If one were to search for a single word to describe the 2008 Whitney Biennial, perhaps it would be bricolage. Unfortunately, no one wants to be seen trotting out such a hoary old term under the guise or pretense that it is actually something new. Perhaps, a decade ago, when the word formed the foundation for the Ninth Biennale of Sydney, The Boundary Rider, it represented some late aspect of postmodernism cum pluralism that was still critically and culturally significant. Now, it seems almost as if it forms a curatorial foundation merely because there is no new trend, no significant movement, that a curator is willing to stake his or her reputation upon to pursue. What, then, is a generally disappointed and disinterested audience to do?
I ask this question because my mid-May stroll through the Whitney left me wondering how contemporary art had fallen into such a difficult predicament? At what point did even the semblance of aestheticism become synonymous with retardetaire practices, dominant paradigms, or, one even wishes, phallogocentrism – which, in this context, would have at least provided a useful target. Instead, this exhibiton, as with many contemporary group shows, stands as little more than a grab bag or established and emerging artists, many of whom share little to no significant interrelationship. Problematic, indeed.
What is it about contemporary practice that makes the idea of discrete practices so much an anathema? Is it the romanticized tragedy of artists such as Jason Rhoades? And what could have compelled Anish Kapoor, against the blinding reflections from his most recent works, to fill a portion of Barbara Gladstone’s Chelsea galleries with Blood Stick, an odiferous, resin covered lump floundering in the entrance to the exhibition?
It is as if the 1993 graduating class of the Whitney Independent Study Program, responsible for the remarkable Abject Art show at the time, had suddenly reemerged on the New York art scene with a sequel. Strangely, this isn’t lost in the catalogue, where we learn that in Agathe Snow’s works she “simultaneously invokes netherworlds of decrepit horror and suggestions for rescue, celebration, and survival. Her installations typically include one or two large-scale sculptures designating her chosen mode of abjection, accompanied by smaller pieces as remnant treasuries of debris offering hope that today’s detritus may someday become a precious, valued resource.” (emphasis added)
What is at stake here, as in any analysis of trends or developments in contemporary art, is whether or not the chosen mode of representation, in this instance the abject, assemblage based bricolage, is, in and of itself, sufficient. In a contemporary history marked by current world politics, by an increasing disparity of wealth levels between rich and poor, or by an escalating sense of poverty and disaffection, does this work challenge the conditions of contemporary society or merely reinforce the elitism that is levied against those who often view it?