The Whitney Biennial has been pretty sickly of late so I was encouraged by reviews calling it the best in years, promising that this one was different, in a good way. I saw it Friday and don't agree - neither the 'best in years' part (though that's a fairly low bar based on the last two or three) or that the art was particularly different.
What was different, not just for the Biennial but for the use and function of a museum, involved performance and process. The art objects - paintings on walls, installations, sculpture, videos - had an almost peripheral relationship within the exhibition; the focus was on the act of art, loosely defined. In that context, viewing the show was as interesting for the experience of seeing others viewing the show as it was for the show itself - it didn't really matter whether the 'performers' were officially sanctioned by the Whitney or had just strolled in to become part of a living tableau for a few hours.
For example, the fourth floor of the museum has been transformed into a performance space in which different types of events take place on different days at different times. When I saw it Friday it was covered by a vast black mat, the setting for a dance class. About 35 people dressed in sloppy old dance class type clothes were standing or sitting, listening to instructions from one of the class leaders. The lighting was strong, coming from one corner, and the scene had the look and feel of a Caravaggio painting - each ordinary, barefoot character took on unearned significance. Then, in a moment, it all shifted - I moved to a different viewpoint, an command was given, the group quickly formed into four straight orderly lines and a whole different set of associations became relevant.
The rest of the floor was a maze of ideas and display. In a tight corner you stumble upon a clever, creepy scene by Gisele Vienne - a blonde boy mannequin holding a bloody-mouthed puppet that jumps to life now and then, as if seeking to take possession of his earthly soul. A breathy voice narrating a tale of horror is presumably the puppet documenting its nasty business. The walls are patterned with penciled squares, each one dirty or marked in a different way, giving the effect of tiles in a cell - which, because you are constrained to stand so close, you inhabit too.
Further down the hall you come to a white space set up like a dressing room for the rotating performers. Touches - the image of a staring sad-eyed woman behind a grill, white patterned panels that recall the screens in mosques or medieval churches, heavy stage lights sprouting like trees in a corner - make the room an installation rather than simply a serviceable space. This Fourth Floor maze has been made one-way so when you reach the end point you have to track back through the narrow spaces, forced to confront by touch and eye contact the tide swimming against you.
The Third Floor includes the installation titled This Could Be Something if I Let It, consisting of the entire studio contents of the artist Dawn Kaspar, who moved just about everything she owns into the Whitney for the three month run of the Biennial. This is certainly process over product, an aim compatible with modern and some historical art, though here product appears to have been dismissed as not really of interest. While I was there the artist milled in and around the throng of people examining her piles of stuff and looking a bit overwhelmed. She claims to have been without a permanent studio for years, so her art is her nomadic existence. She has replicated the Whitney installation elsewhere, moving into a gallery or museum for as long as they will have her.
At the risk of being a Philistine, that doesn't strike me as enough for her to be hailed as an 'artist. or her work as 'art.' But perhaps it's those terms that are the problem, their meaning shifting and dodging as we watch. This year's Biennial, pushing limits and presenting possibilities, makes that definition even harder to pin down. Is that bad? Not necessarily, but neither is it necessarily something to applaud. Maybe the truest thing about the Biennial is that it marches in step with us at this moment in time, when very little is easy to figure out.