The 76th edition of the Whitney Biennial is the penultimate edition of the event in Madison Avenue. Werner herzog and Forest Bess are arguably the headliners of the exhibition. The curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders didn’t give a title to the event, showing more clearly that a Biennial is a matter of observing to what happens in the arts world. Most of the 51 artists are little known with the exception of few artists, including Forrest Bess and Werner Herzog . The former was a painter and fisherman, who lived isolated in Texas and died in poverty in 1977. He has a dedicated room, curated by Robert Gober. Bess was a self-made transsexual, he become an hermaphrodite on his own trying to modify his male genitals during an home surgery. Articles and documents accompany his small paintings evidencing his experimental approach to art and life. Bess’painting represent abstract elements with pesonal reference, colors and shapes evoke isolation and poverty in his recurring visions and perhaps signs of self-mutilation. Bess’ work is a small island in the Biennial, as is the work of Werner Herzog. The German artist presents an installation about the forgotten Dutch painter and etcher Hercules Pieterszoon Seghers, a painter in the 1600s. Seghers’ techniques inspired Rembrandt, who adapted some of his landscapes. For the first time Herzog was invited to a Biennial of contemporary art. His film is accompanied by the music of the Dutch composer Ernst Reijseger. The combination of Seghers’ landscapes and Reijseger music evoke states of mind full of desolation and loneliness. Mesmerizing footage of the musician alternates with images of the painting, so the audience is able to get away from the noise of the contemporary mainstream.
The show is marked by a generalized state of schizophrenia which allows the viewer to discover continually new artists in a pleasant labyrinthine space. It is very exciting to see how today’s artists work in territories that once belonged to the cinema, theater, music or performance, even if mixing these art forms is not as innovative as any of Dada works. Somethimes artists seem to lack courage to go beyond the surface of the mainstream leading then to lose the freedom that comes with their underground status. If we try to confront the Dawn Kasper’s Nomadic Studio Practice with Forest Bess’ life experience, it is hard to define which is more revolutionary. Kasper arrenged a temporary studio in the Whitney Biennial’s space. She is using the museum as a public/private enviorement inviting friend to interact with her during open hours. They play instruments and stow the space with objects and drafts, but they probably cannot do much more. They open the museum space by closing their own freedom. Bess did just the opposite, risking much more alone in his own apartment. Who knows if he thought to write down any note during his experimental body alterations: perhaps somethig like “THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT”.