Life is full of surprises. There are good surprises, like snow days and birthday parties, and there are bad surprises, like your boyfriend telling you he’s gay. You’re confused and disillusioned, but you think, “Hey, maybe we can still be friends.” So then you spend an awkward afternoon together brunching and cruising guys.
This year’s Whitney Biennial is kind of like that. Since the museum commissions the artists rather than the works of art, curators can never fully anticipate exactly what will spring forth from the crate. Abstract artist Richard Aldrich submitted a cartoonish drawing inspired by Stranger in a Strange Land, not a spare, large- scale piece he famous for. Sculptor Charles Ray worked in the medium of Magic Marker instead of clay. The shows’ artists may have ambushed the museum, but the same spirit permeated the galleries- general puzzlement with moments of delight. A whimsical “WTF?”
Take, for example, Aki Sasamoto’s contribution 2010, Strange Attractors. Video camcorders dangle from the ceiling in pendulous mesh bags, the kind that usually carry oranges. The cameras record visitors and project their images on the wall. If you go, you will see many perplexed faces and furrowed brows lining the walls of the Whitney, maybe even small children crying. According to the museum’s program guide, Sasamoto “jumbles her recent obsession for doughnuts, fortune- tellers, hemorrhoids, and things detected in the world.” I couldn’t have made that up. You can catch Sasamoto in some kind of interactive presentation with her installation between now and May 29. However, she will only perform on dates including the numbers six and nine. No, not because she is some kind of oral sex pervert, but because she is interested in perfect circles. Of course.
If the show captures one cohesive theme, aside from “things detected in the world,” it is about processes- both artistic and historical. The Biennial’s two- year cycle aims to reveal shifts in culture, aesthetically and socially. The smoke in Pae White’s Still, Untitled swirls so crisply it appears to be a gelatin photograph. But upon closer inspection, the unfurling tendrils are actually a tapestry. Surprise! This emphasis on methods and materials surfaces in Tauba Auerbach’s textural paintings. She spray paints canvas and folds them up while still wet, creating a three- dimensional look. This results in paintings that seem like bed sheets fresh from the package. High and low? Illusion versus reality? Oh no, I’m confused again.
For the more literal- minded, photographers Stephanie Sinclair and Nina Berman document the horrors of war in graphic detail. Sinclair’s series Self- Immolation exposes Afghani women who have lit themselves aflame to escape prolonged domestic abuse. This practice apparently occurs often enough that rudimentary hospitals exist to care specifically for this type of burn victim. The unrelenting images of charred skin haunt and disturb. Berman’s Marine Wedding is the most affecting work in the show. She followed Ty Zeigler for one year, who was seriously injured by a suicide car bomber while serving in Iraq. He returned home to Texas missing an arm, and his face so badly disfigured that his nose and eyes look like pinholes. The series unfolds with his marriage and ultimate divorce to his high school sweetheart. Despite his maiming, Zeigler wields guns and sports his Marine dress blues. Berman says these photos suggest “a comfortable acceptance with military culture despite the cost.”
For the first time in the Biennial’s history, over half the featured artists are women. That’s a surprise too, and maybe explains why the exhibit is so complicated. Like it or not, it will give you plenty to chat about with your proverbial gay ex- boyfriend.