The Best Kind of Boring: 2008 California Biennial

“Are you angry or are you boring?” Gilbert and George facetiously asked in 1977, the words scrawled across the top of a fiery, 16-panel image. Their point is unmistakable: you should be angry. If you’re not, you’re probably being negligently complacent.

The same question could be posed to the work in California’s 2008 Biennial, but with a strikingly different effect. Is the art angry or boring? In this Biennial, the two don’t necessarily combat each other. In fact, the best moments are both boring and angry, unpretentiously resistant in their refusal to be grandiloquent.

Todd Gray,

Kara Tanaka, Crushed by the Hammer of the Sun, Courtesy of the artist

LAX Art‘s Lauri Firstenberg curated this year’s Biennial and the exhibition spreads beyond its Orange County Museum hub, with satellite locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Tijuana, among other cities. This diversification emphasizes something we already know: a single exhibition in a single space always fails to do justice to the art world’s climate. The added locations do little to actually remedy this shortcoming, but whenever an exhibition acknowledges what it can’t do, what it can do becomes all the more dynamic.

If the thrust of the Biennial could be encompassed in one sentence, this might be it: something happened, something is missing, and now a nomadic lyricism remains, dancing around in a strange territory between romanticism and cynicism. It’s a long sentence, but an exhibition that emphasizes latitude over exactitude begs for verbosity.

Edgar Arceneaux‘s LIVE as in ALIVE, installed in the Orange County Museum, includes a tilted table covered in drawings and shimmering paper, a random string hanging from ceiling, a suspended piece of cardboard that rotates through the light of a video projection, and footage of a desert landscape taken from beneath a car. All the projectors, cords, and equipment are unapologetically visible and piano music from a video in the adjacent room, An Arrangement Without Tormentors, also by Arceneaux, filters through the oblong gallery. The installation feels fugitively quixotic, disregarding permanence while still embracing the poetics of materiality. The movement that occurs within Arceneaux’s work is tediously slow, even boring, but, over time, tedium becomes strangely potent. It suggests that choreographing renegade, raw, produced and composed materials into one lyrical experience could actually pose a challenge to co-option. Arceneaux’s breed of poeticism is nearly impossible to control.

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Andrea Bower, An Act of Radical Hospitality, Courtesy of the artist

The sculptural remains of Anna Sew Hoy‘s performance take up a whole gallery at the OCMA. Sew Hoy collaborated with dancer Flora Wiegmann, musician Giles Miller and performance artist K8 Hardy to revisit the strange story of Irma Vep, a 1996 film about an eccentric director and his foreign leading lady. For one night, on October 26th, bodies interacted with Sew Hoy’s transient, globular forms. Now the installation, called Irma Vep‘s Room, stands on its own, seemingly derelict without bodies to occupy its parts. But emptiness accentuates the work’s elegance.

Mirrors are a theme in this year’s Biennial. Anna Sew Hoy uses them. But not in the way artists like Yayoi Kusama or Richard Smithson have used them in the past. The mirrors in this Biennial don’t grapple with endlessness, infinity, or continuous re-representations. Looking down and seeing your reflection in the surface of one of Sew Hoy’s sculptures or sizing yourself up in Morgan Fischer‘s Scratched Cinescope is more like encountering your reflection on the mirrored wall of a restaurant or in the window of a pickup truck. The mirrors make the experience more local. You become part of the art for a fleeting, un-glamorized moment, for just long to verify your body’s relation to the gallery space.

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Daniel Joseph Martinez, Call Me Ishmael; or, The Fully Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster Triumphant, Courtesy of the artist

When Firstenberg selected the Biennial’s artists, she wanted to outline a California lineage, exhibiting emerging artists alongside older artists who influenced them. The mentors include Yvonne Rainer, Mary Kelly, Daniel Joseph Martinez, and Bruce Connor, all of whom could pass as younger artists given the agility of their work. In fact, the conversation that emerges speaks less about influence and more about inter-generational collaboration, suggesting a still-growing trajectory of art that chooses gracefulness over transgression.

The chorus of lighted breasts that run through the night in Mary Kelly’s film marries technology and body politics in a way that isn’t too far removed from what Kara Tanaka does in Crushed by the Hammer of the Sun, a seductive silk skirt spins on a mechanical sculpture, hypnotically speeding up and slowing down. Technology stands in for the figure, emphasizing the ways body images are literally constructed and outlining the reductive result. While certainly compelling and even entertaining, the flashing breasts and spinning skirt impoverish the nuanced wholeness of flesh.

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Julio Cesar Morales, Interrupted Passage, Courtesy of the artist

Jedediah Caesar‘s bright hot day long dark night perhaps best encapsulates the Biennial’s push and pull between discretion and idealism. A 1992 Toyota Pick has been filled to the brim with “parts of California,” including brush, pebbles, and collected junk. It’s almost the antithesis of land art; when you do art in the landscape, the landscape usually wins, overshadowing any grand gesture you’ve tried to make. When you put the landscape into a pickup, you’re doing something far less heroic and far more pragmatic. But pragmatics don’t have to be sterile or unfeeling. bright hot day works within its limitations to evokes a romanticized image of California’s land. The collected debris is pooled in the pick-up like a subtly landscaped pond, though the environment looks easy and natural, the barely rippled surface and the occasional, carefully positioned parts indicate the artist’s conscientious presence.

Elad Lassry, Untitled, Courtesy of the artist

To quote the title of Justin Beal‘s installation, There is Work to be Done. The art in the 2008 California Biennial acknowledges this thoughtfully, using transient elegance as its tool of choice.

The Biennial continues through March 15th, 2009.