Art in the Dark

Alan Gilbert


A couple nights after the close of the most recent Whitney Biennial, the Dixie Chicks were interviewed on Larry King Live. Reveling in the successful release a week earlier of their latest album, Taking the Long Way, the Dixie Chicks displayed their trademark mixture of brash and demure honesty that was abruptly politicized in March 2003 when lead singer Natalie Maines declared during a concert in London: “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” In the States, Maines’s comment led to widespread public scorn (and some support), instantly declining record sales, banishment from country music radio stations, hate mail and even death threats—all of which led Maines to apologize, and she made a loosely contrite appearance a month later on Primetime with Diane Sawyer. But with Taking the Long Way opening at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 (making them the only female group in commercial music history to debut three #1 Billboard albums) apologies were mostly retracted, and “no regrets” was the theme for King and his audience.

At one point during the interview, when King opened up the phone lines, a caller commented that despite lingering public animosity, the Dixie Chicks were willing to field live phone calls, whereas a prior interview with Donald Rumsfeld had been for King’s prerecorded show, and consequently didn’t allow for potentially hostile questions from the general public. Somewhat missing the point, King said there wasn’t an opportunity for questions because the show was prerecorded, to which the caller replied: “Yes, well, I would like to observe that the Dixie Chicks have guts and integrity, and Donald Rumsfeld has shown he’s a coward as well as a liar.” (And some critics say that the mainstream media is only good for brainwashing the masses!) With King getting impatient, the caller asked the Dixie Chicks what they think of Rumsfeld. Member Emily Robison responded: “He weaves around questions better than anyone I’ve ever seen.” Cue, not footage of Rumsfeld’s equivocations, but Anderson Cooper in New Orleans previewing his upcoming show on the race to rebuild the levees at the start of the hurricane season.

So maybe the mainstream media isn’t quite up to the challenge of critique after all. But maybe poetry is. Donald Rumsfeld’s poetry, that is. Or more specifically, verbatim excerpts from Rumsfeld’s press conferences transcribed as poems by journalist and humorist Hart Seely, and published in a book entitled Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld’s answers to the Washington press corps’ probing as well as softball questions have become legendary for their obfuscating quality. Seely’s poetic renditions further emphasize this aspect. Here’s an example:

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

When Seely first published a selection of these poems at Slate, he, too, described Rumsfeld as someone who “weaves away, letting inversions and repetitions confuse and beguile.” All laughter and caricature aside, what’s important to realize here is that for Rumsfeld—and the Bush administration in general—indeterminacy is not incompatible with power. In other words, for Rumsfeld and company, there’s no paradox in believing continuous obfuscation depicts an accurate representation of reality.

This is a major political and epistemological shift in U.S. politics—or politics anywhere else, for that matter. Whereas before, an actual event was spun in order to justify a response (e.g., a possible encounter in the Bay of Tonkin between North Vietnamese naval boats and U.S. warships became a pretext for the Vietnam War’s escalation), these days the spin not only precedes the reality, it creates the reality. The chain of signifiers—9/11, terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, Iraq, invasion—and its complement of artificially generated visual spectacles is an obvious example. (Is it too perverse to point out that this type of logic is a form of poetic metonymy?) But before this chain can be analyzed and exposed, a new chain qua “reality” is produced, shifting critique from future-oriented progressivism and sporadic utopianism, to a past-inflected position of reactive rearguard maneuvers—a repositioning that mirrors the appropriation and deflation of its radical content.

In his essay entitled “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Bruno Latour addresses many of these same issues in relation to recent and contemporary critical theory. What happens, he asks, when lack of certainty—that most powerful weapon in critical theory and the avant-garde’s respective arsenals—is co-opted by conservatives and right-wing ideologies? His example is another one from the Bush administration, this time “a Republican strategist” who believes that the most effective way of undermining the seemingly indisputable facts of global warming is “to show ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts”—the irony of which for Latour is that this is exactly what he himself has been seemingly doing for much of his career, albeit from a different position on the political spectrum. Where, then, does that leave critique—and Latour’s own project? Latour is admirably honest in admitting these developments may mean rethinking much of his life’s work, and he is rare among theorists of indeterminacy in applying it to his own embrace of indeterminacy. At the same time, he sees in much of his work the direction his updated response might take: a reinvigorated and critically informed empiricism.

The philosophy of chaos and uncertainty also has its echoes in “new economy” models of doing business. Latour writes:

As Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello say, the new spirit of capitalism has put to good use the artistic critique that was supposed to destroy it. If the dense and moralist cigar-smoking reactionary bourgeois can transform him- or herself into a free-floating agnostic bohemian, moving opinions, capital, and networks from one end of the planet to the other without attachment, why would he or she not be able to absorb the most sophisticated tools of deconstruction, social construction, discourse analysis, postmodernism, postology?

