18 November 2013

Drumroll, Please...

What do audiences expect from the Whitney Biennial? How much does the Whitney Biennial actually "matter?"

Clearly a great deal, so far as some people are concerned. Because it seems like there’s a pattern – and long has been – in which the same thing(s) transpire every time the Biennial rolls around. Advance griping about which artists are/aren’t included each time the roster is announced. Followed by the reviews once the event opens, with the usual high percentage of critics and attendees declaring that it’s the weakest Biennial of the last decade or so. Repeat cycle every other year. Thinking back over the past two decades or so, I'm pressed to think of a time when this wasn't the case.

And it’s that time yet again, because late last week the announcement went out of what’s to be involved with the 2014 WB. On cue: harrumph, harrumph, harrumph. One flashpoint of befuddlement and incredulity for some has been the curator’s decision to include the late author David Foster Wallace. And other parties have crunched the numbers and declared the thing not inclusive enough, if not featuring fewer artists of color, etc. than last time around. Which strikes as slightly ironic, seeing how there was a little snark directed at the 2012 WB’s inclusion of Theaster Gates and Rashid Johnson; the implication being that curators were pandering to some nascent (but non-existent) artworld fashionability for so-called “post-black” artists from Chicago.

Speaking of which, it seems a couple of folks have already complained that the 2014 event shows a little too much favoritism toward the Windy City, due to a majority of its three curators being from same. The only Chicagoan I see in the trio is Michele Grabner of the School of the Art Institute. But yeah, there are a around a dozen Chicago-affiliated artists on the list for the next Biennial, among them being photographer Dawoud Bey and the collective Academy Records.*

The latter of those two came as a surprise. One my first encounters with Academy Records was at an exhibition about seven years ago. The occasion was an exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, the show being a tribute devoted to Sun Ra. Curated by (among others) music scribe-cum-gallerist John Corbett, the heart of the exhibition revolved around a trove of documents and artworks that had recently been discovered at a home on the city’s south side, a residence that had been inhabited by Sun Ra in the years that he resided in the city. Also featured, another gallery of Ra-related collages by Detroit’s Destroy All Monsters crew; plus miscellaneous contributions from other artists, some of them from Academy Records, who were there raising a din with their installation that featured a freeform drumkit circle. (Given the acoustics of the Center's main space, it was murderous on the ears.)

Aside from David Foster Wallace, other curious text-related inclusions for the 2014 Biennial: Brooklyn publishing entity Triple Canopy, and veteran author and critic Gary Indiana. And it looks like Allan Sekula in the thing, doubtlessly in tribute to his recent passing.

For me, the most eyebrow-raising inclusions fall in the sound/music category, which this time looks to be shaping up like a salute to a previous generation of avant musical pioneers. There’ll be a work by Robert Ashley (in collaboration with Alex Waterman). Also included: composers Pauline Oliveros and Charlemagne Palestine. Not that I have any objections to any of them, but when reading their names I experienced a sense of déjà-vu – like of paging through an issue of The Wire magazine circa 1999.

images: Academy Records

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* Looking over the list, myself, I have to admit it looks like the midwest has nosed out L.A. and the west coast this time around. If some parties feel that constitutes a rigged deck, here's the thing -- give it a few years and chances are a fair number of those Chicago-based artists will be NYC-based artists. How's that? Because historically Chicago doesn't have a strong record of fostering reliable support for its homegrown artists and galleries.

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