One of the art world's most controversial exhibits takes place every two years at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The Whitney Biennial showcases the visions of contemporary artists working in the United States today. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story.
Long known as the most controversial art exhibit in the United States, often scandalizing audiences and enraging critics, the Biennial has been called the "bad boy of the art world" and "the show everyone loves to hate." But this year's show is not so much provocative as it is in need of contemplation, says the director of the Whitney.
Adam Weinberg says a lot of the works in this year's show feel like they're in the process of being constructed, or even deconstructed, and the exhibition reveals itself slowly.
"There are a lot of things that say, 'Spend a little time with me. Sit down in this room. Look at all of the objects in this room where you see hundreds of objects assembled, or even thousands of objects assembled. Walk into this space. Listen to the sounds that are in this room,'" he says.
Indeed, most of the works in the Biennial are site specific and some rooms in the museum are devoted to one artist or artwork. There is very little painting. The majority of work is installation art with a lot of large collage-like structures, non-traditional sculptures and many videos and short films.
One video installation features a stand-up comedy routine. Artist Edgar Arceneaux enlisted a famous African-American actor and comedian for his piece, titled "The Alchemy of Comedy… Stupid." Upon entering a dark room, the visitor sees David Alan Grier in multiple views on several screens at different times in his performance at a small comedy club.
"I ran into my ex-girlfriend's best friends. They flagged me down. I tried to run a mile away," he says. "'David! Oh my God, David!' Set off a flare. 'David!' I was like, 'Oh hi guys. How you doin'?' We're talking and there's that big pause, and I was not going to ask. I know what you're thinking… 'She's doing so well. She lost 10 pounds. She's dating a new guy - he's like a billionaire.'"
Eighty-one artists are included in the show, down from 106 two years ago, with the bulk of the artists selected working in New York. In fact, 43 of the artists are currently New York based and 29 of them are from either Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay area in California.
This year the Biennial spills out of the Whitney and into a second location at the Park Avenue Armory, a few minutes' walk from the museum. The grand period rooms of this historic building are being used to host some of the artwork.
Armory president Rebecca Robertson says the Whitney's decision to use the armory as a second venue for the show makes sense.
"Our objective is to become a new alternative art space," she explains, "filling a niche in New York City and for artists at a time when artists are searching for unconventional spaces that allow new forms of expression and allow a different relationship between the audience and the art itself."
Robertson says that in addition to the art installations, the armory will host performances and events, which are actually artworks in the Biennial exhibition. Some of these include a 24-hour dance marathon, therapy sessions inside a big white box, and a sleepover in a room filled with ambient sound compositions.
Ambient noise figures prominently in the pieces on view at the armory. In one exhibit, artist Bozidar Brazda has hung a metal chair upside down in a room so that it resembles a radio antenna. He records ambient sound and plays it back to the visitors, reprocessing the audio in a rapid discordant way.
Whitney director Adam Weinberg says the Biennial is a chance to contemplate contemporary art's originality, immediacy, spontaneity, intensity, and impenetrability. Certainly this year's show has elements of all those and more.