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artist: intermedia: viewer

anna arabindan-kesson: 2010 whitney biennial of art

Anna Arabindan-Kesson is a Phd Candidate in History of Art and African-American Studies, Yale University.

We Like America and America Likes Us (2010), The Bruce High Quality Video Foundation We Like America and America Likes Us (2010), The Bruce High Quality Video Foundation
BOTTLES AND JARS WRAPPED IN RED NET HOLD AMBER, JELLY-LIKE SUBSTANCES AND HANG ABOVE AND NEXT TO OLD ELECTRICAL DEVICES, STOOLS AND BOXES. A SLIGHT WOMAN STANDS AT THE WALL DRAWING A LARGE CHARCOAL GRAPH, ITS SHAPE TRACED IN CONFIGURATIONS OF ROPE AND NETTING. WITH LARGE CUSHION ‘DOUGHNUTS’ ON HER ARMS, WHILE PROJECTORS TURN ON AND OFF, SCREENING LIGHT AND SCIENTIFICALLY FORMED CIRCULAR SHAPES, SHE MAINTAINS A CONTINUOUS MONOLOGUE ON THE MATHEMATICAL CONCEPT OF THE LORENTZ ATTRACTORS (WHOSE CONTINUOUS MOVEMENT AROUND CERTAIN POINTS CREATES DOUGHNUT-LIKE SHAPES) CONNECTING HER ACTIONS TO THE INSTALLATION. THIS IS STRANGE ATTRACTORS, A FRENETIC PERFORMANCE PIECE AND UNCANNY INSTALLATION BY AKI SASAMOTO INCLUDED IN THE 2010 WHITNEY BIENNIAL.

Sasamoto’s sustained action and disorienting monologue created a language that underscored the experimental possibilities of intersection, confluence and the everyday nature of disjuncture. A little like a ‘happening,’ the physical and linguistic permutations of the performance seemed to foreground the trajectories of this year’s biennial and its media works in which the language of modernism—its reconfiguration—and the centrality of experimentation and abstraction were guiding aesthetics.

The ‘intermedia’ aesthetic of Strange Attractors found resonance through a confluence of spoken word and image in The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s video work. On a white Cadillac Miller-Meteor’s windscreen they projected a video created out of YouTube clips (think funny cat videos and babies throwing food), Hollywood movies (Ghost Busters, Frankenstein, Independence Day) and news media. The vehicle—designed to double as hearse and ambulance—provides an engaging viewing platform across which this stream of images, iconic and everyday, lulls us into a comforting visual rhythm.

The images fade in and out while a low female voice soothes us with descriptions of her/their relationship: “We like America. And America likes us. But somehow, something keeps us from getting it together. We wished we could have fallen in love with America. She was beautiful, angelic even, but it never made sense…America stayed simple somehow. He stayed an acquaintance, despite everything we shared. Just a friend.”

We Like America and America Likes Us (2010) makes clear references to Joseph Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). Both works deal with the cultural myths of America, reviving them, critiquing them, exposing them. But in this piece the centrality of human physicality is muted as the image/text confluence sculpts us into the work. It’s confrontational—the images in their strange juxtapositions demand some kind of imaginative work. It’s also ritualistic: the slow cadence and rhythmic relationship of the film clips to the voiceover recreates the open space of the white walled room (lined with large digital images of Lorrain O’Grady’s First and Last of the Modernists, 2010) into something more reverential, within which the large white motor vehicle serves as mausoleum and instrument of healing. Standing in this space evokes an intense feeling of collectivity: the voiceover, hushed, solemn, also disjointed, provides something like an architectural frame. The monologue layers over and insulates the soft flow of images, while threading us into its passage of time.

These works and the artists creating them spoke back to a history of modernism in which language—and its abstraction into the realm of the performative—was central. A floor below, Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik (2008), the video work of Jesse Aron Green, created another form of abstraction in the angulated movement of his performers. His work is based on a book of the same name by Dr Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber (1808-1861; his son’s self-documented hallucinatory nervous illness fascinated Freud) detailing a system of exercises designed for the maintenance and invigoration of a healthy body and mind. Green uses the book as a kind of ‘score,’ his revolving camera (slowly making a complete revolution of the room in 80 minutes) captures 16 men performing an entire catalogue of physical movements executed according to the 45 exercises created by Schreber. Green’s gridded arrangement, the pieces of its constructions—the wooded plinths the performers stand on—and the extended duration of his single shot camera work reference minimalism and structural film making, highlighting and critiquing the relationship between these modernist art practices, psychoanalysis and the ideologies of 19th century German physical culture.