Similarly, if a career bureaucrat like Rumsfeld can transform himself into a poet… This is not, as Latour goes on to write, an excuse to turn into a reactionary, whatever one’s disenchantments with the present state of critique or the avant-garde. Rather, “I simply want to do what every good military officer, at regular periods, would do: retest the linkages between the new threats he or she has to face and the equipment and training he or she should have in order to meet them—and, if necessary, to revise from scratch the whole paraphernalia.” Isn’t this exactly what Rumsfeld did at the Pentagon when he became Secretary of Defense—to try to reimagine the entire U.S. military, making it less reliant on Cold War models that would deploy large numbers of troops and armor on European battlefields (a strategy that swiftly won the first Iraq war), instead shaping a military based on smaller numbers of forces, speed, and above all technology? However, before indeterminacy’s baby is thrown out with critique’s bathwater, it’s precisely because Rumsfeld refused to synthesize a 20th-century military with a 21st-century one that he has almost single-handedly lost the war in Iraq. (Maybe the polluted bathwater that should be tossed out is all the military metaphors.) There isn’t a military officer or civilian in the entire history of the United States who can claim Rumsfeld’s dubious achievement (some have lost battles, but never an entire war). And he still has his job!

In that vein, the primary theme of this year’s Whitney Biennial—whether in the artwork, the exhibition catalogue, or the discourse surrounding the exhibition—was obfuscation. More precisely, for biennial curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, perhaps more so than for the artists in toto, obfuscation and indeterminacy are principal aesthetic tools for confronting the current geopolitical landscape marred by the shadows of U.S. imperialism. It’s a word that’s repeated in the catalogue, and appears right away in Iles and Vergne’s “Preface and Acknowledgments”: “The swing of the barometer in the exhibition toward obfuscation, darkness, secrecy, and the irrational is, as always, determined by the artists. It could also be said to reflect the mood in the larger world.” Furthermore, it’s signaled in the title of the biennial (the first time the exhibition has ever been given a title), Day for Night, which refers to a cinematographic process whereby night scenes are filmed during the day, and which is also the English translation of the title of François Truffaut’s 1973 film La nuit Américaine.

“Obfuscation, darkness, secrecy, and the irrational” are sly and potentially subversive rejoinders to didacticism, absolutism, and unilateralism, while also signaling the latter’s destructive effects. (That said, it’s not a particularly novel politico-aesthetic approach, and can be found in the response by writers and intellectuals, such as Georges Bataille, to the rise of European fascism in the 1930s.) The biennial began by ringing three notes simultaneously, each of them related to this complex dialectic between obfuscation and dogmatism. The first was an elegiac tone. Urs Fischer’s huge, jagged holes in the walls of one of the Whitney’s galleries welcomed viewers to the exhibition (The Intelligence of Flowers, 2003–6); yet this suddenly revived artmaking device of intervening in the physical structure of the museum/gallery (a number of artists employed it at the 2005 Greater New York exhibition) not only indicates a renewed white cube critique, but here evoked bombed architecture. Inside these demolished walls, Fischer installed Untitled (branches) (2005), a sculpture featuring candles at the end of two long rotating sticks that slowly drip their wax in large circles on the floor. Both minimal and quasi-mystical (a description that could be applied to a number of other works in the biennial, including Paul Chan’s here and elsewhere much-loved 1st Light [2005]; recently deceased, goth-before-it-was-cool Steven Parrino’s “paintings” [all 2004]; even Pierre Huyghe’s grandly cinematic anti-epic, A Journey That Wasn’t [2005], which felt a bit like Moby-Dick meets Waiting for Godot), Fischer’s dual installation asked for a moment of silence at the commencement of the show. It was both smart and moving, and found a less somber echo in Adam McEwen’s fake obituaries of various cultural celebrities: Bill Clinton, Jeff Koons, Nicole Kidman and Rod Stewart (all 2004).

The second component in the struggle with orthodoxy could be found—or, more specifically, heard—immediately to the right of Fischer’s “gallery” where Nari Ward’s Glory (2004) was installed. Fashioned from oil barrels to look like a tanning bed that might literally sear an image of the Stars and Stripes onto a bronzing body, Glory features an audio track with looped phrases such as “Oh, you’re so rigid.” This more conventionally ironic approach in political art never seems to go out of fashion, though it works best when it pushes off from irony toward satire, excess and the grotesque, as it did in a mini exhibition—the catalogue calls it a “parasite exhibition”—organized by Wrong Gallery curatorial and artistic pranksters Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick. Lodged within the larger exhibition, the work featured the figure of the outlaw and in general was less well behaved and mannered than other parts of the biennial. Back in the biennial proper, there was some serious misbehaving going down in Francesco Vezzoli’s Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s “Caligula” (2005), which engages the society of spectacle head on with a celebrity-ridden, five-and-a-half-minute film preview featuring shiny glimpses of orgies, incest, fetishism, gluttony and S&M; all of it done in tongue-in-cheek, decline-of-the-Roman/US-Empire style, yet with such enthusiasm and technical virtuosity that it—the film? or the decline of the U.S. empire?—almost seems real.

