April 1, 2022

Here But I'm Gone

As I entered the sixth floor level of the Whitney Biennial, the dark walls painted an immediate mood and the show title stood out to me: "Quiet as It's Kept". My first thought was afloat in musical lyrics, the lines of Curtis Mayfield's "Here But I'm Gone"

How did I get so far gone?
Where do I belong?
And where in the world did I ever go wrong?

If I took the time to replace
What my mind erased
I still feel as if I'm here but I'm gone

Porched up in a rocking-chair
With my feet all bare
Rolling my blunt in a cigar wrap

Live an adolescent mind
Never do take the time
Waiting for my high, quiet as it's kept

My tour of the Biennale was saturated with this song, so sad, regretful, elegiac, lyrics sung prostrate: "Mama told me I was best / Argue and punch in the chest / Son, now be strong, let me take you home / 'Id see in her eyes so sincere / Screaming, what got me here / Standing in the world with my mind all blown"

I had not previously read Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye", whose first line utters the title of this year's Whitney Biennale. My research afterwards assured me that my earworm did not lead me away from the curator's intentions:

Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody's did. Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year. But so deeply concerned we we with the health and safe delivery of Penola's baby we could think of nothing but our own magic: if we planted the seeds, and said the right words over them, they would blossom, and everything would be alright.

There is really nothing more to say - except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.

The italics were original but the bolded text is my emphasis here. It indicated an awareness of the hazards of magical thinking, even in the face of the compulsion of life's terrible circumstances.

All of this set the mood for the exhibition, designed into two themes, one per floor, darkness and light. Functionally, this worked quite well.

The dark floor lent itself to image projections and Stygian themes. The few standouts were throwbacks to earlier Biennales such as Daniel Martinez' trans human "Three Critiques". I chatted with one of the museum protection staff, who said with a tinge of mixed feeling that the previous night's opening reception was like a club party. My unverified impression was that that evening had a tinge of Weimar decadence, shoulder to shoulder post pandemic, amidst a train of world disasters, the desperate snatching a fragment of freedom in past tense.

The light floor wrested the structure of conventional walls away from the exhibition. The feeling was as if the works would flop to the floor at every turn, and some obliged. The tour was an aimless meander, there was this and there was that, everything seen through, beside and behind the other. The art felt like a fruitless grasp of any hopeful theme that could save us from the darkness above both literally and figuratively. Candied colors, wilted flowers, postcard imagery. Professionally executed trivialities.

What was missing was any sense of direction, any surprise or challenge, any sense of a tomorrow. Remember, this is a biennial review of what is deemed, what is intended to be a refined selection of the most influential artists across America. To be on the Whitney's radar is top shelf, the aspirational status of every young artist. The best of the best.

How did I get so far gone?
Where do I belong?
And where in the world did I ever go wrong?

I had anticipated that a day at the Whitney Biennial would consume the most of it. But I was out on the street much earlier than I had planned, reverberating with snatches of phrases, words floating to mind: "...stripped the threads of outrage...", "...corporate feel...", "...product showroom..." But what had hit hardest were overtones of helplessness. Coming up empty handed. A busted hand of cards. We are spent junkies, laid low by an overdose of the magical thinking from the previous century.

I'd see in her eyes so sincere
Screaming, what got me here
Standing in the world with my mind all blown
Posted by Dennis at April 1, 2022 3:07 PM

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