Here's Richard Dorment on the Whitney Biennial form the Daily Telegraph
One of the leading shows of contemporary American art contains too few gems, says Richard Dorment
Any exhibition that claims to explore "fluid communication states and systems of exchange that index larger social, political and economic contexts" has got to be a dud, and the Whitney Biennial 2008 sinks like a stone, dragged down by the weight of its own good intentions.
Letter on the Blind
The artist asked six blind people to step up to a live elephant and then describe what they 'see' when they run their hands over the animal
Certainly, if you spend long enough in the show, you'll find a few interesting artists, but most of the stuff on view feels tentative, academic and devoid of visual interest.
The problem, I think, is that the two organisers, Shamim Momin and Henriette Huldisch, are the kind of curators who like art but don't like looking at things.
Their taste for dour conceptual art, preferably made out of plywood and requiring a handbook to understand, finally wore me down. The best I can say for their show is that with 81 artists - 20 fewer than last time - there was enough room for a more-than-usual number of film screenings and for several expansive, large-scale installations. Most of which were unbelievably complicated and of limited artistic merit.
One example will have to do. Phoebe Washburn's untitled mixed-media installation takes up a whole corner of a big gallery. On plywood shelves laid over scaffolding, she is trying to grow flowers in tanks full of orange and yellow golf balls, hydrated with a sweet, green soft drink called Gatorade, and warmed by heat lamps - artificial substitutes for earth, rain and sun.
This elaborately staged pseudo-laboratory requires a huge amount of maintenance, including fridges full of Gatorade and crates packed with spare golf balls, but the few daisies that appear to have grown so far didn't look all that healthy to me. The idea, which would make an excellent high school science project, is to see whether nature can survive under wholly artificial conditions. But I felt that the disparity between the scale of the work and the subject it explores meant that artist had gone to an enormous amount of trouble to very little purpose.
By far the most impressive work in the show was Spike Lee's 2006 documentary about the destruction of New Orleans, When the Levees Broke. It lasts four hours and 25 minutes and has already been shown on public television in the US. I had time to watch only 30 minutes or so, but, from what I saw, Lee's loving elegy to that beautiful, ravaged city is mesmerising. Yet I can't help feeling that the proper place to show a work of this length was a cinema and not an art gallery.
Among artists working in traditional forms, two stood out - both from Los Angeles and both working with found materials.
The sculptor Charles Long takes a daily walk along the Los Angeles River, one of the most polluted in the world. Recently he was amazed to see that, despite being littered with rubbish, effluvia and detritus, the riverbank had become a nesting ground to the great blue heron. Inspired by these impossibly elegant creatures, Long mixed gunk and silt scavenged from the river basin with papier-mâché and plaster, then moulded the mixture over steel armatures. His ethereal sculptures look like spindly birds, weird jellyfish, or Giacometti stick figures floating in space.
Ry Rocklen scavenges materials from rubbish dumps and thrift shops but then turns them into sculptures of astonishing refinement. One is a box spring glistening with nails, a bed of pain that is at once menacing and - because the artist has wound a spool of scarlet thread around the perimeter of the metal frame - curiously seductive.
I have long been a fan of wicked Matthew Brannon, whose witty graphic prints parody the cheerful blandness of mass-produced prints you find in up-market offices and hotels. It's only when you read the texts accompanying each image that you realise his art is really about manipulation, seduction, insecurity and desperation.
The texts are as important as the images, haiku-like slivers of overheard conversation or advertising copy that spell out the unconscious fears and desires the advertising industry both exploits and goes to great lengths to disguise. Under a picture of a bar of soap and a showerhead, for example, the text reads: "And when he's home at night trying to sleep/He sees himself as a gross pig that everyone hates."
Apart from Spike Lee's film, the best thing in the Biennial, which is on until June 1, was Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, a black-and-white film by Venezuelan-born video and installation artist Javier Téllez.
In it, the artist asked six blind people to step up to a live elephant and then describe what they "see" when they run their hands over the animal. Each describes a completely different experience and so reveals something about his or her life and character. Some have accepted their blindness, others rage against it. One person was repelled by the whole exercise, another was worried that he might upset the elephant; a third caressed the animal with touching tenderness.
The idea is not particularly original but Téllez has made a beautiful film that, unlike so much else in this soulless show, felt connected to thoughts and feelings we all share.