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Whitney Biennial - Day for Night 2006 - By E.K. Clark

There is an aura of deja-vue to this installment of the Whitney Biennial; although about one hundred artists were invited, more than four hundred are actually included when you count the many collectives and the shows within shows — a practice that marks a departure in the curatorial style from the past. We are, if you will, promised a made to order revolution; an exhibition that purports to showcase art that takes risks and pushes boundaries. What is delivered, however, is largely work and attitudes that seem all too familiar. The title Day for Night is taken from Truffaut’s 1973 film La Nuit Americain which is essentially a film about filmmaking, in which Truffaut references the use of camera filters that change day into night (to save on film set production costs) as a metaphor for the confusion that is the hallmark of real-life as compared to the harmony that we look for in art. Indeed, this Biennial is short on esthetics and overwhelmingly political. However, the subversive elements have been domesticated (institutionalized) by the wholesale acceptance of the selected work and their underlying concepts.

Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s fifty foot Peace Tower located in the sculpture court greets visitors as they enter the exhibition. Over 200 artists were invited to contribute 2 x 2 protest signs which cover the sculpture and line the back walls. Forty years ago to protest the Viet Nam war, Di Suvero built the original Peace Tower in the streets of Los Angeles and invited some of the same artists. At that time, his work elicited violent responses and was physically attacked. Then, that was subversive and effective political art. In the Whitney courtyard, his sculpture looks merely quaint and almost loveable, in a sort of nostalgic way. Everybody feels good, this is after all preaching to the converted in a hot-house environment that is protected from the elements. No one is going to be upset or otherwise impacted by this work here.

Down by Law, organized by The Wrong Gallery features works by more than forty artists including several pieces from the Whitney’s permanent collection. This exhibition explores the myth surrounding the American outlaw, pretty safe material that offers a mild distraction. Paul Chan’s riveting 1st Light is one of the more successful works in this Biennial. Within a surreal, trapezoidal projection on the floor, swim what looks like a detritus and history of our technological civilization; dark silhouettes of cell-phones, eye-glasses, cars, sperm-like creatures, electric poles and even human figures move helter skelter over the surface in the darkened space. Lucas deGiulio creates a room full of poetic works that diverge from the party line of this show, in that they also have esthetic merit. Particularly compelling is a series of glass bottles embedded in the walls called Yeast-n-Jar Holograms (2004-06). Green aquarium-like views reveal strange three dimensional growths. Pierre Huyghe’s A Journey That Wasn’t conflates fact, fiction and representation in a stunning film with an unusual musical score that recreates a journey to Antartica in search of a mythical animal, staged and filmed, at the Wollman Rink in Centrak Park in 2005. Also notable is Urs Fischer’s The Intelligence of Flowers, a striking sculptural installation in which two revolving horizontal sticks are suspended with lighted candles to create giant circles with dripping wax on the floor. This phenomena can be viewed through a huge hole in a wall created by the artist, while the excavated debris from the hole is set out in another part of the space. This spectacle is quite mesmerizing. The Whitney Biennial is essentially is a formulaic affair, a predictable ritual launched with the best of intentions; and this year’s show proves once more that good intentions aren’t always enough.

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