A third ingredient in the exhibition sought to confront power and authority more directly, though still with an element of obliqueness. Above the entrance to the exhibition and across from Fischer’s installations, make-believe artist/art dealer Reena Spaulings hung a commercially manufactured store awning that lopped off the last letters of the name of one of the biennial’s biggest individual donors (The Hoods, 2006). The much-discussed Peace Tower, recreated by Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija (2006), was covered in small signs that declared in various ways “No blood for oil,” but also “FREE BEER FREE BEER” and “WHYNOT BEALIEN.” A handful took the form of small, monochromatic paintings. Other reviewers noted that, despite looming near the museum’s entrance, the Peace Tower looked marginal to the exhibition (to say nothing about its somewhat self-congratulatory quality), stranded as it was in the Whitney’s sunken courtyard.

Excluding the biennial’s separate film and video program and Deep Dish TV’s video installation Shocking and Awful: A Grassroots Response to War and Occupation (2003–5)—regrettably located near the bathrooms in the Whitney’s basement—the most overt form of critique in the entire biennial was a version of Richard Serra’s widely distributed Stop Bush (2004), which occasioned its own set of confusions and obfuscations. The wall text and catalogue entry for Serra’s piece go out of their way to stress that Stop Bush isn’t an artwork, but rather is meant to, in Serra’s words, “get the message out.” But in an exhibition that prioritizes work attempting to blend art and life, and that would seem to situate this union second only to obfuscation as the most prevalent and cogent artistic gesture available to artists working today, it’s an oddly forced distinction. By imposing a rigid separation between art and message, Serra’s Stop Bush cuts sharply against the open-ended grain of the biennial’s proposed through-a-lens-darkly thesis. Moreover, in 2006, I think we can safely argue that all art can be read politically, provided a definition of the political is granted a scope commensurate with the prodigious artistic and intellectual energy invested during the past century in expanding the definition of art.

It’s the art versus non-art debate that’s as important a dialogue to Jesús “Bubu” Negrón’s bringing into the lobby of the Whitney two vendors’ carts from the street outside—for the duration of the biennial—and having these pieces declared by their accompanying wall text a prime example of the “connections between art and life” (Honoris Causa, 2006). But there’s also the sense that the vendors’ mode of life hasn’t been synthesized but recontextualized. This is actually quite different from the idea that Negrón’s borrowed carts instigate a blending of art and life. Have definitions of art and life been settled such that it’s now possible to blur the two? At a minimum, one should ask what part of art is being mixed with what part of life. Thus, instead of endeavoring to blend art and life it would be better to practice—as artists and viewers—constant recontextualizations of them. Recontextualized and recontextualizing art retains an element of autonomy while becoming just another cultural product within the massive global swarm of cultural products and activities. The seemingly contradictory relationship between art’s autonomy and its cultural leveling (its heteronomy), which is intertwined with art’s simultaneous capacity for critique and complicity, is among the most prominent challenges for thinking about contemporary art.

There’s no escaping mediation, and it sometimes feels as if the merging of art and life is art’s last gasp at immediacy, framed within a socially shared experience of an immediacy more inclusive (and therefore sometimes automatically deemed more “political”) than the traditionally personal/Romantic one. Yet alongside the various real and disguised collectives and collaborations (there’s even a fictive third curator of the biennial named Toni Burlap, the “love child” of British-born Iles and French-born Vergne), the biennial is packed with what Johanna Burton calls in her catalogue essay “productive existential crisis.” The biennial may begin on an elegiac note, but it feels as if it gets even more solemn and more claustrophobic with each descending floor of the museum. This may have to do with the way in which the exhibition as a whole is structured around moving image installations in dark galleries, which is partly why much, though certainly not all, of the painting and photography looks rather negligible. In contrast with previous Whitney Biennials, sculpture and installation are modest and conceptual, the result of another love child: this one between Richard Tuttle and Robert Smithson, with Eva Hesse as midwife (all of them, of course, subjects of high-profile retrospectives during the past couple years—two held at the Whitney—detect a pattern?). Once past the initial triumvirate of Fischer, Ward and Spaulings, there’s a whole slew of this work at the beginning of the exhibition, including Yuri Masnyj, Deva Graf, Lucas DeGiulio and Gedi Sibony, all of it interesting in theory and as part of a larger dialogue with other non-biennial investigative strategies (e.g., Thomas Hirschhorn’s maximalist installations); but unfortunately, most of it sat inert in the Whitney’s small individual galleries and when juxtaposed with projected slides of post-Katrina New Orleans (Zoe Strauss, Untitled, 2000–5) or Ryan Trecartin’s polysexual funhouse video (A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004).

