What's Bizarre At The Whitney?

A synthetic stag bends over an area rug in this art work by Erick Swenson, called "Untitled," during a preview of the 2004 Biennial exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York Wednesday, March 10, 2004. CBS/AP

The Biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York is the exhibit that arrives every two years to show the public what's happening in American art -- what's new, what's cool and what's in. It is an exhibit that often makes viewers ask, "Is this really art?"

"It just looks like bananas, and then maybe a brain growing," observed CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver of one display at the Biennial. "There's got to be a story here."

"There is a story," says curator Debra Singer of the artwork. "Actually these two black platforms represent two bands … the whole installation is called the '70s funk concert model … these are your audience members listening to the bands."

Despite skepticism, Singer insists the piece is well grounded in art history.

"You could think of the surrealists from the early 20th century taking familiar images and making them unfamiliar," she says. "So, you see fragments and parts of things coming together in these very strange and playful ways."

The artwork "Intergenerational Biennial" invites viewers to consider how artists of different ages may influence each other. So, recent landscapes and portraits by established painters such as 67-year-old David Hockney, are juxtaposed against work by 39-year-old Elizabeth Peyton and 31-year-old Kim Fisher, who bases her pictures on fashion-magazine photographs of jewels.

Deb Singer and her co-curators, Chrissie Iles and Shamim Momin, traveled the country for eight months to come up with a list of 108 artists to be included in the show.

To agree on which artists should be featured, the three provided persuasive arguments for things to which they felt committed.

The curators say they found evidence that the uncertainty of a post-September 11 world has had an impact on many artists.

"I think there's a sense of instability in the sculpture by Mark Hanforth," says Iles. "In one of the galleries, you see this enormous highway sign that seems to have landed in the gallery as though dropping down like a meteorite. And there is a sort of sense of the world not being quite as stable as we thought it was."

Another recurring theme at the exhibit is nostalgia for the '60s and '70s, even the drug culture. A piece by Virgil Marti, called "Grow Room Three," alludes to a basement marijuana-growing operation.

There's a psychedelic dance studio, too. It was designed by an art collective called Assume Vivid Astro Focus.

"We wanted to bring about a sense of joy and celebration and excitement," explains Bek Stubek, one of the members of Assume Vivid Astro Focus. "We
wanted to have a lot of energy and exuberance."

The exhibit also features lots of small, strange worlds, such as one created by David Altmejd, complete with bejeweled werewolf heads.

The work has a pretty , little bird that is chained down to the werewolf.

Deb Singer explains it represents "tremor of, like, hope and the beautiful and the delicate coming out of the dark and the decaying and the morbid."

The work is called "Delicate Men in Positions of Power."

"Fireflies on Water," by Yahoi Kusama, is composed of tiny lights suspended in a room full of mirrors, which may make an observer feel as if they're in a fairyland.

If your fantasies run to colder climes, well, put on your booties. An installation by Terrence Koh is part treehouse and part Japanese teahouse.

"You're invited to go inside and see all the sort of secret forms that are buried in here," says Singer of the walk-in artwork. "It is about, you know, trying to create this other worldly atmosphere, you know, within the museum, so this is sort of transporting you into another imaginative realm in a different kind of way."

The Biennial itself has become a storied realm for artists. Since the first one in 1918, it has included works by many who went on to great fame: Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keefe, Jackson Pollock.

Some may say the exhibit is a big deal for an artist because it could be a career-maker.

"The Biennial never made or broke an artist's career," says Iles. "But certainly, if you're into the Biennial, you have to be ready to take the spotlight, which is why it's important not to select an artist unless you feel they can take the spotlight."

Cory Arcangel, 25, is the youngest artist featured in this Biennial.
"I've been totally freaked out the last few months, but it's going OK," he says of being chosen to show his work in the Biennial.

Arcangel's work involves recycling old computers and computer programs in his piece. He took an old Nintendo game, "Super Mario Brothers," and removed all the images except for the clouds.

Curators don't expect everyone to get everything about the Biennial.
"I think that some of the world is very beautiful, and one of its completely perplexing," says Iles. "Some of it is very easy to recognize. And some of it isn't. But that sounds like people, don't you think."

And plenty of people showed up at the museum the night that Corey Arcangel and friends demonstrated the "Spare Parts Music" they create with sound chips from old computers, which amused a crowd that included Arcangel's grandparents.
  • Rome Neal

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