Culture

ART OF SEDITION

The Whitney Biennial demonstrates the knockout power of creative dissidence

JONATHAN DURBIN April 12 2004
Culture

ART OF SEDITION

The Whitney Biennial demonstrates the knockout power of creative dissidence

JONATHAN DURBIN April 12 2004

ART OF SEDITION

Culture

The Whitney Biennial demonstrates the knockout power of creative dissidence

JONATHAN DURBIN

THE ARTWORK BY the collective known as assume vivid astro focus has a hyperkinetic disco sensibility not meant for the colourblind—or the epileptic. Its assume vivid astro focus 8, one of the signature pieces at the ongoing (to May 30) 2004 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, is a mixed-media installation located on the institution’s fourth floor. Painted in screaming neons, the room is literally plastered in pop culture. Refrigeratorsized prints of a Jägermeister liquor bottle and packs of Marlboros are among the images that fluoresce on the floor, while one wall features a 14-foot woman wearing worryingly tight hot pants. On the adjacent wall, a television blares a video collage that includes a disembodied dog’s head shooting lasers from its eyes. Occasionally, a strobe light explodes and lends refined Whitney audiences the haggard glamour of late-night club-goers. Suffice to say that the installation is a little like what might happen if MTV were able to vomit up its 22-year history all at once. Lauded by critics, assume vivid astro focus 8 is one of the exhibit’s most enjoyable works, and it’s easily the most alienating experience the museum has to offer.

Established in 1932, the Biennial was the first to showcase now-famous figures like Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper. The exhibition traditionally mixes established names with those that are up-and-coming. This year the curators chose “intergenerational conversation” as their theme, because many of the artists, whether ’60s protestors or ’90s ironists, were inspired by the same issue—“A reality they perceive as increasingly dangerous and alien,” or so says the wall text at the beginning of the show. But that’s not the whole truth. The Biennial makes an impression precisely because of the great pleasure its artists take in being estranged, provoking viewers with dissident glee. They’re laughing at you and with you, simultaneously. To their credit, the art is of such quality that, should you go, you probably won’t care.

By now it’s almost condescending to mention that modern art, whatever the medium, is supposed to transgress social norms.

In return, mass culture often greets the vanguard like a parent dealing with an irascible teen—with an itchy combination of apprehension and exhaustion. There’s good reason for that, and mass culture is entitled. It’s been there, done that, too. Being subversive today is about as original as Mel Gibson’s treatment of the New Testament.

An argument can be made that seditious art is only fun—and important—when it breaks the rules. But in order for the rules to be broken, they must first be enforced. Lucky for the Biennial, then, that the current political climate in the United States is increasingly conservative. Not all of the works in the Biennial are as immersive as the one by assume vivid astro focus, a group of collaborators centred around Eli Sudbrack, the 36-year-old talk of the town, who would prefer to remain anonymous. (Although he was born in Rio de Janeiro, Canada can lay some claim to him too: Sudbrack was a resident artist at the Banff Centre in 1996.) Some are unabashedly political. One piece by Dario Robleto is fashioned out of the burned front page of the Pittsburgh SunTelegraph from August 8,1945. Below the headline “Holocaust in Hiroshima,” Robleto graffitied the name of the piece: Our ’60s Radicals Forgot to Stay Suspicious.

There are the paintings by Mel Bochner, comprised entirely of candy-coloured words and inspired by thesaurus entries—“oops” led him to paint such words as botch, boner, fumble, fluff, gaffe, snafu. Given the context, Bochner’s work reads like an apology to the United Nations for the Bush administration’s failure in international diplomacy.

Despite, say, Britney Spears’ nearly nude turn in her video for Toxic, the continent’s acceptance of those loveable rascals from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Paris Hilton’s bizarre popularity, in 2004 the big surprise on the culture front is that there are rules. There are also consequences if those rules are broken. Restricting culture isn’t an emerging trend in the U.S.—it’s back in full force. Moves by the watchdog Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its chairman Michael Powell to enforce what is and isn’t acceptable for American airwaves must have executives at HBO thankful that Tony Soprano didn’t decide to move into Bada Bing after Carmella threw him out.

On March 18, the FCC fined Infinity Broadcasting Corp. US$27,500 for comments that Howard Stern made on his radio show in 2001. The agency also called remarks by the rock singer Bono, made during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards, indecent and profane. And then, of course, there’s Nipplegate—Janet Jackson’s unfortunate overexposure at the Super Bowl. Not only did her breast launch a million newspaper columns, it’s also being blamed for the tape delay American networks now use when broadcasting live events, like, say, the Academy Awards. Get over it, guys. It’s just a boob—boobs never killed anyone.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Frank Rich says the FCC clampdown has its roots in the days following Sept. 11. He writes: “The story dates back to . . . two weeks after, when White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, condemned a historically astute Bill Maher wisecrack about America’s ‘cowardly’ pre-9/11 pursuit of al-Qaeda. Mr. Fleischer warned Americans they should ‘watch what they say,’ and some Americans took heed. Mr. Maher’s Politically Incorrect was dropped by a few network affiliates and advertisers and then canceled by ABC.” That’s show business for you.

While the zeal to exert top-down cultural control can be negative, one of the byproducts of restriction is innovation, as artists attempt to please themselves and avoid towing the party line. Furthermore, it can also be the cause of a kind of civil disobedience. Take the case of Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton. This time last year he was a relatively obscure Los Angeles DJ whose claim to fame was that he wore a mouse costume when he spun records at parties. But Burton achieved notoriety and acclaim when copies of The Grey Album, a record he produced that mashes the vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with music stripped from the Beatles’ White Album, appeared on the Internet.

Because he never intended to sell the record, he didn’t attempt to clear copyrights with EMI Music, holder of the rights to the the Beatles’ catalogue. EMI demanded that Burton take the record off the market, and he complied, but by that time the songs were so popular that an Internet-wide protest was held on “Grey Tuesday” in February, and 170 Web sites made them available for downloading. At a recent electronic music conference in Miami, attended by recording industry moguls and star DJs, Danger Mouse was one of the biggest draws. Rightfully so. His music is probably sitting on the hard drive of an irascible teenager near you now.

The Whitney exists outside the purview of both the recording industry and the FCC, so the museum can be as transgressive, rude or critical as it wants—so long as the sponsor doesn’t pull out. The exhibition is generally thought to be one of the best in years, and would doubdess be so anyway, but when informed by the tension of an increasingly conservative culture, the Biennial seems more than good. It seems urgent.

That sense of vitality stems partially from the uproar raised when the Brooklyn Museum of Art presented Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection in 1999-2000. At the time, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to cut off the city’s subsidy to the museum over several artworks he found obscene, the most famous of which was Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting of a black Madonna that was spattered with elephant dung and festooned with cut-outs of genitalia from pornographic magazines. Cardinal John O’Connor, now deceased, called the exhibit an attack on religion itself. Until the municipal government backed down, it was a minor cause célèbre.

Though the cigarettes in the assume vivid astro focus installation are sure to offend him, as yet Mayor Michael Bloomberg has not weighed in on the Biennial. Perhaps he should. Apparently a little threat of censorship can go a long way. CT1