really tuned into. It’s kind of an odd mix in this show but signifies at least a concurrency of research and criticism within contemporary practice.
N: I was surprised at the selection of Allan Sekula’s work—the notebooks—I did not expect that.
J: But they’re funny, they’re like [laughing] sketches on an airplane. It’s a weird gesture.
They’ve got the in memoriam thing going on.
C: Very much in memoriam, which is in line with the idea of the archive. Both David Foster Wallace and Alan Sekula are deceased. They both have literary archives. You know a notebook is just a notebook until the writer is dead, then it becomes an artifact. And it was interesting to see so many artifacts intermixing with artwork, and where the line gets blurry between the two. Between DFW and Sekula, I’d say Sekula’s notebooks have much more of an artistic flair.
N: They did, they were very graphic.
C: I was really not sure how the curatorial conceit was going to work out. With three curators and each one doing their own floor I imagined it would have been more disjointed. It didn’t really feel that way. [both agree, mmhmm] I wonder how much of a role Jay Sanders and Elizabeth Sussman, the curatorial advisors, helped unify the visions of the three curators.
Jacolby Satterwhite, “Transit,” Video Still from Reifying Desire 6, 2014. HD digital video, color, 3-D animation; Courtesy of OHWOW, Los Angeles, and Mallorca Landings Gallery.
J: The conceit, I think, was to produce like-sentiments, to allow contemporary cultural themes expressed in American art to come out for themselves. But you also had this really interesting sense that each curator built their own Biennial. And I guess you get that feeling with [Stuart] Comer’s floor, like it is meant to be an all-inclusive floor to showcase a real variety of works, despite him specializing in performance and media work, he definitely brought in a lot of interesting painting.
N: There were some surprises on that floor, for sure.
[twangy Eastern music persists]
C: One thing I noticed on the fourth floor that seemed somewhat thematic, and I noticed it elsewhere on the other floors, was this predilection for inventories, these lists that people were making. There was a lot of visual repetition which is a consequence of listing anything, [N laughs] and I have actually have a list here of artists who made list-type pieces: David Foster Wallace’s notebooks showed lists of names, Ben Kinmont’s Shhh Archive was list oriented, Ken Lum’s Midway Shopping Plaza and Gretchen Bender’s melted vinyl piece both incorporated lists of names.
N: Weren’t the names in Bender’s piece movie titles?
J and C: Yeah, they were all movie titles.
C: Next on my list is Shio Kusaka’s stoneware piece that was made up of so many types of pottery. Stephen Berns, who was next to Kusaka, was showing photographs that had been exposed multiple times, sequentially, and those sequences were shown as a list.
J: And the Channa Horowitz, which what was that, like sonakinatography, it was her own time-marking system. Yeah, there was definitely a lot of play with systems.
C: Peter Schuyff’s pencil piece, Sans Paper...
J: Yeah yeah yeah yeah...
C: That was another. But yeah, archives and lists are of course related to systems and structures. An archive is a system and a list is a structure.
J: There was this theme of reiterating systems; attacking those systems, changing those systems and then, finally, a process of creating new systems. The best example of this was our collective favorite, the chess conference. [everyone laughs]
C: Best in show goes to Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess.
N: I don’t think I stayed and watched that long enough.
J: [laughing] it was like a forty-five minute piece.
N: I liked it, but I didn’t stay for very long.
J: I mean it was a great period piece that totally fulfilled its role of being a little bit jocular in its portrayal of a past moment that is still relevant. It interrogates the work of man to make a machine to beat man, all within a chess conference. It’s weird, like gender identities, human identities, computer identities, it’s all there.
J: And everything sort of just comes into collision. [everyone laughs]
N: We’ll have to compare…the portion of the film I saw was when they were doing a press conference or something. Were there other parts? [laughs]
C: Yeah, that’s what we watched. We saw the press conference. There was more, they go from the press conference to an actual convention.
N: Oh, okay.
J: And they joke that they have one female participant this year and “she’s welcome.”
C: She’s welcome.
N: I kind of wanted to see the computers battle it out. [all giggling]
C: Yeah, I mean whoever the protagonist was provided comic relief in so far as he would say what I was thinking, at least, which is that this is as boring as I can imagine, and I find the work of all my peers trite and boring, and all his peers look over and scowl.
J: He had a great fake name too, I forget what it was.
C: Papa George.
J: Papa George [all laugh]
J: And then there was the semiotext(e) archive, which was amazing.
C: Yeah, I liked that a lot.
J: It made me really want to be in that concert in 1996. [laughing]
C: Yeah! Made me want to sit in the semiotext(e) archives.
J: And then an amazing archive done by Triple Canopy, which was really cool, working with the idea of how artwork survives in the archive, and can exit in personal archives, deaccessions and beyond through reproduction. My favorite part were the three washbasin table stands, one from the period of the original artwork that stood as the fulcrum of the exhibition, and then they had a 3-D printed copy of it, and then they had the son of the family that owned the original work make a copy of it.
