Why is the Whitney Biennial boring? The best argument would place the blame on the curious system by which this installment was curated. As the Whitney was short on curators during the period when the show was being assembled, the museum deputized six curators from around the country, and it is exactly this curation-by-committee that seems to be at fault.
Comparing notes in teleconferences, over the Internet, and at get-togethers in Chicago, San Diego, and New York, the far-flung curators attempted to assemble a cohesive show. They more or less failed. Aside from a vague emphasis on immigrant cultures, gender roles, and cynical evocations of patriotism -- let's not challenge the show's lefty sophisticate audience, okay? -- this Biennial suffers from its catch-all composition. It reads neither as a greatest hits list nor as a focused exploration of one or two curators' preoccupations. And thus, it's flat.
Not all flat, though. Here follows my own greatest hits list:
Doug Aitken, Electric City: Of all the pieces focusing on race, Aitken's is the only one that isn't preciously, ponderously p.c. It could even be interpreted as racist for its portrayal of a black man as a near-machine. On a series of video-projection screens, a black man moves through a deserted L.A. at night, popping his body like a hiphop dancer, eyes bugging, shoulder twitching, legs bouncing. He goes to the airport, where he flashes gang signs at an airliner passing overhead. He jerkily navigates a laundromat, and stops in front of a storefront selling athletic trophies. As he moves through the city, its features begin to resemble his mechanical movements -- shuddering clothes dryers, a wrinkled dollar bill entering and being rejected by a soda machine. Is the nighttime flâneur transforming this city as he passes? Are both city and human subject to the same mechanical impulses? Will epileptic seizures be induced in museumgoers by the jerky rhythms? A great piece.
The absurdities of multiplying communication networks are invoked by M. W. Burns' Conveyor, where 10 wall-mounted, bullhorn-style speakers emit a low murmur. You have to stick your ear right into one of them to catch the story, which is a run-on sentence that could've been written by a modern-day Italo Calvino: "...a parking lot attendant recalling a message someone gave him which conveyed an idea described in a film discussed by a doorman in a story..." and on and on. This is the only piece in the show that cracked me up.
Chakaia Booker's huge black wall piece made of cut-up tires and rubber hoses is a sculptural and compositional wonder, and fills its gallery with a subtle, not-unpleasant smell. Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin's competing pin-up girls mix historical painting styles, unlikely anatomies, and, well, good painting technique. Sara Sze's Strange Attractor, an explosion of wires, tickets, mirrors, little magnifying lenses, and plants (installed in one of Whitney architect Marcel Breuer's brutalist window wells), is like a domestic, delicate version of Jason Rhoades' messy assemblages. And Tara Donovan's labor-intensive Ripple is a beautiful, near-abstract floor piece made of shreds of electric cable gathered into ridges that evoke, but do not exactly describe, the surface of water disturbed by a rock, as well as the patterns metal filings make around a magnet.
Shots of beauty, thrill, and interesting discomfort interspersed with rote recitations of art, politics, some pretty pictures, a lot of slow-paced video installations, and three separate anti-patriotic pieces based on Jasper Johns' flag paintings: This is the Whitney Biennial 2000. I wouldn't have missed the show for the world, but anticlimactic it certainly is. On to 2002.