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Gisèle Vienne At The Whitney Biennial 2012


The Whitney Biennial sets out to survey ‘the current state of contemporary art in America.’ This year the scope of the term ‘art’ is broader, encompassing theater, dance and film. And the definition of ‘American’ as in previous biennials, allows for artists who are American citizens, residents or simply part of the conversation that is here, now.

Gisèle Vienne, a French artist working with puppets, falls within this wider rubric. Her piece is an installation entitled Last Spring, A Prequel. It is a collaboration with American writer Dennis Cooper, and takes the form of a schizophrenic dialogue between an animatronic adolescent boy, and a glove puppet. The adolescent is pale and blond, the puppet white-faced with a bloody smile. Each is reflected in the other like the joker in pack of double-headed playing cards. The piece begins with the animatronic adolescent asking the viewer to help him. The puppet at the end of his wrist jerks into life, its manic twitching more animate than the boy. The hand-puppet seems to control him, rather than the other way around. The puppet reminds us that the mannequin is not a ’boy’; he is instead ’a doll’, ’a corpse’. Vienne’s work often walks this line: She is fascinated by ’human shaped objects’ as she terms them, knowing how seductive they are to the imagination of the viewer. Vienne describes her work as a search for the spiritual in performance, and traces its roots to ritual, to Egyptian notions of the dead speaking.

Her ‘human-shaped objects’ are uncanny in the truest sense, simultaneously familiar yet utterly strange. The viewer might wish to invest them with imaginative life, but Vienne’s structures both predict and short-circuit the desire to endow those objects with humanity and volition. The tone of the piece is redolent of b-movies and ham horror. It relishes the stereotypes of possessed adolescents and talking dolls. But Vienne’s work is not prurient or voyeuristic: It does not shy away from evil, but creates a space for bad, extravagant thoughts.

The inclusion of time-based mediums has colored the structure of the biennial beyond simply the choice of works, as new performances, films and residencies will replace the current ones. It is an exhibition that exists as fully in time as in space, and it is impossible to get an overview of the exhibition as a whole until it is over and the last piece has been exhibited. (A situation more akin to a film festival or performance program).

The word ‘ecstatic’ is used repeatedly through-out the exhibition: The wall text of Lucien Price’s work describes it as a ‘cinema that ecstatically embraces its death drive’. Werner Herzog, whose exhibition is an installation of the work of seventeenth century Dutch artist Hercules Segers, claims those images create an ‘illumination inside of us, and we instantly know that this is not a factual truth, but an ecstatic one.’

A starting point in a conversation between the pieces might take a cue from that oft repeated word. Lutz Bacher’s work provides a visual equivalent of this repeated word throughout the show. His ‘Celestial Handbook’, eighty five framed pages from a book of images of constellations, threads through the exhibition. They turn up in stairwells, behind the viewers in a screening room (seen only by those who linger when the film ends and the lights come up). They become touchstones throughout the galleries – unassuming in size and material, but constantly present. It begins to feel as though they add up to something.

There is something that is both biological and chemical, both human and geometric in many of pieces in the exhibition. The slide collages of Lucien Price look at times like those school experiments with cheek cells viewed un­­der a microscope. Geometry appears in the tessellating patterns of the fence/screen dividing performers and spectators in Sarah Michelson’s dance piece, and the almost mathematical series of floor-plans scribbled onto the wall behind Gisele Vienne’s animatronic puppet.

The humanizing and domesticating of technology is another theme in this biennial. There is an embrace of the rough-hewn, of the object in space. Sam Lewitt’s installation is a literal disemboweling of technology. Odd shaped parts divorced from function are laid out on sheet-plastic and covered in ferromagnetic liquid. Fans blowing over it cause the shapes to flare and drift like an oil-slick. Projectors are often clearly visible, a part of the installation: slide projectors throw their light and reassure with the percussive click of their defiantly analog workings. Tom Thayer’s rough yet oddly delicate cardboard puppets line the walls of one room, and his animated images play on old computer monitors to sounds from two portable record players- the technology as square and solidas a school room.

All this could easily veer into nostalgia, but the exhibition feels unsentimental. There is a Balanchine quote that accompanies Sarah Michelson’s piece:

Superficial Europeans are accustomed to say that American artists have no “soul”. This is wrong. America has its own spirit – cold, crystalline, luminous, hard as light… Good American dancers can express clean emotion in a manner that might almost be termed angelic. By angelic I mean the quality supposedly enjoyed by the angels who, when they relate a tragic situation, do not themselves suffer.’

The best pieces in the biennial (so far) have that crystalline quality, a kind of cold and luminous ecstasy.


Whitney Museum of Art