In the art world, the intensity of “existential crisis” seems to increase with each passing year of the Bush administration. What makes it “productive” is the widespread questioning it instigates. (A poll released as I write this review finds that 59% percent of adults in the United States now believe invading Iraq was a mistake, and the president’s approval rating hovers around 30–35%.) In her poem “Waveland (Back in Chicago),” Alice Notley writes:

A poem must be of its times without giving in to them
A poem must be better than its times as
a self must be—
This poem’s a black window, not a collage

I can think of no more succinct description of the biennial than this one: its sense that art both reflects and seeks to surpass, that self-striving and failure as political remain pertinent, and that art/poetry is “a black window”—a phrase that could be applied (if it hasn’t been already) to a significant percentage of works in the exhibition. For Iles and Vergne (as channeled through Burlap’s catalogue essay), if the biennial has a political goal, it’s to promote “an everyday, inquiring behavior—‘a safe place for unsafe ideas,’ in which accessibility and easy absorption are replaced by alternative, anomalous ways of thinking and seeing, and where not everything is understood, but everything is questioned.” Yet as Latour points out in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” there’s a danger here: “Isn’t this what criticism intended to say: that there is no sure ground anywhere? But what does it mean when this lack of sure ground is taken away from us by the worst possible fellows as an argument against the things we cherish?” Another way of saying this is to ask whether it’s beyond the capacity of art—and art criticism—to shift the focus from what is valuable to how is value decided.

Of course this isn’t to conflate questions raised by the Whitney Biennial with those raised by members of the Bush administration. That would be ridiculous. It’s only to point out that uncertainty in itself is no longer an inherently radical position (if it ever was). Similarly, when “existential crisis” is unmoored from shared historical inquiry, individuals are “discouraged from speaking as citizens in their art,” as Martha Rosler cogently observes in her review of the biennial for Artforum. Among my favorite pieces in the biennial was Jay Heikes’s Return of the Parrot (2005), which uses large, scruffy photocopies of video stills to interrupt the narration of a long joke. Hanging from the ceiling above the photocopies was a 7-foot, cast-aluminum hook of the kind used to yank faltering performers from stage—or press conferences (New Heaven Hook, 2005). As an allegory for present political conditions, the piece was completely on point; as smudged testimony of a self trying to be better—and yet ending up not much better—than its times, it was both ambitious and humble. (Jamal Cyrus’s work, another favorite of mine, functioned in a similar way, though in relation to the legacy of cultural black nationalism, especially, Africanismus #022564 [2005].) In offering, and then obscuring, spaces of dialogue, Heikes and many other artists in the biennial revealed the difficulties ahead in constructing shared yet variegated public spheres in the wake of their ongoing commercialization—including in the art world—and in the face of polarizing U.S. politics. Times are uncertain, but uncertainty threatens to go out of time.

Image Notes:
Image 1: Pierre Huyghe
Production still from A Journey That Wasn’t, 2005
A musical on the Wollman Ice Rink, Central Park, New York.
A project of the Public Art Fund in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art
Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris

Image 2: Anthony Burdin, Installation, 2006
Installation view, Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night, Whitney Museum of American Art, March 2 – May 28, 2006. Collection of the artist; courtesy Maccarone Inc., New York and Los Angeles.
Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins.

Image 3: Urs Fischer, Untitled (branches), 2005 and The Intelligence of Flowers, 2003–06, in the foreground, and Rudolf Stingel, Untitled (After Sam), 2005–06 in the background.
Installation view, Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night, Whitney Museum of American Art, March 2 – May 28, 2006. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins.

Image 4: Paul Chan, 1st Light, 2005
Installation view, Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night, Whitney Museum of American Art, March 2 – May 28, 2006. Digital animated projection
Collection of the artist; courtesy Greene Naftali Gallery, New York. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins.

Image 5: (l. to r.) Kelley Walker, Black Star Press (rotated 180 degrees); Press Star, Press Black, 2006 and Liz Larner, RWBs, 2005
Installation view, Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night, Whitney Museum of American Art, March 2 – May 28, 2006.
Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins.