As thick as the phone book of the town I grew up in, the catalogue for the 2014 Whitney Biennial is a whopper, coming in at 419 pages. But seeing as how this year’s Biennial was an impressive three floors, the attendant corridors, stairwells, random outside spaces, and more than 100 artists, maybe it’s not so big after all. Like the Biennial itself, the body of the catalogue is dived into three sections, one for each of the three curators: Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner. Each of these sections contains a contextualizing essay by the respective curator. In an interesting formal note is that the three sections are printed on different paper, which has the effect of making each section literally feel distinct.
Evaluating a catalogue is difficult; the success depends on what the reader is looking for. As preparatory material for viewing the exhibition, the catalogue is perhaps most successful. I doubt I would have enjoyed the exhibition as much if I had not read all of the essays beforehand. These essays proved invaluable to my visit to the Whitney. I previewed the artwork and made notations about the works with which I wanted to spend a little time. This method is itself flawed, because we all know that seeing a work in person is a very different experience from looking at pictures, no matter how lovely. It also mostly rules out the element of surprise. But honestly, the Whitney Biennial is such a massive undertaking for me as a viewer; this seemed to be my only method of making sense of this large and incongruent collection of artworks.
As a thorough record of the exhibition, the catalogue also succeeds, which in this case is important because the Biennial is nearing its close. When I read a catalogue that is little more than reproductions of the art, with the wall text on the following page, I am disappointed. A person is lucky to view a show once, let alone twice, but a book is different. There’s no end to a textual exhibition. We can visit anytime we want. This is where the catalogue succeeds. The 2014 Biennial contains a substantial amount of performance, audio, and video work. These are notoriously hard to capture on the page. Stuart Comer’s section is rife with essaylettes on selected works. There are writings on the performance works, which is great because although I visited twice, I didn’t manage to coincide with a single performance. Although all of the curators included text-based work, it is most noticeable in Anthony Elms’ section. I missed much of this text during my visit. It was crowded. It was hard to see. Text takes a lot of time. At home with a book, I have all the time in the world.
As an accurate reflection of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, I am less sure of the success of the catalogue. In the introduction the authors state, “If there is any central point of cohesion, it may be the slipperiness of authorship that threads through each of our programs… In many ways, it has simply become inefficient to slow down and figure out who is responsible for a specific idea or action, opening up interesting areas of collaboration.” While the authors are describing the discrete works in the show, perhaps this whole idea might be applied to the Biennial itself; it is very slippery. But the catalogue is intentionally less so, with its Roman numeraled sections, and three different paper stocks, the catalogue makes clearer distinctions than the curators do. The final section is by Michelle Grabner is marked by the inclusion of numerous conversations between artists, including Dawoud Bey, Christopher Williams, Rochelle Feinstein, Gaylen Gerber, to name a few. While all this focus on process seems as if it should make this section feel more slippery, it does the opposite—it concretizes the final section of the book. Real people, real artists, talking to other real people. The overall effect is humanizing, and intimate, a feeling that was impossible experience at the show.
Ultimately, I recommend this catalogue for those who want a serious look at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. This is not a coffee table book, nor is it a casual exhibition catalogue that one can leave on their bedside, to casually flip though before dropping off to sleep. No, this is the kind of catalogue you need to read while sitting up, with a cup of coffee. You might want to take some notes. If you have reading glasses, you better get ‘em.
Whitney Biennial Catalogue 2014
paperback, 416 pages
Wanna talk about new modes of global curation? Chicago-based arts writer Alicia Eler and video collector Jefferson Godard have teamed up to curate Performance Anxiety, a program of seven short videos by Chicago and New York City-based artists which can only be seen in Europe via Souvenirs from the Earth, a cable television station broadcast in France on the freebox 129 station and in Germany on Unitymedia/Kabel BW. (Eler and Godard are currently in discussions about screening the program in Chicago sometime in January).
Eler is the Arts and Culture Community Manager for the Tribune-sponsored Chicago Now blog network, and Godard is a video art collector, architecture professor and a founding member of EMERGE, the MCA Chicago’s Collector’s Forum. They met during Video as Video: Rewind to Form, a video art show that Eler curated with Peregrine Honig at Swimming Pool Project Space last Fall, and bonded over their mutual love of video art. When Godard invited Eler to his home for a tour of his collection, she was struck by the fact that so many works of video art were actually on display. “There’s always video art on in Jefferson’s home–he’s admittedly obsessed with the medium. A video might play on two flatscreen televisions while a video projection screens in another room; or a video might play on an actual television while Jefferson views new video art online.” Most of the videos in Performance Anxiety have been drawn from Godard’s superb collection (for more on Godard’s collecting habits, read Jason Foumberg’s 2007 article in New City here). Read more
A few months ago on episode 192 of the Podcast, artist and Yale professor Rochelle Feinstein discussed at length a long-term project of hers that at the time had never been shown. Created during the period 2002-2005, this body of work examines (among other things) Michael Jackson as a cultural signifier of failure and redemption.
Feinstein’s project did find a home. It’s been on view in New York at Art Production Fund’s APF Lab space since June 2nd (Jackson died on June 25th) and is titled “I Made a Terrible Mistake,” which comes from the statement Jackson made the day after he infamously dangled his baby Blanket out a hotel window as fans cheered below.
The exhibition explores Michael Jackson’s mistakes as “allegories of contemporary life, in both public and private orbits.” From the APF’s website:
When a mistake is acknowledged, an imperceptible process of transformation and redemption begin. Jackson, and this phrase, is one conceptual muse for this project. The other, Barry White, so emphatically unapologetic and generous in his promise of sensual redemption, died in the summer of 2003, while Feinstein was in the Art Production Fund Residency at Giverny. The conceptual collision of these two icons, sited at Monet’s Garden, led Feinstein to draw upon this uber-synthetic Eden for the creation of “I Made a Terrible Mistake.”
Feinstein’s show is up through July 23rd. Be sure to listen to Duncan’s in-depth discussion with Feinstein about Michael Jackson, celebrity, mirror balls, failure and redemption and other subjects on the podcast.