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Whitney Biennial III: Sub-text: On the Imbrication of Information and Objects

by Anthony Kiendl

Semiotext(e), Semiotext(e): New Series, 2014 (installation view). Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial comprises several thematic threads one can unravel, as one might expect given that three curators (Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms and Michelle Grabner) assembled this sprawling exhibition. Each curator was assigned a separate floor for the last Biennial to be hosted in the Whitney’s Breuer building on Madison Avenue; the museum will be decamping to its new quarters in Chelsea for the 2016 edition. There are multiple Biennials one could describe or draw out of this offering. Notably, there is a discernible retrospective glance (including several deceased artists) in this biennial ostensibly surveying the “new.” There is also a paucity of video installation, allowing material practices such as painting, and craft-oriented forms such as ceramics and textiles, to come to the fore. Despite these interesting turns, the Biennial I want to call attention to here is about writing, words and texts. Etal Adnan presents a range of works spanning several decades in the form of artist’s books: Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut (1968) and Five Senses for One Death (1969). The sentence “in the beginning was the white page” jumps off the latter work as a possible slogan for the Biennial.

This Biennial includes writing in multiple and diverse forms; the range encompasses almost every aspect of textual practice that one could enumerate. The profusion of writing is not addressed explicitly in the curators’ panels or educational and publicity materials that accompany the exhibition, but arises resolutely and repeatedly as one moves through the galleries.

The dominance of writing therefore gradually accrues in the exhibition, almost surreptitiously unveiling an articulation of the status of contemporary art. The range, innovation, and content of these texts provide smart and pleasurable markers that distinguish this Biennial from most others, and from much recent New York exhibition-making in general. That these works are spread among the three curators’ distinct areas speaks to a consensual sense that in 2014 text and language in art—whether written, performed, archived or imagined—is an urgent and defining preoccupation. This is not simply text-as-art in the historical sense of Conceptualism or theory, but reflects upon those histories and theories at the beginning of the 21st century. While this may not be overtly a collective curatorial strategy of the Biennial, it emerges as a telling index of currents in contemporary American art. It also raises interesting questions about how artists and curators are negotiating the relationship between words and images in the early 21st century, with the notable profusion of digital technologies that have invaded our lives, and the concomitant shifts in how we send and receive information and spend our time.

David Foster Wallace, from The Pale King materials, "Midwesternism" notebook, undated. 10 1/2 by 8 1/4 inches. Harry Ransom Center, Univ. of Texas at Austin, with permission from the David Foster Wallace Literary trust. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

The novelist David Foster Wallace is represented by several hand-scribbled pages of notebooks in which he was working on the novel The Pale King, prior to his death in 2008. Canadian Ken Lum presents a new work, Midway Shopping Plaza (2014), a quasi-concrete poem in the form of commercial retail signage for a suburban Vietnamese-American shopping mall. Every shop name is a fabricated allusion to the Vietnam War. David Robbins’s installation includes his previously published book, Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth Century Comedy. (Sculpturally incorporated into the work, it is also available in the Whitney’s gift shop downstairs.) Lisa Ann Auerbach presents text on two supports: knitted wool clothing (Let the Dream Write Itself, 2014, and We All Pussy Riot, We Are All Pussy Galore, 2013, as well as a “mega-zine”—over-sized ink-jet prints that emulate and pay homage to the DIY self-publishing and ‘Zine movement of the ‘90s. Julie Ault and Marvin Taylor present a transcribed conversation as a work, which may also be downloaded from the Whitney’s website. Chana Horwitz presents a rarely seen series of self-created language forms spanning 1964 to 2005—graphic figures created on graph paper, a formal vocabulary of her own devising like algorithms or code. The publishing enterprise Semiotext(e) is arguably representative of the last distinctly identifiable aggregation of what used to be called “the underground” or “counter-culture.” They present landmark work here, but for the first time to my eyes it is inflected (by this context) with a nostalgic feeling for a period when radical publishing seemed more dangerous. Less prosaic forms of text in the exhibition include Paul P.’s writing table designed and fabricated for the English novelist Nancy Mitford, Steve Reinke and Jessie Mott’s children’s adaptation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Alan Sekula’s notebooks, and Joseph Grigley’s (re)presentation of critic Gregory Battcock’s archives. Representing current art criticism, we find Travis Jeppesen, and his object-oriented writing from “within” artworks. His works are presented as audio with headphones, and blacked-out sunglasses for the viewer to immerse themselves within. (Semiotext(e) is publishing Jeppesen’s forthcoming novel. A marathon reading of this novel will take place as part of the Biennal’s program activities. Importantly, the innovative Portland publishing house, Publication Studio, is included here as the producer of the Jeppesen’s work. Along with Triple Canopy, Publication Studio represents a new generation of publishers carving out a revitalized and assertive role for print media in the era of digitization and electronic gadgetry.

Triple Canopy have established themselves by publishing in new and innovative (especially digital) ways from their base in Brooklyn. They do not disappoint here with an installation that plumbs the difference between objects and information.

Given the preponderance of traditional art objects in this Biennial—in conjunction with the simultaneous profusion of texts—I believe this question is emblematic of the Biennial: why are we drawn to this convergence of language and materiality in a culture that is technologically tilting towards digitization and the resurgence of visual forms in communication? Do we go back, as Vilém Flusser wondered,[1] to the image or forward to numbers? More broadly speaking: How in society do we relate to objects and information, and how are they—in an increasingly technologized world—imbricated in the fabrication and interpretation of culture?


[1] Vilém Flusser, Does Writing Have a Future? Translated by Nancy Ann Roth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 161. Originally published in 1987.

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