Reflections of the Age of Trauma

By Gerret Sunborn
Art Weekly, August 2002

The 71st Whitney Biennial held in Washington this year has shown that American artists are not only full of fresh ideas, but also display the moral strength to face up to the current situation in their environment and surroundings

One of the most controversial and influential among the traditional American exhibitions is undoubtedly the Whitney Biennial, which was held this year for the 71st time at the Washington Whitney Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition presents the latest of the American artists' paintings, sculptures, sound and display installations as well as performances, art films, video and net art. 131 local artists, who took part in the exhibition, set the tone for new tendencies and trends not only in the American art scene but also globally.

Both the exhibition and the works of art presented have come about in the aftermath of the events of September 11th 2001 in New York and Washington. The majority of the displays directly or indirectly bear reference to these tragic events, in which the two twin towers of the World Trade Center - symbols of the American economic power - were destroyed before the eyes of the public. These events that have claimed the lives of civilians, mainly employees of the most powerful multinational corporations, have spread a sense of insecurity both among the general public and the ruling establishment, raising the feeling of uncertainty of what the future brings. All this is reflected in the exhibits that have been selected by the exhibition curators with surprising tolerance. An attempt was made to convey the atmosphere of fear and slight panic on the one hand and the rapidly growing sense of skepticism towards all that is not American on the other.

The sculptor Christian Panderewsky's installation, displayed by the information desk at the entrance hall of the museum, depicts a model of the WTC towers with a giant boomerang stuck in one of them, bleeding thick red liquid.This fountain of horror sets the tone for the entire Biennial exhibition.

Among the paintings and multimedia installations,displayed on the first floor level of the museum, the works by Lorna Boyford, Gary Toltek and Pete Vincerelli deserve particular attention. In a kind of assemblage, in which she uses various materials and media images, Lorna Boyford playfully evokes the theme of American history and at the same time examines the modern social situation, in which the issue of Pete Vincerellicolored members of the society, i.e. African Americans, still remains a painful one. Boyford's two meters long display shows a toothless black man eating a huge sandwich made up of headlines taken from the Washington Post, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Daily News and other newspapers.

The painter Gary Toltek reflects on an even earlier period in American history and the issue of American Indians, the native inhabitants of America, whose population today has been reduced to a totally insignificant number from several million at the time of the founding of the United States. Toltek, renowned for his engaging work, painted a realistic scene of a Native American man, sleeping in the darkness of a subway, wrapped in a blanket, and holding a half-empty bottle. Beside his exhausted face lies a torn Disneyland ticket.

Pete Vincerelli's work (above, click image to enlarge) looks back at more recent American History and the Gulf War Syndrome. Vincerelli points out the effects of inhaling the dust from depleted uranium ammunition used in Iraq during the Gulf War. A giant panel of illuminated images, showing children of American war veterans born with deformities, usually without arms and legs, stretches across five meters of the southern wall of the exhibition hall. Powered by a Panasonic electric fan, the American flag is fluttering in front of the panel.

The second floor of the Whitney Biennial exhibition is dedicated to electronic media and video installations. The video installations by Margaret Campbell Margaret Campbelland Ewan Fleuris use the footage of the "jumpers", people jumping from the highest stores of the WTC. Combining the moving images with a kind of cosmic sound, Campbell (left, click image to enlarge) uses slow motion in a symbolic attempt to prolong the life of those people for a few moments. Fleuris, on the other hand, includes an animation of suicide bomber planes, which are circling the towers and threatening new devastation.

In the central part of the exhibition, the sculptor George O. Szobros' multi-screen installation shows flickering portraits of American homosexuals, lesbians, drug addicts, representatives of racial and other minorities as well as uniformed members of various guerrilla fighters from around the world. A giant plaster cast hand, reaching out from beneath the portraits, is holding a collection box, which says: "Throw in a note and you'll get our vote".

Many other artists taking part in this exhibition also deal with the issue of social problems and political tensions in modern American society. Andrew Muller'sAndrew Muller installation (below left, click image to enlarge), the last one to be mentioned on this occasion, displays two giant cubes, reminiscent of the WTC towers. The towers are connected with a piece of string from which a sign 'American flight schedule' is suspended. At the base of the two towers yellow food bags lie scattered, similar to those thrown from planes during the bombing of Afghanistan.

With a range of very powerful exhibits, this year's Whitney Biennial has truly reflected the age of trauma in which the world is living, using an often sarcastic and very critical tone as a warning of the possible consequences.

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