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Whitney Biennial Opens with Focus on Performance Art

By Amy Zimmer | March 1, 2012 7:00am
The Whitney Biennial includes sculpture, photography, painting, installations, dance, theater, film and music and runs Mar. 1 through May 27.
The Whitney Biennial includes sculpture, photography, painting, installations, dance, theater, film and music and runs Mar. 1 through May 27.
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Mario Tama/Getty Images

MANHATTAN — What does the current state of contemporary art in America look like?

That’s what the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 76th annual biennial, opening Thursday and running through May 27, will explore. 

And, judging from the exhibition’s roster of 51 artists, performance art has stolen the spotlight.

For the first time in the biennial’s history, nearly an entire floor of the museum — roughly 6,000 square feet on the fourth floor — is being dedicated to a changing roster of music, dance and theater performances and other events.

"Taking the pulse of the time through the immediate experience of art is what the Whitney Biennial is all about," said Elisabeth Sussman, the Whitney’s photo curator, and Jay Sanders, a freelance curator and writer. The pair organized the show.

Charles Atlas (b. 1949). Still from Turning (live mix) with Antony and the Johnsons, 2004.
Charles Atlas (b. 1949). Still from Turning (live mix) with Antony and the Johnsons, 2004.
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Image courtesy the artist and Vilma Gold, London

The performances run the gamut from New York-based artist K8 Hardy's fashion runway show set for May 20, to open rehearsals for a new play conducted from Apr. 25 – 29 by Richard Maxwell, the artistic director of New York City Players who is collaborating with the Wooster Group on early works by Eugene O'Neill at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Red Krayola, an experimental rock band from 1966, will premiere an opera written in collaboration with the British conceptual art group Art & Language, and choreographer Sarah Michelson will put on a site-specific work for the iconic Madison Avenue Marcel Bruer building through Mar. 11.

Los Angeles-based performer/filmmaker Wu Tsang, who will screen a work he made about an L.A. bar frequented by transgender Latinas, has created a “green room” for other performers to prep inside. 

Performance artist and musician Dawn Kasper will move her studio, bed and belongings into the museum’s third floor galleries, taking up residency for the duration of the biennial where she promises to live her life as normal.

"It’s important to us to present not only the visual arts, but also performance, film, and music," the curators said in a statement.

"While the performing artists in the show may fall into defined categories — dance or theater or the like — we think many of them have a lot of connecting points and dialogue with the visual arts. It’s a discourse that’s out there."

The biennial will also feature the work of the famed German filmmaker Werner Herzog.  He has created a multi-media installation that includes projections of etchings from the 17th century Dutch printmaker Hercules Segers with music from Ernst Reijeseger, who has composed music for Herzog’s films.

It also includes excerpts from Herzog’s “Ode to the Dawn of Man,” a film about making the music for his 2011 documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.’

Sussman and Sanders began researching and planning for the show in December 2010 and tapped Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, the co-founders of Light Industry, a Brooklyn venue for film and electronic art, to curate the show’s film program.

The show has already attracted enmity from the Occupy Wall Street movement over its connection to one of its sponsors, Sotheby’s. Occupiers have taken up the cause of the unionized art handlers who were ousted from Sotheby's in the summer over a contract dispute.

Protesters rallied at the Whitney during a VIP opening Tuesday and wrote an open letter calling for an end to the biennial in 2014, stating, “We object to the biennial in its current form because it upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees and corporations at the expense of art workers.”

It added, “The biennial perpetuates the myth that art functions like other professional careers and that selection and participation in the exhibition, for which artists themselves are not compensated, will secure a sustainable vocation.”

But one commenter posted in response that the Whitney has “done a great service to this country over the last 100 years by canonizing and recognizing works which would have otherwise lived only in the margins of the ‘Art World.’”