Gulp. I'm riding a crowded elevator to the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, on a pilgrimage from my native Los Angeles to visit for the first time ever one of the museum's world-renowned Biennials. Half an hour later, I'm down in the basement, yawning. I follow a small hallway looking for where the exhibit continues, but find only the bathrooms. The scrounged-up pocket change that was just tossed at my eyeballs, that thin slice of visual Wonder Bread - that was the Biennial?
'The most significant developments in recent American art?' My New Yorker friends shrug, having already moved on to the more interesting question of where to go eat. As we mosey outdoors I double check the address, just to make sure we were in the right building.
Those few remaining art world souls who have yet to experience a Biennial in person will understand. For Mecca non-residents, the Whitney showcase articulates New York parochialism as succinctly and viscerally as a gut punch. Yet it's the chutzpah and authority of the punch that impresses - although the show is produced by, stars, and is seen by Manhattanites, its impact extends universally. Discourse as well as economics undergo tectonic shifts: you can live time zones away and be invisible as far as the Whitney is concerned and still feel buffeted by the shock waves of reviews and word of mouth the show radiates. (This year's buzz: politics are out, poetry is in.) Whether good or bad - in fact, especially when it's bad: is there any other art world function people so giddily love to hate? - the Biennial always matters.
So it's bewildering to come face to face with this famed behemoth, this kingmaker and heartbreaker, the alpha and omega of art world culture, and find it to be in reality a profoundly nonsensical, self-mutilating little affair. What few things are on display manage to trip all over themselves; confusing and lightweight, the general atmosphere resembles a small town emergency room during a hay fever epidemic. It's not the substance of the show that's so jaw-droppingly dismal, it's that the show has no substance. Repeat viewing only underlines the vacuousness, like obsessive late night channel changing when there are no programmes on and all you get is snow. We Californians have a word for this kind of thing. It sucks.
Admittedly, some of the work is breathtaking (Toba Khedoori, Jeff Wall and, in particular, Rirkrit Tiravanija all acquit themselves nicely); a lot of it is horrible and everything in-between gets swallowed up by the show's implosive self-exegesis. But even to dwell on the artwork seems an act of monumental denial. The real sparks are generated between the Biennial's daredevil claim to sum up coherently the best and brightest of current American art and the panicky, doomed attempt by the curator, in this case the Whitney's adjunct curator of drawings, Klaus Kertess, to make good on that promise. Remember those terrible shows of the 80s - for example, the Hirshhorn Museum's 'Content' - with their bloated pretensions and laughably inadequate results? Multiply that by ten. To be fair, there are other grandiose survey shows that rival the Whitney in belly-flop Caesarism, like Documenta. Still, even something like the Venice Biennale doesn't suffer quite the same fate, since its total package falls together more randomly, giving viewers freer reign to speculate on the interconnections between artworks.
Alas, there's almost no room to speculate in this Biennial. Kertess' curatorial fingernails gouge ruts into the gallery walls, his decision-making at once insecure and heavy-handed, as if he were caught up in a vicious cycle of trying to fix things while only making matters worse. The assembled artworks seem mere coughed-up by-products of this no-win situation, a faint lamb's bleat moments before the slaughter, with Kertess strapped beneath the show's guillotine-blade premise, desperate to figure out a way to duck.
He doesn't, and the Biennial subsequently unfolds like an Upper West Side cognoscente running around with his head cut off. One of Kertess' biggest problems is that he can't decide on how best to cover his ass. Befitting the show's House of Representatives ambitions, many of his selections are clearly intended to denote inclusiveness. There are artists of every age, megastars and unknowns, even a few people who don't paint (although widely-labelled a painting show, at least a third of the canvases displayed - including those by Jane Freilicher, Helen Marden, Milton Resnick, Catherine Murphy, and Alan Turner - couldn't look more irrelevant); plus this Biennial boasts the big-hearted gesture of welcoming all of four North Americans who aren't US citizens, Julio Galàn and Gabriel Orozco from Mexico and Stan Douglas and Jeff Wall from Canada. On the other hand, a significant number of choices are so conspicuously weird that they seem to insist on Kertess' deeply idiosyncratic tastes as the show's bottom-line criteria, thereby shielding the entire Biennial behind a shoulder-shrugging, 'I can't tell you why, but I like it' disclaimer.
The result is that Kertess seems torn between opening his arms in all-encompassing embrace and curling up in a foetal position. It's perhaps generous that he includes Bessie Harvey's folk art sculpture, but the work looks entirely out of place, alone and undernourished in the hip SoHo context, and ultimately comes across like some oversized driftwood art that snuck in from a beachside souvenir shop. Choosing Harvey seems strategic, Kertess' way of excusing his entire curatorial effort as 'quirky'. The same goes for many of the artists, such as Greer Lankton, the sole Chicagoan represented, whose cutesy sculptural busts resemble transvestite Muppets - work that only a die-hard fan could love. And if you ask a New Yorker about the inexplicable inclusion of some of the other participants, you're likely to find out that they're old friends and associates of Kertess'.
