At the Whitney Biennial, art by the earful

In lieu of celebrity narrators, the exhibit's audio tour has artists discussing their work -- or urging you to look rather than listen.

April 09, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- After waiting in line to enter the Whitney Museum of Art's 2000 Biennial, hundreds of us lined up again: We wanted to arm ourselves with the recorded audio tour provided by the museum.

There's something peculiar about museumgoers pausing at the entrance of an exhibit to gear up with listening devices. There were no audio tours when Vincent van Gogh was visiting the museums of Paris. And Picasso didn't hand out explanations when he finished "Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon." It makes one wonder if art has changed so much that it can no longer be appreciated without commentary. More than likely, it is the viewer who has changed.

It's just so much easier to plug in than to ponder.

As museums compete for the shrinking attention spans of their audiences, they also vie for celebrity narrators. At the Brooklyn Museum of Art, David Bowie introduced the much-publicized exhibit, "Sensation," which closed in January. At the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1992, Meryl Streep narrated "Claude Monet: Impressionist Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston." In 1998, Andre Braugher was the voice of the BMA's "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum." At the Denver Art Museum (where works from the BMA's Cone Collection now are on loan), different audio tours for adults and children are available. On the children's recording, actors take on the roles of Matisse, his wife and the model who posed for "Large Reclining Nude."

In fall 2001, when the Walters Art Gallery reopens its renovated 1974 building and reinstalled ancient and medieval galleries, it plans to offer visitors a menu of audio options. Selections may include commentaries on individual works of art and a gamut of tours with titles such as "Spirituality through the Ages."

Audio tours provide information that many of us would not otherwise seek out. They can be insipid -- or illuminating. Who knows? If a tape-recorded explanation had accompanied the "Blue Nude" when it went on tour in 1913, perhaps students at the Art Institute of Chicago wouldn't have burned Matisse in effigy.

Some audio tours encourage the mind to wander. At the Museum of Modern Art's Jackson Pollock retrospective last year, viewers who came to look at the array of light-filled paintings could listen to the same jazz compositions that fueled the artist's imagination.

One could argue that, in an era of blockbuster shows with their blockbuster crowds, headphones are necessary as protective gear. Anything that diminishes the cacophony -- crying babies, chatty museum visitors, crackling gift-shop bags -- has merit. Headphones create a private space, a sense of being inside your own personal bubble. Put on your set and it's almost as though it's just you and the art.

Listening to the artists

The Whitney recording, produced by Antenna Audio, is less a tour of the Biennial than snippets of conversations featuring the artists discussing their own work. The artists' spoken explanations, though not always eloquent, add a touch of humanity, a sense of intimacy to the museum experience.

Museumgoers don't have to listen to the whole tape; they can choose which work they wish to learn about. They also have a choice of how much information they receive.

Rina Banerjee's mixed-media piece, "Infectious Migrations," is simultaneously repulsive and compelling. Punch in No. 18 on the audio tour and you discover that not only is that exactly what she hoped you'd think -- but why.

At the work's center is a purple-hued protrusion that resembles a decrepit fallopian tube and aggressively extends from the wall toward viewers. Around it, the artist has created an installation using smaller surgical tubes, red pigment, Spanish moss, fake eyelashes, rubber gloves.

As you look and listen, the artist, who in 1966 immigrated from India to the United States, says: "I'm interested in work that creates a kind of repulsion, a kind of dirtiness, of not being contained and contaminant. And those things are often used in my work to talk about migration. So all these things are mixed together in a way that kind of produces a juxtaposition and I'd like to believe raises questions that don't appear right away."

Ingrid Calame's artwork, "b-b-b, rr-gR-UF!, b-b-b," was inspired by the stains on a city sidewalk. (The name of the work is a translation from sound into letters of the noise made by machines on a construction site.)

Using orange enamel paint, Calame traces images from sidewalks and transposes them onto a translucent Mylar "canvas." The Mylar background both hangs on the wall like a conventional painting and flows onto the floor where it forms a colorful puddle.

The artist, who refers to her painting as a "constellation" of street stains, says: "The cusp of knowing and not knowing is where I like to locate my project. And the whole point is it is giving more credence to the imaginary than information generally does."

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