N: What did you guys think about the stairwell piece [by Charlemagne Palestine]? That really set the tone for the whole experience.
C: I liked that, for one I liked the playfulness of the puppets and the droning sound in the stairwell. It functioned really well in that space because there was a lot of acoustic resonance.
N: Well that is where it derives from; that was the artist recording himself walking up and down the stairs, making these sounds.
C: I didn’t realize that. So it’s very site-specific.
N: It made me want to join in, like “WOHHHHHH,” but I held back. I probably should have just gone for it.
J: It’s kind of nice being in the Whitney and being as loud and laughy as you want to be. It seemed like there was a different kind of respect for everything, more celebratory.
N: Well at the last Biennial I was struck by this tension between works that were meant to be interactive, and works that weren’t, but looked like they were, and how much strain that puts on museum personnel. I had another moment like that in, I think the second floor, where there’s just a record player in the middle of the room with a sign on it that says, “To start, do this…” But the cover was on, so I looked over to the museum guard and said, “May I?” and he’s like, “No, no. Don’t touch.” Rather dissatisfying really.
J: Later people were fucking with it.
N: I’m always curious about that disconnect.
J: There was another moment, the artist that did the Pussy Riot mannequins.
N: Lisa Anne Auerbach...
J: Yeah, she had this giant book.
C: The Megazine
N: I loved that.
J: And she was there, fussing with things, and the security guard in the corner was watching her very intently, and she’s like, “I’m going to flip the page.” Thirty people in the room stand back as she flips the page very slowly.
C: Probably what I found to be the most visceral and abrasive installation in the show was…
N: Bjarne Melgaard [all laughing]
C: He took that cake, again.
J: It’s his cake.
C: That to me was really stepping into another person’s world.
N: Well, especially when the first thing you encounter is a giant dong, just hanging there.
J: They are all dongs. The entire installation is dongs.
N: I really loved those carpets though. I kind of want one. It gave the room a very interesting feel. Sort of cozy but abject at the same time.
C: Sexualized mannequins.
N: I think those are real sex dolls.
J: Also the projections of the cult members on the wall. David Koresh talking to one of the members. And then the reaction shots of the cult members with these vacant looks.
N: And then the mass wedding...
J: People listening with insane looks on their faces. It develops a really weird mirror between you viewing in the room with the screens making up the walls. And then, of course, the chimpanzees eating and having sex.
N: It reminds me of a George Costanza moment, where he’s in bed with his girlfriend and simultaneously leaning over and taking a bite of hoagie.
J: Classic moment. And what was behind [the chimpanzees] again?
N: Was it a gay porn?
C: Mmmhmm. Power porn. Abrasive stuff.
N: But I didn’t see any explicit moments; I just saw the banter, the forced acting...
C: There were explicit moments.
N: The dialogue was so banal, like, “We just called you over here because we heard you were a slut.” [all laughs]
Picking back up on the topic of the presence of penises in the Whitney; I thought it was actually quite pronounced. There were a lot.
J: Plethora of Dong.
C: I can only think of two dongs.
N: There was the Gary Indiana...
C: There’s probably twelve in that piece alone.
Keith Mayerson, My Family, 2013, Oil on linen, 56 x 70 in.; Copyright Keith Mayerson / Courtesy the artist and Derek Eller Gallery, NY / Photographer Tom Powel Imaging
N: That painter, Keith Myerson, with the salon-style paintings that looked rather traditional, but then very prominently placed there in the middle was a guy in a tree with a unmistakably erect penis.
J: I thought it was a tree limb.
N: There were others, too. Also there were many works that were thinking about shifting sexual identities, most representative of course is the Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst project. There was a lot of art centered on queer subjectivity, especially in that room. Was that Anthony Elms’ [floor]? Or Stuart Comer? Those two floors blended together for me. I felt like Michelle Grabner was the most distinct.
J: I feel like Elms got pulled into the others; it wasn’t as distinct as the Comer and Grabner.
N: Anthony had Elijah Burgher. There were some dongs in there too.
J: Dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong.
J: I feel like his [Elms] references are a little older too, pulling in contemporary art from the last ten, twenty years. Just overall, the work seemed to represent a bit more background and lead-up than just the cutting edge.
C: I know one of the keystone works on his floor was actually not on his floor. Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura.
N: I loved that. I thought that was a really fitting tribute to the building.
J: Just titled with the address.
C: It was sleek, it was simple and it was always changing and site-specific. On a cloudy day you’re not going to see much in there.
J: There’s another over-optical reference too on Grabner’s floor, the photographer, what’s her name?
N: Sarah Charlesworth.
C: I didn’t know she died last year. That was a sad thing to learn today. Those were beautiful prints. Very simple, and I like how she referenced Alfred Stieglitz’s great magazine with her title, Camera Work. It was a sly way to bring up an archive without including another artifact.
J: It really feels like visuality and the study of the visual is embedded in the contemporary art canon now. The camera obscura was a surprise, a pleasant one.
