Art gets ready for the end of the world
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2006.
The reviews of Day for Night, this year's Whitney Biennial exhibition, had all been lukewarm-to-hostile, so it was without high expectations that I flew to New York last week to see the show for myself. Maybe it was because I had just reviewed Tate Britain's dispiriting Triennial, but after only a few minutes in the Whitney show I was hooked, and by the time I'd seen the 250 works, by 101 artists, spread over three floors of the museum, I'd concluded that this wasn't just a good biennial but an outstanding one.
Certainly the squalor and violence about which American critics complained is everywhere in evidence, but I can't think of a greater contrast than between the Whitney's direct, visceral response to what is happening in America today and the tepid, neoconceptual navel-gazing going on at Tate Britain. The curators of the biennial, Chrissie Iles and Phillipe Vergne, are both foreigners (British and French respectively), yet they have put together a tightly curated exhibition of works that reflect the social, economic, political and religious polarities of contemporary American society.
From the 18th century to the present, the most compelling subject for American artists has been America itself, whether you think of the Hudson River and Ash Can Schools, or of Childe Hassam, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns's painting of the American flag. Remembering that the photographs of Walker Evans, Robert Franks and Ansel Adams are also part of this long tradition makes it easier to interpret the sometimes dark and difficult art in an exhibition virtually obsessed with the subject of America.
Last summer, for example, photographer Zoe Strauss went to the towns of Biloxi and Gulfport in Mississippi to document the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. As you would expect, her coloured slides show a ragged, drowned and broken world. But they also show a poor black community abandoned by an incompetent and indifferent government. It is not the smashed houses that are so eloquent, but the bullet holes in the shop windows, the sign "Looters will be Shot" and the pathetic scrawl on a garage door, "Mom were [sic] OK". Though Strauss's understated slideshow takes place in silence, more than any television report the piece speaks of the trauma Katrina represented to Americans, who could see for themselves a country falling apart, a moral centre that wasn't there.
Close by, we come upon the photos by Angela Strassheim, who trained as a forensic photographer. Her subject is her own middle-class, Midwestern family, who are all born-again Christians. If anything, the world she documents is more frightening than the scenes from Biloxi, for in photos of a young father parting his seven-year-old son's hair before church, or the artist's grandmother in her coffin prettily dressed in a pink jacket, she reveals a Stepford family insulated from reality by the cotton wool of religious certainty.
Paul Chan's unforgettable installation 1st Light takes on the subject of Christian fundamentalism. To see it, you enter a darkened space to find a digitally animated film projected on the gallery floor. As ethereal music plays softly, you look down at the hypnotic sight of dozens of silhouetted objects slowly floating upwards to the sky - phones, cars, bicycles, baseball caps, sunglasses. Only when you notice that there are still people sitting in the vehicles do you realise that the film is about the end of the world, the moment evangelical Christians call the Rapture, when all things will ascend to the Creator.
Then Chan springs his surprise. Suddenly - too quickly for the eye to catch at first - human bodies start to fall from the sky, swiftly, heavily, like jumpers from the Twin Towers. But these figures haven't jumped; they are souls rejected by God, cast down into Hell. The horror is that so many Americans apparently believe that this is really going to happen.
Echoing this theme of impending apocalypse is Matthew Day Jackson's wonderful Chariot. This is a full-size, home-made covered wagon into which the artist has stitched the flags of 20 states, carrying a single passenger - not a pioneer but a stuffed owl, an ancient symbol of wisdom. The wagon stands on a bed of pastel, fluorescent lights and is tilted upwards, as though ascending towards the setting sun like the last shot in a celluloid fantasy about how the West was won. The label tells us that one of the elements Jackson uses in the piece is "a steel bucket from Jonestown". I presume this means Jonestown, Guyana, scene of the mass suicide of the followers of the artist's namesake, the Rev Jim Jackson, who all drank poisoned Kool-Aid. If so, you have to read this ostensibly cheerful sculpture as a dark comment on where America is headed.
There isn't much outright landscape in the biennial, but Dan Colen's papier-mâché boulders, covered in meticulously crafted graffiti, bird droppings and chewing gum, speak of something you see more and more in the suburbs and green spaces outside American cities. The degradation of the environment - a sad process America takes for granted in its inner cities - is now spreading to the natural world. In another landscape of sorts, the Los Angeles-based artist Liz Larner shows a formless sculpture made of aluminium tubes wrapped in red, white and blue fabric. It sits in the middle of the gallery, a writhing and twisting image of America as a pile of junk wrapped in patriotic colours. Kelley Walker pours chocolate syrup over blown-up photos of the Alabama Race Riots of the 1960s, in a diptych that seems to desecrate one of liberal America's iconic images. I told you the show was dark.
If you went to the Tate Triennial, you'd never guess that the world is racked with war and terrorism. Here, you're never allowed to forget it. America's greatest living artist, Richard Serra, shows only one work - a drawing of a hooded Ku Klux Klan figure, with the words "Stop Bush". The conscious throwback to the protest art of the '60s is upsetting precisely because the artist must know its rhetoric is impotent: a hollow gesture, not a call to action.
A number of artists gleefully celebrate not America's hope and optimism but its decadence. Kenneth Anger, the legendary underground filmmaker and author of Hollywood Babylon, shows stills and memorabilia from his past work, plus a recent animated film in which Mickey Mouse behaves very badly indeed. Billy Sullivan, a fashion photographer who has been around since the '70s, presents a sexy slideshow featuring the narcissistic denizens of New York's higher Bohemia.
Former Daily Telegraph obituary writer Adam McEwan's enlarged obituaries of living celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Nicole Kidman and Jeff Koons creep you out because they function as memento mori, uninvited guests at the celebrity-obsessed party that is Vanity Fair's version of America. And though I'd already seen Francesco Vezzoli's spoof trailer for a remake of the notorious film Caligula, viewing it in a city in which so many women wear fur coats and conspicuous jewellery lent added bite to its satire on power and corruption.
As the presence of these last two artists, a Brit and an Italian, makes clear, the 2006 Biennial is a departure for the Whitney because it includes artists who are not American. This is a long-needed innovation for a museum burdened with a mandate to show only American art. For once, the Whitney doesn't feel like the Museum of Modern Art's provincial cousin.
Whether these foreign artists are French, British or German, I was pleased to see that not one makes art that is glibly anti-American. French artist Pierre Huyghe's film A Journey That Wasn't documents his expedition through the melting ice of the Antarctic shelf, and felt to me like a cross between March of the Penguins and the apocalyptic On the Beach. Through two giant holes Urs Fischer punches in the gallery walls, we see a slowly rotating horizontal beam suspended from the ceiling, on each end of which is a lighted candle, dripping melting wax on to the floor. A primitive device for measuring time, it is also an image of desolation and ruin, a symbol of time running out and things coming to an end.
And that, really, captures the atmosphere of the whole show. Hypnotic and sad, this biennial is full of art about the breaking up and polarisation of society. Its message is that there is nothing we can do about it apart from wait for the end of Life As We Know It and console ourselves with sex or consumer products.
When I came out of the windowless museum into the cold spring sunshine on Madison Avenue, I found myself asking whether art has been this negative, this nihilistic since the late Middle Ages. And even though New York soon cheered me up, I still haven't answered my own question.