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Reflections on the 2014 Whitney Biennial

27/05/2014 13:35 BST | Updated 25/07/2014 10:59 BST

As the Whitney Biennial of American art draws to a close, an outsider reflects on its significance.

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Image Credit: Bjarne Melgaard, Think I'm Gonna Have A Baby, 2014.

For me, the Whitney Biennial is a strange beast. For a long time, it has been a buzz-forming centre point in the American art world. It is an exhibition that supposedly captures the pulse of American art, even if such ideas of nationalistic curating seem out of date. But after all, it is America that we are talking about here, and if any country is to continue to at least attempt some form of cultural imperialism, even in the supposedly discursive realm of art, surely, it will happen in the United States - the wonderful land that made the 'best-of' list a cultural phenomena. But let me divorce myself from such posturing for a second. Formally, the Whitney Biennial is quite different from most exhibitions that one might see say, in Britain, another country known for a keen history of homogenizing curatorial tendencies, take for example, the Saatchi Gallery's exhibitions on British art. The closest event that it might resemble is the British Art Show (BAS), a major survey exhibition of recent British art that occurs every five years. Nevertheless, one can argue that BAS is much less monolithic in its statement - a touring exhibition across multiple venues, traditionally held in smaller British cities as opposed to its cultural capital, London.

Yet, the Whitney Biennial is inextricably linked to an even larger entity, the Whitney Museum of American Art, a remarkable cultural pillar opened by a socialite, focusing purely on 20th and 21st century art. Since its opening in 1931, the museum has been inextricably linked to key shifts in contemporary American art, its exhibitions and its Independent Study Programme have since been emulated the world over. The Whitney's historic Marcel Breuer-building on Madison Avenue since the 1960s is also distinct with its granite stones and external upside down windows; it is an iconic feature of American modernist architecture. Indeed, the setting of the museum itself has since become a key inspiration for artists. In the 2014 biennial for example, artist Zoe Leonard turned the top floor of the museum into a camera obscura, using light to draw in the outside neighbourhood, forming a ghostly imprint, a soft architecture on the internal walls of the Whitney.

Even the museum's lobby, with its circular lighting panels, resembling flying saucers, was this year used as a space for art. Artist and composer Sergei Tcherepnin attached transducers to them - emitting sounds - the lobby was turned into what the artist dubbed a space for contemplation. The building's walls also help form the design of the catalogue - its cover and interstitial pages are created from rubbings of the surfaces of the Breuer building. The book's pages embody a kind of architectural residue; posing the question, what role can architecture play in forming an exhibition? Simultaneously, this gesture also serves as a romantic homage to a building, which will soon be transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as the Whitney Museum moves to its new premises in 2015.

With this in mind, was the final Whitney Biennial on Madison Avenue a success? The overall feedback to the exhibition has largely been that it did not meet its potential. Arguably the conceit that was used to develop the biennial was a flawed one - three individual curators essentially curating three biennials under one roof, each with a different floor, but sharing a budget and close proximity as well as interstitial spaces meant that the exhibition could not be divorced from being experienced as a singular experience. Complete, it was a muddled affair without a shared sensibility, it was messy without being messy enough; it bled through different corners, but this intermingling felt uneasy, as if the card of compromise always had to be played.

Still, as a curator, I am fascinated by the bold attempt to offer a sense of multiplicity, not simply to artists but to organizers, who here, each hold unique positions and perspectives. Of the three different propositions posed by the three different curators, the one that gripped me the most was that of the curator Stuart Comer. Comer, whose work I know best out of the group, was for over a decade preceding the biennial's opening, living in London, where he was the founding Curator of Film at Tate Modern -now the world's most visited museum of modern and contemporary art. Over nearly 11 years, Comer was responsible for shifting the temporality not only of what a contemporary museum could do with art and cinema, but also of how a city could respond to it. His film programme at Tate expanded from the walls of the museum's velvet Starr auditorium into the cavernous spaces of the museum through temporary installations, performance and expanded cinema excursions. Historic moments in artist cinema were constantly being re-staged, forgotten figures such as Tamara Krikorian were brought back into the light, and the queer narrative carried to the forefront through radical events such as Charming for the Revolution: A Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness.