There was a lack of critical race art aside from Pedro Velez’ work stashed in the basement by the elevators.
Dawoud Bey, Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project), 2012, Archival pigment prints mounted on dibond, 40 x 64 in.; Copyright Dawoud Bey / Courtesy of the artist
C: Dawoud Bey...
J: It was subtle though; the three diptychs from his Birmingham Project, they are layered, beautiful pieces, forcing collisions of identity through time and place. Race was present, but you didn’t see an interrogation.
N: What do you think of the inclusion of Donelle Woolford?
J: It raises my ire.
N: I’m never sure what to think about that.
J: I think the idea is ill-conceived. He certainly took many steps to make it as verifiable as possible, and it’s a long-ass project, and three different actresses play the black female artist, Donelle Woolford.
And it’s a dick joke.
N: More dongs.
J: Is this work saying that this work is what a black female artist makes? Dick jokes? Is that the joke?
N: It’s hard too, because most people will pass by that and not know anything about it, if you don’t take the time to read the wall text through. Only at the end does it say, oh by the way, Donnelle Woolford is a fictional character created by Joe Scanlan! But that is the trouble in presenting an artist’s work in a Biennial. You only get a glimpse at their practice, and it’s more about how things play off of each other.
J: She was also paired next to David Robbins, an artist that specifically deals with humor. He had his nice cattywampus bookshelf with a few copies of his Concrete Comedy book on it.
C: It was right across from the really hilarious and cartoony Laura Owens painting.
J: I don’t think that was the right spot for Donelle Woolford.
N: Is she doing a performance too? Just like 2012, they say you can’t experience all of the Biennial unless you see all of the performances. [laughs] We didn’t see “My Barbarian,” did we?
J: We have to check out Tony Tasset (400,000 Artists).
N: I’m curious about that.
C: Are they in alphabetical order?
N: They are in alphabetical order.
C: Or order of importance. [laughs]
J: And that goes back to lists.
N: That’s true.
C: One of the other interesting things Anthony said was that he wanted the work to say “hello” to the building. I liked that idea of communion with the building, especially since the Whitney is leaving the building this year. Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura was perhaps the most blatant.
N: And Charlemagne Palestine...
J: And Radamés “Juni” Figueroa in the courtyard.
C: Sheila Hick’s piece with the colored threads that looked like they were being disgorged from the ceiling, that was a successful installation.
N: There was a lot of interesting textiles too. I thought there were a lot of ceramics. Because I never think of ceramics.
Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, 2013, Ceramic, 28 1/8 x 39 3/8 x 41 inches 71.4 x 100 x 104.1 cm; Copyright Sterling Ruby / Photographer: Robert Wedemeyer.
C: There were some good Sterling Ruby ceramics.
J: It took me a minute, but then I was like, okay. Again with the abject, they were holding discarded, broken shards. They were refired, reglazed, over and over, melted together. One of those pieces where the process becomes the work. That might be the key to abject work, to appreciate it for more than its horrible physical appearance.
C: And there were three of them, so again with this repetition, listing idea.
N: What did you think was undeserving, or did you find something boring?
C: What did you think about that room of Tony Greene paintings? That took me by surprise.
J: That was very strange. It was like they had a prior installation in there, and they forgot it.
N: That one just took me back to the Forrest Bess mini show, artist curating artist thing, but I felt that this presentation felt like kind of a knockoff. I wasn’t sure it was adding to [the Biennial].
C: That piece was technically curated by Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie. It seemed like a strange room to me.
J: The work was strange in the context of the Biennial too. It came from a decorative background. It definitely wasn’t as ostentatious as the rest of the work. I wonder if that’s a pretty reliable characteristic of the Biennial, a lot of audacious work. A lot of work that shouts. I imagine subtle work doesn’t work well here.
C: You just miss it.
N: Yeah. I thought the most subtle work that I encountered was portraits by Paul P.
J: The blue watercolors. They were pretty but I don’t know why they were there.
N: Next to the Paul P works though, the Michel Auder voyeuristic video installation, I loved that piece. It came right after the Joseph Grigely collection of ephemera around Gregory Battcock, so I thought that was perfect, because you were first offered this glimpse into this man’s life, then you walk into another room and you’re looking into these windows at other peoples’ lives. I thought that was a really poetic arrangement.
C: That was good curating.
N: Last thoughts.
C: There were a lot of types of craft, which I think is very poignant. In our current reality where so much is virtual and everything seems digitized or ready to be digitized, the tangibility of these artifacts and archives and artworks seemed like it was a real concern.
N: The objectness.
C: Sure. [all laugh]
N: Over and Out.
Many thanks to Mia DiMeo for transcribing this conversation.
(Image on top: Zoe Leonard, Sketch for 945 Madison Avenue, 2014, IPhone photo, 3 x 4 in. (7.6 x 10.2 cm); Courtesy of the artist / Copyright Zoe Leonard.)