I usually fail at my attempts to make it to the Whitney Biennial. Every two years the Whitney does an exhibit of contemporary art, which often features work by the young and unknown, to show us where art is right now. I like to think of it as an extended Fashion Week for the art world.
This year, during the last two hours of the last day of the full exhibit, I made it.
Now, unless you go see a lot of contemporary art – contemporary meaning current, or now, and not to be confused with Modern Art which is from a set time period – going to the Biennial is a strange experience. I love museums but don’t go out of my way to see the non-performing arts much otherwise. And when you go to museums, you are far more often than not, looking at the past.
There is little to compare the work to, nothing to pull time markers from as you might do when wandering the Museum of Modern Art where you can see each generation effecting the next and where various movements can be put into context by their times.
Seeing contemporary art is seeing something that is commenting on a time for which you do not yet have hindsight or any idea of what is coming next. As I am the kind of person who likes to wander up and experience art with little knowledge of it, this suits me well.
There’s a sense of adventure to not knowing what will come next. Unlike visiting the Lourve or other great museums, there weren’t any hugely famous pieces expected. Wandering the building with my fiance, we started at the top and worked our way down. Most of what I saw didn’t really stick with me.
My favorite piece was a field of baseballs that were penned in on the ground filling up a substantial section of one of the floors. Being a huge baseball fan I appreciated the whimsy of it. It made me think of the movie The Sandlot. But I also wondered if I would like it as much if it were presented someplace else. The layout of the space, including the angled window and doorways that let light in were a nice balance to the simplicity of what was on the ground. Even those who don’t love baseball the way I do would be hard pressed not to stop for a moment and take in the scale of the thing, though I could also see it being the butt of some joke about the lack of work in some works of art.
A sort of scavenger hunt started as my fiance and I ran up to a variety of black and white photos of space that were placed throughout the museum. He proposed to me earlier this year after seeing a space show so that’s right up our alley. The small framed images, clearly ripped out of some larger book, grabbed our attention away from most of the paintings and installations we saw.
One room, which featured many projections of two musicians along with what looked like far away images of seashores or close up images of some kind of biology, didn’t especially move me. But I was impressed by the passionate playing of one of the musicians. While I doubt the piece was intended solely to highlight the fervency one could have for what I believe was a cello, it did that for me at the very least.
The crowd was an interesting mix as well. There were the standard stereotypes one expects at such an exhibit – young people with strange hair, fit middle-aged people with interesting glasses, old women wearing brightly colored clothing that is cut at odd angles – in addition to the usual tourists. There were also a lot of kids, which I didn’t expect. I kept happening upon this one pregnant woman who was there with what I can only assume were her two kids. Both kids looked younger than seven years old. Every time I saw her it looked like she was trying to talk the kids through the art, actively trying to engage them. It was charming.
As we approached the ground floor, we weren’t quite sure what we had seen. We both knew we did not like the installation that reminded us of any number of horror films that portray kids as creepy. I wished we had been able to move further into some installations which were crowded. Mostly I thought it was odd that there were so often a large number of people huddled around the text that accompanied some of the pieces but so few people looking at the pieces themselves.
The art made us think of all kinds of things, from movies to times, places, and random images as art is wont to do. The only thing I am sure of is that we had fun.