I had the pleasure of checking out the Whitney Biennial last week while I was in the grand city of New York. I brought with me a guest, my dear mother, to decipher all the potential meanings behind the smattering of the chosen works by current contemporary artists. Let me just start off by saying, the line streaming into the Whitney included some of the world’s most glorious individuals. A smorgasbord of accents, fashions and edgy coifs, might have intimidated me if I cared about that sort of thing. When my ear tuned in to the crowd, murmurs about the bitter cold seemed to be the main topic of conversation. I covered my own freezing ears as they slowly morphed into human glass.
After paying 15 bucks to view what should be free to all folks, my madre and I began our exploration of the muddled psyche of some well-known American artists.
My initial reaction to the first floor of artists was… lackluster. Lots of mediocre craft and sloppy concepts strewn over the walls like spoiled mayo. I thought of my own art, which probably has a similar effect on people, and vowed to make it better.
I walked into another section of the exhibit and came across a piece by Leslie Hewett, a sculpture whose works recall mid-twentieth century public art. In "Riffs on Real Time" Hewitt blended family pictures onto magazines, books, and newspapers, then affixed the collages onto wooden planks, rugs, and other household floor materials.
It was in this room where I discovered a security guard hovering somewhat miserably over a book on the floor. Every time a viewer passed the book, the security guard moved in like a pendulum. Was this book part of Hewitt’s sculpture or a random piece from an installation nearby? I did not ask. I was much too captivated by the interactions between the security guard, the book and the audience. If the security guard had not been told to guard the book from the greedy little hands of museum goers, the book on the floor would have been simply a book on the floor, or a half recognizable piece of art. The security guard, simply trying his best to do his job unintentionally became art, spectator, and mediator all at the same time.
After this surreal encounter, art and life blurred as it usually does for me. The couple reading a paper in the stairwell, the bathroom cleaning closet, splayed wide open for all to see, a little girl walking around with an audio guide, a man mumbling something under his breath, a piece of paper stuck to a man’s shoe - all art happening in time with each human pulse.
Tenuous mergings of art and life came into focus like a full fledged landscape does when you reach the pinnacle of a mountain. “Art” art became more approachable. I found myself fondling sculptures that were off limits to hands and stepping over the black (stay the fuck back) line a number of times, each time being reprimanded by another security guard/artist/spectator/performer. It became a game. I would touch the art and be scolded. My mother and I uttered a cacophony of mischievous giggles.
Sadly (or not so sadly) in the entire exhibition, only one piece pulled on my heartstrings. Javier Tellez’s 16-mm film "Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See" is a reinvention of the parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” By sticking five blind people and an elephant in McCarren Park’s (Brooklyn) abandoned swimming pool, Tellez filmed the “moments of tactile recognition” as the blind, with tender trepidation, touched the ancient beast that can make all of us see, even when we might not.