Whitney Biennial 2006: Celebrating the Large Gesture

View of Urs Fischer’s Untitled (branches), 2005 & The Intelligence of Flowers,

2003–06, & Rudolf Stingel’s painting, Untitled (After Sam), 2005–06 in the background.

Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins

On the third floor, the Whitney Biennial opens wide. Significant chunks of the gallery’s walls have been gouged out by Swiss-born Urs Fischer, leaving jagged edges of plaster and metal that frame his elaborate installation, “Untitled” like mechanical teeth. Two giant tree branches covered in metallic silver, with candles burning on each end like monumental candelabra, rotate slowly but relentlessly from the ceiling, suspended by heavy chains. The overall gesture is extravagant in its largesse and Serra-esque machismo; the branches morph into torches that, instead of painting with fire leave, their mark by dripping wax in circular patterns on the gallery floor. This is the entrance hall leading straight into the belly of the beast.

Though maybe far from Fischer’s original intent, one cannot help but take the work’s raw boldness as a metaphor for the inescapable spiral of violence and greed in today’s world. In fact, many of this Biennial’s contributors have taken an outspoken political stance. Even if one considers only the impressive array of sculptural expressions, there is anger and hope, longing and doubt, solutions and rejections. There is day and there is night and there is the illusion of night captured in daytime – the Hollywood technique explored by François Truffaut in his 1973 classic La nuit Américaine (Day for Night), which is also this Biennial’s underlying curatorial theme.

To the right of Fischer’s “hall,” Dan Colen shows three boulders bearing graffiti and chewing gum mosaics. Instead of marking European megalithic tombs—some of the oldest monuments of Western civilization—Colen’s boulders are emblazoned with colloquialisms such as “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” “Vete al Diablo (Go to Hell),” and “Eat Shit and Die.” Though playful in appearance, Colen’s work is dead serious about questioning what defines culture. Nari Ward offers “Glory,” a strong satire of hysterical nationalism: a tanning bed made of battered oil barrels and barbwire, with glass plates covered in black stars and stripes, ready to burn an abstracted American flag on the client’s skin. What could be more perverse than tanning one’s patriotism onto one’s hide? But then, fanaticism always recognizes kindred spirits through surface appearances, preferably uniforms or insignia, such as swastikas.

Tackling similar ideas in a very different format, Liz Larner’s “RWB” comes off as a poetic elaboration on what makes something American, or simply, what builds America. Rather than focusing on economic issues, she draws from nostalgia. “RWB” is a large intertwined construct of bent aluminum tubing, reminiscent of flagpoles used in parades or, as the Whitney wall plaque points out, of those lining America’s used car lots. Each outstretched arm is lined with fabric and ribbons covered in the saturated American palette of red, white and blue, turning the overall construct into a beautifully complicated and unapproachable embodiment of US dynamism. No less lyrical, “Chariot Live Day after the End of Days” by New York-based Matthew Day Jackson references pioneer history by using frontier symbols to fabricate a Conestoga wagon. Dan Flavin-inspired neon tubing glows like disco incarnations of train tracks between the wagon’s wheels, while an owl—a symbol of exceptional vision and hearing—hovers inside the mysterious darkness beneath the canopy. If today’s society, like the American pioneers on their journey west, is painfully aware of the uncertainties that tomorrow might bring, German-born Josephine Meckseper tells you exactly what you get, or better, what you take. “The Complete History of Postcontemporary Art” is a slick shop window mockup, in which a stuffed rabbit, stockings, and a toilet plunger are contrasted with fragments of news media coverage. Encased in glass like a museum artifact, each object is granted a rare preciousness that is equally amusing and thought-provoking: We are what we consume, however arbitrary, however abstract.

One of the few figurative sculptors in the biennial is Matthew Monahan. Though his subject matter might be traditional, his style is far from it. Roughly shaped from beeswax, floral foam, paper, or encaustic, and fine-tuned with gold leaf, glitter, twine or wire, Monahan’s depictions of the human body simultaneously capture its interior and exterior form. A certain touch of the medieval permeates these richly contradictory works, which range in sentiment from punk rock to kitsch. A piece of gray paper, for example, which appears at first glance as simply crumpled and tossed, with a closer look becomes a haunting image of psychological fragility. What is human and where is humanity heading? These are thoughts expressed by many of this Biennial’s artists, who, in spite of their disparate mix of media and style, strike at least the appearance of unity as critical voices of our time.