words by Ingrid Chu

Installation view of 2012 New Museum Triennial (Slavs and Tatars, Julia Dault, Amalia Pica)
Photography by Benoît Pailley

Let’s do the math: A three-year span. Plus two museums. Plus two museum curators and three guest curators. Plus eighty-five artists, artist groups, and collectives. Plus hundreds of works. Plus three publications and dozens of on and off-site programs. Plus an inordinate number of reviews and related texts—like this one. What this equates to is an overwhelming amount of art for an as yet untold tally of visitors taking in the 2012 editions of the Whitney Biennial and New Museum’s “generational” Triennial, The Ungovernables.

If museums are used to the numbers game, what they can count on is the critical onslaught that arrives every time. While the artists and curators are subject to the most visible fallout, the untold efforts of the education, janitorial, security, cafe, front desk, coat check, and bookshop staff also comes into play. Likewise charged with managing a wide-ranging audience with a mishmash of expectations, all hope for the best, but also prepare for the worst.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Corporate Exploitation and Economic Inequality!, 2011.
Courtesy of the artist
Photography by Abigail DeVille

This time around, a collective sigh can be heard at the Whitney Museum since the mainstream press has lauded the Biennial with almost universal praise. “Here’s an untried epithet,” writes Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, “enchanting.”[1] “One of the best […] The 2012 incarnation is a new and exhilarating species of exhibition, an emerging curatorial life form, at least for New York,” states Roberta Smith of The New York Times.[2] New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz concurs: “A quiet, incomplete manifesto [that] reimagines what a biennial is and explores the ways artists are taking matters into their own hands.”[3] Conversely, the New Museum Triennial has garnered mixed reviews. Art-Agendacontributor Arnaud Gerspacher stakes a position that appears to underscore what the museum intends: “It is refreshingly serious in its ambitions […] It simply wants to mean something without self-reflexively buffering its own ambition.”[4] Howard Halle of TimeOut New York is less convinced: “The Ungovernables reads like false advertising […] The pieces tamely follow the various art-making formulas that have been masticated and remasticated for decades now.”[5]

The Propeller Group, TVC Communism, 2011

Five-channel synchronized video installation and LED monitor, color, sound; 5:45 hr (loop)

Courtesy of the artists
Photography by Benoît Pailley

Add to this the plethora of online slide shows, audio walkthroughs, video podcasts, and fashion profiles that inevitably surface alongside, all of which informs, promotes, augments, and diverts from the critical reception surrounding such shows. The ever-increasing amount of reader comments, blogs, and social media sites provide yet another forum for discussion. Taking aim at the reviews as much as the exhibitions, the seemingly endless stream of responses volley between verbal applause and rotten tomatoes.

Nevertheless, what this hubbub also reinforces is the difficult task these so-called “ennials” have in harnessing a concise, yet provocative sense of recent history. As judgment comes by how critics and audiences receive these exhibitions, this fact both helps and hinders the generation of thirty-four international artists, artist groups, and ad-hoc collectives defined as “ungovernable” by New Museum’s sophomore Triennial.[6] By “rejecting proscribed relationships to history and society,” exhibition curator Eungie Joo explains, “artists in The Ungovernables enact the present they desire through their work. The exhibition attempts to provide a platform for these multi-faceted presents.”[7] This extends to organizers Elisabeth Sussman of the Whitney and invited co-curator Jay Sanders, who consider many of the fifty-one artists’ work included in the Biennial as “a form of free collage or reinvention that borrows from the culture at large as a way of rewriting the standard narratives and exposing more relevant hybrids.”[8]

Installation view of 2012 Whitney Biennial (Oscar Tuazón)
Photography by Sheldan C. Collins.

The result is a push to implement suitable presentation strategies for visitors who ostensibly serve as on-the-ground critics to both exhibitions. Talking to Whitney guard Don, too, who has worked every Biennial since 1989, it’s difficult not to think about his take on the exhibition given the sheer amount of time he’s had in direct proximity to art over the years. Likewise, the New Museum guards—many who knew exactly what the critics were saying—happily pointed out visitor favorites like Pavli Takala’s The Trainee (2008) or Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado’s O Século [The Century] (2011), often contrasting those featured by the institutions and critics.