Over the years, I watched Comer form intimate and in-depth relationships with artists from Morgan Fisher to Wu Tsang, to Tacita Dean, Ericka Beckman, Dara Birnbaum, Daria Martin, as well as Akram Zaatari and Throbbing Gristle to name but a few. Comer's contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial felt like a culmination of these various relationships and forces developed through painstaking study and obsession, with art and its agency, both within and outside the limits of the institution.

The most mesmerizing moments in his exhibition arose when the artists' work seemed counter-intuitive to hegemonic views of normative and insular American-ness. The jarring opening to Comer's floor, the immersive installation by Bjarne Melgaard, took me most by surprise. As we walk in, one is consumed by a cornucopia of contradictory visual stimuli. Life-size dolls resembling fantasy sex objects lie strewn provocatively in a colourful environment of Melgaard's making. In the corner, a sleek flat screen shows two generically handsome men enacting what seems to be an arbitrary script of a porn film. As the movie takes shape, subconscious voices (seemingly from the two leads) fills the room - they flow out in snippets, akin to fragments of tweets and Grindr messages, enunciating contradictory thought processes from lust to self-loathing.

These images are juxtaposed against an overwhelming profusion of video content culled from the 'deep web' - a space that the artist sees as an allegory for the depraved unconscious. Images of riots, protest, and bombings flow together without necessary rhyme or reason. Through this sphere, it becomes impossible to locate or position one's self: where do we stand? Where do we begin to engage with this installation? This could appropriately be a metaphor for 'the shallows' and 'depths' of digital living - regularly, we skim through hyperlinks, skating from images of conflict, to desire, to capitalist consumerism; we are entrenched deep into minute detail, but are always comforted and bound by the generic nature of the interfaces we use - our browsers and computer screens. In the corner of this rich installation is poet, writer and artist Travis Jeppesen's inspired foray into 'object oriented writing'. Visitors are encouraged to wear blackout-Terminator style sunglasses and headphones, transporting us into an unusual spatial environment. This creates a beguiling counterpoint to the rest of Melgaard's installation environment.

Elsewhere, Comer throws us into the depths of another seemingly virtual world with the work of the inimitable artist, Jacolby Satterwhite. Part of his series Reifying Desire, Satterwhite uses 3D animation and a digital avatar of himself to recite a complex personal history that links dance to body image and American racial history. Close by, Semiotext, the independent publisher most well known for bringing French philosophy to the USA, finds its ostensible dissident voice. In this inspired installation, one can trace a correlation to the history of American radicalism from the Beats to Jack Smith and the rise of queer subculture. Beautifully installed, each of Semiotext's vitrines and display cases are wrapped in a thick black rope which evoke a sense of S&M. This one can argue is undoubtedly a nod to the French philosopher Michel Foucault whose presence was embodied in the infamous Semiotext conference held in New York in the late 1970s entitled, Schizo-culture -a term that functions aptly as an analogy for our contemporary state of fractured living.

At the end of the third floor, the visitor encounters Etel Adnan's poetry and paintings. Her physical writings are embodied in a complex scroll-like book that folds out revealing an elaborate attention to detail. Adnan's physically personified writing stuns us with its painstaking complexity. Her inclusion here feels like an appropriate bookend to an exhibition that is blistering at the seams with ideas. Adnan, born in 1925, a queer poet, writer and painter who is as much from San Francisco Bay Area, as she is from Beirut and Paris represents a passage between different social, political and temporal orders.

One could argue that the third floor of the Whitney Biennial is perhaps one of the most powerful evocations of what a a queer biennial might look like -- not queer as in purely tied to the study of sexuality, but queer, in its expanded sense as a non-normative cultural sphere. In Comer's biennial, however, the non-normative narrative is no longer marginalized into the periphery.

Omar Kholeif's most recent book, You Are Here: Art After the Internet, is available now.