Work in Progress?
Marketing now runs every modern cultural enterprise, for better and for worse, and the biennial brand should serve the Whitney’s mission. At present, things function the other way around. The collapse of a star creates an energy-inhaling black hole, which hovers biennially on New York’s swanky Upper East Side. Now that’s a quark of a different color. —Christopher Knight
In a rare nod to the ever-worsening war in Iraq, Artforum recently featured an artwork of “unprecedented collaboration” and “defiant protest” on its front cover: The Peace Tower constructed and organized by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Mark di Suvero for the 2006 Whitney Biennial. The acutely–angled, cropped photograph of the tubular steel tower under construction beneath a clear blue sky seems to refer to an emerging anti-war movement under construction within the American art world. The tower’s final form—which deliberately recalls Arnold Mesches and Irving Petlin’s Constructivist-inspired Artists’ Tower for Peace of 1966—and current installation suggest otherwise.
As Tiravanija explains, the idea to revisit Mesches and Petlin’s tower came out of his collaboration in the 2003 Venice Biennale’s “Utopia Station” project. The first attempt to install Peace Tower during the 2004 Republican Convention in New York never materialized. All of this is to beg the question: what does it mean for an artist like Tiravanija—who, in the past, incorporated into his “platforms” makeshift supper clubs in response to the completion of the Gulf War and DJ booths during the early stages of the more recent invasion of Iraq—to now turn away from the strategies of relational aesthetics and the revolutions of everyday life in favour of work of deliberate political protest? In part, the answer has to do with the much broader trend in contemporary art in which poaching from vanguard practice and pop cultural aesthetics of the 1960s and 1970s has become commonplace—and much in evidence in the recent Whitney Biennial as a whole. But the reason also surely lies in both the project’s original intent and the artist’s own established mission: to bring people together, promote debate, present speeches (in the case of the current Peace Tower), and take part in protest sing-a-longs—very little of which has transpired at the base of the tower at the time of this writing.
What is the real difference between this new work and its earlier inspiration The original “Peace Tower,” a vibrantly coloured, fifty-five foot high structure, had been constructed from spindly iron that looked as though it had been surreptitiously snatched from a local works yard. The new “Peace Tower” is built out of the type of thick-diameter, brushed, stainless steel that is more commonly found on the plazas of World Exhibition sites. The original had been placed on an empty dirt lot on a desolate intersection of Los Angeles with a ring of two-by-two foot placard-like mixed-media panels encircling it. In the new version, this temporary, cordoned off space is replaced by the squared-off concrete perimeter of the museum courtyard. Within this space, a single wall displays a grid of newly donated placards by over two hundred different artists. No longer a space of reprieve generated by the work, the remainder of these protest tokens are strung around the tower’s form like so many eponymous cards on a holiday tree. The new tower has an added pinnacle component—like a silhouette of a hooded Guantanamo prisoner—which bisects a tubular circle-shape to create a cherubic peace symbol. This framing of the peace symbol by the hood-shape unwittingly suggests the cauterized nature of this sign in this context. The new tower waves to passing cars like a timid child behind a highway median. The 1966 original had “stood as a galvanizing symbol of dissent aimed at the government”: a symbolic site of tension and altercation between those who resisted the war in Vietnam and those who supported it. The only galvanizing thing about the new tower is its steel. In the end, the priceless real estate granted for Artforum’s cover exposé may have had something to do with the grand coalition of blue-chip artists (from Carl Andre to Andrea Zittel) and a coven of underground culturati (Tony Conrad, Kenneth Anger, and Taylor Mead) who, in this case, need not gather for the Live Aid-like photo-op.
And thus the claims made by many critics that the Whitney exhibition is now finally “international” are, it turns out, premature. Upon closer inspection, there are in fact just more artists from “across the Atlantic.” A truly international biennial would have gone much further in expanding the consciousness of the audience, impressing the urgency of the times, and eliciting better art. If contemporary art about the folly of war is to be made at all, it should resist nostalgically evoking history. To turn now to “protest art” is to both abandon the political efficacy of all strategies of contemporary art tout court and to deny the power of such work that does not string up its protestations to a utopian framework.
About the Author
Jordan Strom is a curator and writer based in Vancouver. He is Founding Editor of Fillip. He currently works as Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the Surrey Art Gallery.