For the Biennial, any attempt to alter the museum-going experience comes mostly by way of artists who give credence to subjectivity and self-determination. That, and artists who privilege interaction by invoking visitor participation, like Wu Tsang’s GREEN ROOM, Dawn Kasper’s THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT, and The Red Krayola’s Portal (all 2012) to name a few. Artists in The Ungovernables, however, are less conciliatory despite an ultimately “optimistic” outlook we’re told, instead activating the museum as a site for potential rupture in exposing the effects of geopolitical mayhem.

Potential does not guarantee realization, even as both museums try to circumvent the standard presentation of grouping works together in visually digestible pockets alongside numerous didactic texts with varying degrees of success. This extends to the accompanying publications—institutional treatises doubling as vehicles for outreach. As such, New Museum has not one, but two on offer: the exhibition catalogue and the Art Spaces Directory, an equally large publication. Including 400-plus independent spaces worldwide, the latter acts as a resource guide, if only able to serve as an incomplete primer given the cultural activity that remains under the institutional radar.

Installation view of 2012 New Museum Triennial (Adrián Villar Rojas, Danh Vo)
Photography by Benoît Pailley

Ideally, artistic intent, curatorial objective, and visitor experience converge on the museum floor, but contradictions always abound. For example, a copy of the Biennial catalogue sits open to a text by Andrea Fraser, There’s no place like home (2011-2012), presented on a pedestal just off the second floor elevator beside a wall panel the artist also wrote herself. Perhaps intentionally, browsing is disallowed upstairs although visitors can easily take away the text, either by freely downloading it online or purchasing the catalogue.[9] Similarly, Oscar Tuazon’s For Hire (2012) cajoles audiences only to thwart their expectation. His wood and metal model home-esque lobby construction is only quasi-interactive in this context as countless visitors who are stopped attempting to walk up the stairway components will attest.[10]

Whether praised or censured, the Biennial and Triennial, along with the venues that house them, will undoubtedly survive the critical downpour that has rained over “ennials” now for quite some time. Still, much can be gleaned through their reception—from critics, visitors, and perspectives ranging from exhilaration to frustration—not to mention the artists intent on complicating the gap between taking up institutional shelter and knocking the house down.

Moyra Davey, Darling, 2011.
Chromogenic print, 4 x 6 in. (10.2 x 15.2 cm).
Collection of the artist.
Courtesy the artist

[1] Peter Schjeldahl, “Not Like the Other Ones: A surprising Whitney Biennial,” The New Yorker (March 12, 2012): 72.

[2] Roberta Smith, “A Survey of a Different Color: 2012 Whitney Biennial,” The New York Times (March 1, 2012): C21.

[3] Jerry Saltz, “Leaving Babylon: The Whitney Biennial’s curators consider the post-crash afterlife,” New York Magazine (March 1, 2012): http://nymag.com/arts/art/reviews/whitney-biennial-saltz-2012-3/.

[4] Arnaud Gerspacher, “The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial,” Art-Agenda (March 17, 2012):http://www.art-agenda.com/reviews/the-ungovernables-2012-new-museum-triennial/.

[5] Howard Halle, “The Ungovernables: More boxed-in than boundless, the NewMu triennial comes back around,” TimeOut New York (February 17, 2012): http://newyork.timeout.com/arts-culture/art/2674639/review-%E2%80%9Cthe-ungovernables%E2%80%9D.

[6] The exhibition title is cited by the New Museum as a reference to “ungovernable” being both a historically derogative colonial term and an affirmative call for civil disobedience.

[7] Eungie Joo, “The Ungovernables,” in The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial (New York: Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc., 2012): 15.

[8] The film programs are co-organized by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter. From the press release of “2012 Whitney Biennial” at Whitney Museum of American Art, March 1-May 27, 2012, in New York, NY.

[9] A second text by Andrea Fraser, “L’1% C’est Moi,” is also available for download: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/2012Biennial/AndreaFraser.

[10] I mention context since the wall label describes how the piece will also be used as a fashion show set by another Biennial artist, K8 Hardy.