Whitney Biennial
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
Through May 26.

I went into the Whitney Biennial on a bright, windy day, and when I came out, the sun was behind a cloud and I had a knotty pain between my shoulder blades. Through this bit of objective correlative, you may understand what kind of time I had.

The Biennial means to show us the state-this-very-minute of contemporary art in America. That it usually only shows us the state of art in New York (with a nod to L.A. and a few trips into the sticks) is simply something we accept. That it fails to address any number of social agendas is something we expect (usually with relief). The issue tends to be not whether the Biennial will fail, but how it will fail, in whose eyes, and in answering what question.

In this particular exhibition on this particular year, the artists seem to have shied away from answering any question at all, in favor of letting viewers construct meaning for themselves. I've always been in favor of yanking the viewer out of his passive role, and there's a lot of work in the Biennial that I suspect would have thrilled me had I found it alone in a gallery. I would have loved the submersed surround-sound experience of Meredith Monk's abstracted voices, or Richard Chartier's "microsounds," nearly silent but not quite. Had I stumbled onto Salon de Fleurus in its downtown location, oddly populated with unexplained art objects--books, prints, musical instruments--the puzzle it presents would have been a treat. But why not here at the Whitney? Why did this exhibition feel like room after room full of... emptiness?

I am more or less a meaning junkie, but I am not opposed to meaninglessness when it is the subject of a work. A work about meaninglessness has its own set of meanings and pretty much denies, in fact, its own meaninglessness simply by the fact of its existence. But this, in the aggregate, registers as something else, as art gesturing at the idea of meaning, at the idea of pulling code out of chaos, sculpture out of garbage, documented events out of randomness. None of these is a bad idea (I have seen much good work made out of all of them), but a gesture toward art is not an act of art.

In his introduction to the Biennial catalogue, curator Lawrence R. Rinder brings--as he unavoidably must--the impact of 9/11 into the equation of what art is, and what artists do: "[A]rtists are a profound resource for a society that has both been robbed of a potent symbol and is casting about for new images and metaphors to express the character of life in this shaken world."

Rinder is a smart guy, but he seems to have unwittingly located his exhibition's weakness in what he deems its strength. It feels like the artists are casting around for images, are unsure and shaken about what their work is meant to do. Hence Hirsch Perlman's photographs of shifting piles of garbage in his studio. Hence Ken Feingold's talking mannequin heads saying things like, "I can say things that have no meaning."

This takes all the fun out of ambivalence, which needs something to work against (such as certainty) in order to have any meaning at all. It's fake inquiry--bearing all the hallmarks of obsession--without actually investigating anything. The viewer ends up grasping at authenticity in strange places: in architecture projects, films, other things that typically exist at art's periphery. Which is not a bad thing, but what does it mean for the future of museum exhibitions?

My favorite works--a long wool-felt cutout by Arturo Herrera suggesting a crowded woodscape, and Anne Wilson's painstaking deconstruction of lace--both worked toward meaning, even if that meaning remained elusive, instead of leaving the viewer in a lurch. Jim Campbell's LED sculptures specifically explore their reason for being, by looking at the moment that electronic information becomes something we understand.

These were the exceptions, however. Most of the Biennial takes place in dark little rooms showing inscrutable films about the randomness of interpretation. I began to wonder if the Biennial has gone past usefulness. I am wondering still.