Tracing this history, the work nonetheless maintained a remarkable lack of rigidity. I was struck by the coalescence of the bodies, the way arms, heads, feet moved in sequences that solidified into a kind of bodily legibility characterised by a silent fluidity. In the seamless rotation of the camera and its slow elucidation of the bodies on view, the aesthetic rigidity of these earlier art practices was brought into a more intimate plane. As I watched, for at least half an hour, this formal abstraction of the body into gesture seemed more akin to a poetic anthropology. Becoming aware of the exact motions, a fine attenuation of muscle, skin, bone in the thrust of an arm, the curve of a neck, the elongation of a foot, Green created the space for a heightened sensitivity to what I can only describe as a physiological collectivity of (self) awareness.

The expansion of the video screen into the space of the gallery was effective in Parole (2010), a multi channel video projection by Sharon Hayes. Each of four walls held a video screen, and the work itself was housed within the four walls of a Whitney white box. Once inside the ‘inner’ structure—composed of plywood, plank supports, PA systems and wall coverings—I sat and watched various scenes of public speech play across the four screens—news segments, speeches, public recordings, auditions—each of them connected through the inclusion of a mysterious, silent, red-haired figure. This figure records sounds—political lectures, erotic readings, a kettle boiling, the reading of a love letter—but never speaks. Her silence is translated into a constellation of facial expressions that keeps time with the work’s expansion across the space of its projection. It unfolds around me through a simultaneity of differing experiences, flow of emotions and snatches of recognition. Poetic yet highly simulated the work examines the alluring, and harmful, power of speech, the marginalisation of sexual minorities and in its haunting expansiveness provided a uniquely communal sense of personhood.

A few rooms on I came across Annotated Plans For an Evacuation (2009) showing artist Alex Hubbard modifying his Ford Tempo. Shot in static profile by a camera attached to the side of the vehicle, Hubbard’s alteration followed a deliberate plan in which the continual transformation of his car unfolded to a soaring soundtrack across a shallow depth of field that immediately entangled me within its small, tucked away space at the back of the gallery. The deadpan purpose of Hubbard’s automotive alterations led only to a process of sustained movement, poignant and painterly in its action. A haunting complement to the structural analysis of Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik this study in time transformed the screen into a canvas in which the banality of the everyday and the mechanics of the industrial are pictorially arranged into a series of precise colours, lines and angles. An animated form of assemblage, Hubbard’s alterations called attention to the textural work of video, its ability to elongate and compress our sensory perceptions.

In the sculpture courtyard transformed by Theaster Gate’s installations of shoeshine chairs—a wooden pavilion, and walkways lined with repurposed Wrigley gum boxes—I watch Derek Chan crouching over a large checkered square of calligraphy paper. He slowly markes off each square—a diary of thoughts—with a random series of signs, sometimes breaking off to speak with viewers and obstructing the completion of his patterns. A study in the informal practices of everyday interaction and the specificity of urban life, Chan’s performance of serialisation and introspection is an intriguing complement to the graphic loops of dialogue and objects in Strange Attractors. The new media ‘aesthetic’ in the mutual fascination with serialisation and patterning to screen the encounter between artist and viewer highlighted the ritualised gestures that animate our everyday interactions.

What emerged for me in these video and performance works were the collective possibilities of new media. Through the ‘intermediation’ of text, image and installation the expansive and elemental historical languages of modernism were refigured through forms of contemporary abstraction.


2010 Whitney Biennale, Whitney Museum, New York, Feb 25-May 30, http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/2010Biennial

Anna Arabindan-Kesson is a Phd Candidate in History of Art and African-American Studies, Yale University.

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 54

© Anna Arabindan-Kesson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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