Five works from the Whitney Biennial

Jordan Wolfson, Real Violence

Of everything I saw at the Biennial, this is the piece that has stuck with me most doggedly. I felt sort of glib standing in line and reading the warnings – I was sure, given my lifelong exposure to representations of violence (and the fact that I’m a sophisticated cool jaded person) that no matter how disturbing the subject matter, I would (indeed could) not actually be disturbed by it.

And then I experienced it and was very disturbed.

I’ve been unable to figure out whether I think it’s a successful artwork, although on a number of levels I have to think it is – I continue to dwell on it, it uses its medium to create an experience that fully utilizes and depends on the medium, it gets people talking about important questions… but on another level there’s something that feels like complicity in a gross phenomenon, to credit such an assaultive piece with profundity when it is remarkable mostly for how much it “goes there”.

I think that virtual reality changes the representation of violence in that the viewer doesn’t have the normal option to look away from mediated atrocity. Instead of being able to look away from a screen or a photo, and thus back into a world where The Thing isn’t happening, one can only look away to other views within the diegetic world, and in that moment the violence becomes real in a new sense. I found myself staring at the cars passing on the street, and wondering if they were aware of what was going on, and if so, at what level?

Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes

I am, at the moment, especially attuned to the creative possibilities of mirrors, and so Samara Golden’s amazing installation was particularly intriguing to me. In one sense, it’s a jaw-dropping confection – a relatively small space rendered into a variegated infinity with clever positioning of mirrors, use of floors as ceilings and vice versa, playing with scale and perspective and all of the tricks of convincing the eye to believe the impossible. On a deeper level, it’s a profound hallucination – layer upon layer (stretching upward and downward endlessly) of spaces right on top of one another and yet seemingly isolated: the lavish apartment, the office, the gore-stained institutional bathroom (not coincidentally nearest the viewer’s eye). It seems to be an especially New York piece, where the rigors of proximity encourage us to ignore whole worlds above our heads, below our feet or standing right next to us on the subway platform.

John Riepenhoff, The John Riepenhoff Experience

More mirrors… It’s an intriguing idea, to try to stuff visual endlessness into a tiny space, and from the outside, the piece is joyful and hugely appealing – a small unprepossessing white step ladder, where the viewer climbs up and inserts his or her head into a white box. But inside, the visuals are sort of a mess (the scale really does render the mirrors less effective, and the brown tinge of either the light or the surface doesn’t help matters) and the other sensory experiences are jarring. At this size, the lights give off enough heat to make the space rather warmer than is comfortable, and the lack of ventilation means you are bathed in the accrued moist breath of everyone who has been in it before. It’s all very close. Which is unsettling. And not in a good (or seemingly intentional) way.

Jon Kessler, Exodus and Evolution

The political implications of Exodus were lost on me, though on the level of technological representation, I was fascinated by the algorithmic color and detail reduction in the kaleidoscopic feedback loop as the video reached the center of the screen, going from being video-of-a-thing to video-of-video-of-a-thing and so on. Which I guess serves as proof that the politics were indeed lost on me. Evolution was somewhat more graspable, though I still got a feeling of an artist exuberantly at play, somewhat sheepishly attaching the work to political critique in order to give it substance. That said, it all worked pretty well as a half-ironic celebration of artifice.

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo

We walked right past this one, and it’s not in the Biennial, so I’m not sure if it’s within bounds to comment on it, but it’s a remarkable piece and it felt very relevant to look at it right after experiencing Real Violence. I think one of the most horrifying aspects of Wolfson’s work is the non-reaction of the beaten man – his submissive posture at the beginning (as he must on some level know what’s about to happen), his total failure to fight back, his blank abjectness. It seems to implicate the bystander more because he refuses to fight – he is only a victim, and becomes our responsibility on some level, which we can do nothing about. That calls to mind many situations in life, but is in this case rather a manipulative posture, forced as we are to absorb our bystander status without being able to change it.

Dempsey and Firpo is very different, in this case the heroic mode of violence. The bystanders aren’t looking away, they’re cheering. They embrace the man who has just been punched out of the ring and thrust him back into it, both for their delectation and for his eventual triumph – he is merely knocked down but is fighting back, and we know he will actually win the bout. There’s a sense of fair play to it, violence as a contest of strength rather than an act of victimization.

This is of course the story we prefer to tell ourselves about violence, especially as Americans. Yet the other, seemingly more authentic picture (no sugar-coating, just brutality) is also not entirely or always true.

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