Interview with Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman by Wendy Vogel
Flash Art 283 March – April 2012
Wendy Vogel: Each iteration of the Whitney Biennial faces comparison with the previous one. How has your curatorial approach responded to “2010,” curated by Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari?
Jay Sanders: One thing that’s similar about both shows is their size. That biennial was the smallest ever in terms of the number of participating artists, and ours is even a bit smaller than that. Structurally, one thing that is very different is that they put a lot of looped media works in the museum galleries, whereas we have primarily chosen film and video work that is durational and it is in a cinema program. But it wasn’t so much a response to that show as starting from scratch and thinking about how we wanted to present that kind of work.
WV: Past biennials have included many young artists. Your list includes many mid- and late-career artists. What intergenerational connections do you hope to make?
Elisabeth Sussman: Our biennial is about strong individual voices and unique creativity. We didn’t give ourselves any quotas about artists having been in previous biennials or artists never having been in biennials or making a concentrated search of recent graduates or recent first-time shows in New York or elsewhere.
JS: We felt free to take in the moment and articulate it in our own unique way. This obligation of putting forward every rising young artist is different now than it was in the past, when the biennial was one of a fewer number of platforms for emerging artists to take center stage.
Today there are more opportunities for young artists outside this context, in part because there are so many other biennials, surveys and gallery opportunities. So in addition to introducing artists to a wider context, the biennial is an opportunity to assess artmaking in general and put forward propositions on its importance and the forms that it can take.
WV: Many filmmakers are included in the biennial, from documentarians like Werner Herzog and Laura Poitras to multiple generations of experimental filmmakers. Some of these artists have rarely been included in a visual arts context. How did you make these choices?
JS: We had the great fortune to work closely with Light Industry’s Thomas Beard and Ed Halter throughout the entire year. We worked on the film program together and then they reflected on the biennial as a whole. As we were making decisions about visual artists, they responded to that. And we were interested in an expanded view of art forms. Along with static artworks there’s cinema, dance, music and theater. We wanted to bring these forms into a context that would address their ideal viewing conditions. So we’ve reactivated the Whitney’s 2nd floor cinema, and there are major dance commissions with ticketed performances.
A lot of great cinema is being made right now, and the documentary became a key focus early on. It came from artists like Werner Herzog, Laura Poitras, Fred Wiseman and Thom Anderson, and even works like Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill (2011), which merges fiction and documentary. The documentary became a very pointed artistic form to show a kaleidoscope of practices.
WV: Performance will play a large part in this biennial. One of the most intriguing choices is your inclusion of the Texas-based visionary artist Forrest Bess “by Robert Gober.” Can you discuss how this work relates to the show at large?
ES: Gober was interested in a specific aspect of Forrest Bess’s career from the end of the ’40s that grew out of Bess’s manipulation of his own body to be both male and female — operations actually made on his body and photographed. At a certain period of Bess’s art, some of his imagery was related to these ideas of hermaphrodidity that he thought were profoundly overlooked in our culture yet deeply embedded in human consciousness. So Gober’s installation for the Whitney will include a series of paintings and archival materials that he’s researched and brought together. This is a first-time reading of Forrest Bess in a public institution, but it follows the “Thesis of Forrest Bess” himself.
JS: Gober found that Bess had proposed this “Thesis” show to his dealer Betty Parsons. To the best of his scholarly ability, Gober is going to constitute that unrealized show. Elisabeth and I decided early on that this would be a show of living artists, so the Bess presentation is an anomaly in that way.
ES: But this interest in art history does run across the biennial. It’s a thread that you can trace, from an absolute curation like Gober’s work to a deep referencing of history toward an accumulation of works of art from the past by Nick Mauss.
JS: There’s a range of practices that deal with looking back at less known, more esoteric corners of art history and then embodying that work in different ways. Some artists are more perverse or more invasive in the way that they engage the past, and some, like Gober, are more scholarly and walk with a lighter touch toward it. And there’s also a certain amount of work that deals with gender. Wu Tsang’s Wildness (2012) deals with the Latino transgender community, and the project of Richard Hawkins deals with Tatsumi Hijikata and Butoh, which also have transgender implications.
WV: Elisabeth, one of your best known curatorial endeavors was the 1993 Whitney Biennial. How does this biennial’s aesthetic and the art world’s engagement with politics compare with that of 20 years ago?
ES: Jay and I felt that we weren’t in the same generation of identity politics which so permeated my previous experience of the biennial. At first I thought we were dealing in an apolitical world, but that identity politics were still deep in the queering of the art world that you see throughout our show. Then in October, when we were coming to the end of our curatorial work, Occupy Wall Street broke out. So we had to talk about how a biennial should engage with a political movement that was right under our noses in New York. I felt that the aestheticization of activism and anarchism and the ideological debates that are going on in this country right now was not exactly the way to go. But as it turns out, there is some Occupy Wall Street in the show; there is some work that talks about the 1% and the 99%. It’s just subtler and more nuanced and less agitprop than 20 years ago.