Whitney Biennial 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

I’ve come to think that judging the quality of the Whitney Biennial misses the point of this typically maddening event. Though the ratio of excellent to excremental shifts from year to year, the show is always uneven, which is fine if you think of it less as the museum’s last word on best-ness and more as a pleasantly shaggy tour of what’s happening now. Whoever curates the show – this year it’s Elizabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders – always brings together a disparate group of artists, whom critics try, usually in vain, to corral into thematic coherence.

The current motley round-up has an unusually generous proportion of really gripping stuff, a scattering of diversions and, invariably, a few snooze-inducers. That’s my 11am-on-a-Wednesday appraisal, at any rate; what you see depends on when you go. The biennial is heavily weighted towards film and performance, organised into a shifting and complex matrix of events. Consequently, much of the exhibition isn’t on view at any given time, and seeing the whole thing requires a commitment that goes way beyond what most visitors are likely to muster. “Our ideal viewer is going to come seven or eight times,” Sanders says. (At $18 a pop? Good luck with that.)

The curators resist the art market’s fondness for stunt-like spectacle and seamless execution. Nothing here is huge. Irony lies dormant. No one tries to gobsmack viewers, or even extract a whispered “wow”. The slick showmanship of Jeff Koons or Maurizio Cattelan, involving teams of fabricators slaving away in some undisclosed location, couldn’t be more remote from the modest, improvisational and occasionally amateurish efforts on view at the Whitney. Indeed, crafted objects in any form are rare. Sussman and Sanders are more interested in the messiness of gestation than in the finished product.

They’ve found the perfect embodiment of their makeshift aesthetic in Dawn Kasper, who has recreated her cluttered studio in a corner of the third floor. Books, clothes, instruments, amplifiers and towers of junk spill across the space, along with the bed Kasper plans to sleep in for the next three months. Chatting with viewers, playing experimental music for them, and taking naps are the keystones of “This Could Be Something if I Let It”. The title’s conditional mood captures the biennial’s sense that art comes almost haphazardly into being and that the main thing is not to stifle its spontaneous birth and erratic development.

Optimistic uncertainty pervades most of the fourth floor, too, which has been converted into a bare loft space with an architectural plan of the Whitney painted on the floor and chairs on risers for the audience at one end. Like Kasper’s den, it’s a bubbling Petri dish of aesthetic activity, as performers groom, stretch and rehearse. Of course, most visitors won’t be lucky enough to see the actual performances, which take place once a day at 4pm and require special entry tickets. Devotion, an otherworldly dance by Sarah Michelson, is already sold out for the duration of its run, as is the next string of gigs by Michael Clark.

Even at this unfolding, evolving, perpetually unfinished biennial, an understandable weakness for palpable stuff rears up, as repressed desires always do. The curators can yearn for the ineffable, but many artists are hoarders and sentimentalists, and here they get to display their attachment to objects crusted with the patina of memory. Turntables and tape decks have vanished from our homes, but they proliferate at the Whitney. Kasper showcases her collection of audio cassettes, and Tom Thayer builds his evocative menagerie of puppets and birds around an LP of Carl Orff flute music playing at spooky half speed.

Luther Price enlists a slide carousel (raise your hand if you remember what that is!) to project discarded bits of mouldy film that he has buried, exhumed, lacerated and garnished with coloured ink to cunning effect. Nostalgia also plays a role in Moyra Davey’s odes to dead technologies. Davey took close-up photos of the typewritten word “letter” and then folded each one up and snail-mailed it to a friend. Now 12 of those stamped and addressed artworks are pinned to the wall in a sepia-toned grid; our eyes home in on the archaic-looking postage, the quaintly handwritten destinations, the scars left by the idea’s corporeal journey, and we feel Davey’s longing for archaic forms of human contact. It’s no surprise to learn that she has also turned her lens to dusty newspapers and stacked LPs.

Sam Lewitt also mines a vein of funky wistfulness with the mesmerising “Fluid Employment”, a sculpture made out of a viscous brown liquid called Ferrofluid, poured bi-weekly for the show’s duration. When magnetised, this foul-looking industrial stuff forms hairy globules, and Lewitt has installed fans that make them undulate like oil-slicked anemones.

The weirdest and most galvanising foray into the not-too-distant past is a micro-exhibition, arranged by the artist Robert Gober, of twisted, mystical creations by a Texas eccentric named Forrest Bess (1911-77). Bess lived in almost total isolation on the Gulf Coast, fishing by day and transcribing his dreams on to canvas at night. Convinced of his inner femininity and obsessed with an alchemical desire for unity, Bess performed a series of surgical interventions on his own genitals. “All symbolism in art,” Bess wrote, ”points toward this mutilation as being the basic step towards the state of pseudo-hermaphrodite as the desirable and intended state of man.”

Bess placed his anatomical experiments on a par with his art, and pressured his dealer, the legendary Betty Parsons, to display his sexual manifesto alongside his paintings. She refused, though the Whitney devoted a retrospective to him after his death. Now, Gober resurrects him as an honoured contemporary and peer.

I have often emerged from past biennials seething at the mix of abject imaginations and overheated aspirations. This edition struck me more like a travelogue of a varied art world, in which humour cancels out pretentiousness, earnestness and hucksterism find some sort of expedient equilibrium, and wherever you look there’s something to entertain the eye.

Until May 27, whitney.org

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