PARIS — In a recent article on AFC, Paddy Johnson argues that Werner Herzog’s piece in this year’s Whitney Biennial is essentially a throwaway. She sees Herzog’s contribution as a quick fix for inclusion that relies mainly on “bells and whistles” rather than substance. But her account is conspicuously reactionary and seems to be more of a response to the glowing reviews of the art writers she quotes than to Herzog’s work itself.
I agree with her on her main premise — that, in the end, “Hearsay of the Soul” (2012) is a schlocky re-rendition of a (questionably important) artist’s oeuvre and doesn’t offer much as a piece of art (or entertainment) on its own. To be honest, Herzog’s piece looks like an exemplary iMovie experiment. The piece is interesting, however, as a memento of its author; its value could be compared to that of a David Lynch art exhibition: the work is pretty bad, but you go see it because you’re interested in the life and mind of Lynch.
My more substantial disagreement with Johnson is over her argument that the piece is unsuccessful by virtue of its secondary staging of the work of Hercules Segers. She says that Herzog’s treatment doesn’t add anything to the original Segers paintings and is essentially a poor music video — a mere “crutch that wouldn’t be necessary if the original work were simply hung.” This is a stance that I would usually agree with: that perhaps it would be better to display an original work of art rather than a piece that relies so completely on direct appropriation, or that the added drama is unnecessary, even though I enjoyed experiencing it. In the end, the installation is no more or less than a fulsome homage to another artist by Werner Herzog.
But a more interesting judgment concerning the piece comes from an investigation of the conditions surrounding it. The context of “Hearsay of the Soul” within this year’s Biennial, and what relationship Herzog’s method of appropriation has to the show’s undertaking, is indicated by the words of the director himself. The wall text outside the screening room explains that he sees Segers’ etchings as more than mere images: “His landscapes are not landscapes at all; they are states of mind; full of angst, desolation, solitude, a state of dreamlike vision.” For Herzog, they are full-fledged experiences. This is how “Hearsay of the Soul” fits so perfectly into the larger show in which it resides: it acts as cotter pin, holding the axles of the Biennial together. And for this we can forgive it its shortcomings.
This year’s Whitney Biennial has no vision — but that isn’t to say it’s a nihilistic mess. Instead, it leaves one confused and questioning, which is one of the best things art can do. Everything is precarious, teetering and half built. It is the aftermath of the art world’s hurricane years. The Biennial seems to take its cues from Occupy Wall Street, where a ragtag group of creators and appropriators have made a demand for something they can’t define and where no one in particular is in charge. The life of this Biennial is like the life of a dream, where rules don’t apply, but everything has meaning. So to judge Herzog’s piece in isolation is to miss its importance.
Herzog’s intention was to present his vision of Segers’ art. And in that he was successful.
At the core of the working principles of this year’s Biennial is the idea that we should relinquish the line between the art-making process and the object of art in and of itself — or at least, that the boundary between the two is delicate and worth reflecting on. What “Hearsay of the Soul” gives us is a glimpse into Herzog’s thought process, and what it is to think of art in general, to think an art piece. In our culture, which values finished product over process, we often forget or ignore the fact that half of the artist’s work is in the mind. One’s praxis is, at least in part, a thinking process. Perhaps many artists have even forgotten this themselves, so caught up in the whirlwind of production activity that has kept the omnipresent Biennial craze afloat in the first place.
As many writers and visitors have noted by pointing out the nearly empty fourth floor at the Whitney, the dominance of film and performative works (all of which can be seen only at intermittent times) and the generally idiosyncratic, if not whimsical, aesthetic of the show, there is an inherent ephemerality to this year’s Biennial. It has an air of free association to it.
What we search for as viewers of objects and experiences, as perennial critics of the world, are concepts to make sense of. We want to be able to incorporate these things into our world of knowledge. But in fact, the best art either prolongs this resolve or resists it entirely. The Biennial champions this phenomenon; in its indeterminacy, we are reminded of the constantly in-flux, non-static, bipolar life of the mind. Herzog’s inclusion is just another vision in Sussman and Sanders’ curatorial dream.
The best part about this year’s Whitney Biennial, with all of its disjunctions, is that it is an induction to think art again.