How can you argue with someone's personal favourites? Obviously Kertess is banking on the fact that you can't. Initial newspaper reviews have applauded him for assembling a much more laid-back Biennial than its in-your-face, finger-wagging predecessor. Whatever; I only know about the current show, and it's pretty timid all right. Scared stiff is more like it. Kertess is careful not to advance any tantalising lines of thought for fear of them being attacked, and he begins his stonewalling of discourse with the catalogue. Its main essay is written by a noted neurobiologist, Gerald M. Edelman, and is called (this is not a joke) 'Visual Art and the Brain'. Of course, the miscast Edelman is a brilliant scientist who has next to nothing to say about the intricacies of contemporary art and its historical framework. But he could probably explain why standing for too long around Resnick's gloopy paintings on the fourth floor and breathing in the fumes of their still-wet oil paint will give you a splitting headache.
The one-size-fits-all title of this Biennial is 'Metaphor', and the catalogue introduction outlines Kertess' intention to provide viewers with a sensual and poetic experience. It's true that the show has been purged of didacticism - there's hardly an image-and-text work in sight - and some of the art does assault the senses. One floor down from Resnick's noxious offerings, Nari Ward has parked a hearse, lathered from top to bottom with tar, right next to Nancy Rubins' billowing collection of bed mattresses smeared with cake frosting. These pieces literally stink. They're also big. Which is probably why Kertess placed them together - for all his poetic aspirations, the logic behind his installing of the show is painfully literal-minded.
Work is grouped according to the most blunt and obvious similarities. In the Halloween pumpkin section, Harvey's driftwood art stands in front of Cindy Sherman's photographs and Carroll Dunham's paintings, presumably because all three stick eyes and teeth on inanimate objects to make them look human. Lawrence Weiner's laconic phrases occupy the same line of sight as one of Siobhan Liddell's wall-bound texts, the two teaming up to produce an unfortunate run-on sentence. Nan Goldin's tour de force photo mural featuring Japanese scenesters, which emphasises the artist's deft use of sequencing, pays an odd, suggestive complement to Phillip Taaffe's paintings and even to Barry Le Va's sculptural installation. Too bad it's placed somewhere else, shouldered up against fellow photographer David Armstrong and goofball Lankton, since, well, they all make portraits (Goldin is even one of Armstrong's sitters). And then there's the arm-in-arm pairing of husband and wife Brice and Helen Marden. Et cetera.
The crescendo in Kertess' graceless orchestration is his using the three floors inhabited by the Biennial to segregate the art into Dantesque categories of the paradisaical, the hellish, and the purgatorial. Ascending to the top floor, with its tall ceilings and streams of natural light, is the most aristocratic of the show's checklist, a royal-family portrait with Cy Twombly and the Mardens accorded head-of-the-household status. Newcomers Andrea Zittel and Jason Rhoades fit well in their roles as bratty suburban rich kids (Lari Pittman probably makes it onto this plateau because his paintings incorporate Mastercard and Visa logos). Down a flight of stairs is hoarded every artwork vulnerable to being labelled 'marginal' or 'extreme': here folk art, gender politics and the frosted mattresses all get dismissively equated (even Wall's social realism is presumably gritty enough to qualify). The bottom floor functions as a kind of storage closet for all the works that don't fit on the other two floors.
Given this connect-the-dots linking of artworks into homogeneous groups and sub-groups, all potentially provocative differences are levelled, and the few rewards the show could have provided to curious viewers are squandered. Such a condescendingly simple-minded installation, coupled with the show's basis in curatorial whim and nepotism and its aloofness to the ways in which art is currently being discussed, ferments an arrogance that is downright offensive. Here at Club Whitney, the importance of the Biennial is not something to be worked for and earned; it's taken for granted, assumed like a birthright. And it's not poetic license Kertess wields but largess, the privilege of feeling that your efforts, no matter how insular and incoherent, will be appreciated as valiant and generous. Like royalty, the Biennial seems hobbled by the effects of inbreeding. I mean, c'mon: isn't there anything else to say about the show besides how it stacks up to the last Biennial?
Repeat visits to the Whitney did turn up this happy fact: there's another way to exit the show besides using the front door. On the fourth floor, behind the Biennial's circled wagons, tucked deep within its smug inner sanctum, is a room-sized wooden crate, Rirkrit Tiravanija's Untitled (D) (Marcel Broodthaers in Hyde Park), (1995). A thin doorway allows access into the box where viewers encounter a free-standing wall on which is projected a video of a wild-eyed Broodthaers standing before a throng of puzzled Londoners, silently writing on a small blackboard such messages as 'You Are Artists' and 'Go Now To The Tate Galleries.' But there's more. Behind the wall is a cramped space filled with plugged-in amps and guitars, a microphone and drum kit, available for anyone to pick up and use. And people do just that, including Rirkrit, who periodically stops by to jam with friends. When the instruments are silent, the room swells with anxiety, as does Broodthaers, his handheld video likeness looking jittery and vulnerable. But when accompanied by live music, he grows suddenly bold, transformed into the drunken catalyst of a small rebellion, waving around conviviality and playfulness like a Molotov cocktail. In the privacy of this darkened cell, Tiravanija takes on the real politics of generosity, gambles with the social stakes raised by an open invitation, and ends up revealing what constitutes truly public space. The louder the noise, the more crowded the room becomes - thickening with sweaty bodies and heavy breathing - and the further you find yourself transported from the drab and dreary Biennial, enjoying what feels like fresh air.