Whitney Biennial

Art Review by Donald Goddard

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There are three remarkable exhibits in this year's Whitney Biennial, one approaching architecture, the second being architecture, the third away from architecture.

Vincent Fecteau's small structures on pedestals give the impression of inverting space, like black holes. They are the inverse of what can be seen or thought, which could be a perception, a mathematical formula, or an actual mass. It is impossible to know what the original, the obverse of one of these structures, might be, but it would be something that exists, just as these things that Fecteau has made now exist. Most apparently, they are houses or series of rooms in the brain that we are inside and outside of at the same time. They stand up and adhere to certain structural principles, with structural parts and references to surfacing materials and furniture. There are beams and walls and struts pieced together in ways that seem at times to have a geometric as well as structural logic, and indeed it is that level of abstraction we are experiencing. The materials themselves--papier-maché, foamcore, plastic, paper, etc.--seem recycled, to have had another life. Familiar accessories and objects appear--a bed, a rug, toilet paper in a basket on a toilet--in tiny photographs that are fixed within the space but seem to float in it. They are photographs, not replications, and therefore have, like the larger structures themselves, a kind of other-dimensional existence. From one side, the bed is inside, and from the other a corner of it is outside; it is not just in one place, as, for instance, no memory or thought is just in one place, except within us. The bathroom rug is pictured on a small sales card that touts it as "Guaranteed Forever," which makes one think of Plato's universe of forms, and life lived among those forms, or perhaps those forms existing on their own, without us. Having been created by and for humans, how strange that would be. What these structures represent are the quadrants of our imaginations. Remaining within our grasp, they magnify, focus, and diversify to an extraordinary degree the space in which we exist.

In a sense, the Rural Studio's architectural projects realize in a practical way the imaginative formations of Fecteau's work. Their purpose is to extend and enclose the worlds of those for whom the structures are made as a matter of personal and community need and expression. Like Fecteau's pieces they are modest; they have no ideological pretensions. They are composed of geometric, modernist shapes and for the most part use materials that already exist (one building has a magnificent transparent prow made of old car windshields, another is built with bales of waxed corrugated cardboard). In the process, the mysteries of both engineering and design are diminished as their practice are exalted, and architecture, or human living space, becomes as available to understanding as any other aspect of the environment.

Included in this exhibition are models of three projects--a baseball field, a community center, and a house--photographs and a film about their planning, building, and use; and drawings of houses by Samuel Mockbee (1944-2001), who died just eight years after founding the Rural Studio with D.K. Ruth in 1993 as a graduate program of Auburn University in Alabama. Second- and fifth-year architectural graduate students, as Architecture magazine noted in March of this year, "live, work, and build in the small towns of Hale County, Alabama, which first came to fame as the home of the three sharecropping families whose live were chronicled by James Agee and Walker Evans in their book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, originally published in 1941." They work closely with the people who are to live in the houses and use the facilities, and it is astounding the degree to which the lines and shapes of modernism are adaptable to those lives and uses. How fortunate those people are, students and clients, to be thus engaged.

Chan Chao's people don't have any architecture. They are outside society, living in camps along the borders of Burma with India in the west and Thailand in the east, refugees from wars against the repressive regime within their country. There are eleven large color photographs of mostly young people--some full-length, others from the knees up--collectively called "Something Went Wrong." But of course the people are not all whole--one man has had an arm and a leg blown off. Chan Chao went to Burma in a normal way to see his friends and family and discovered it wasn't so easy; things had changed. Nothing is normal about this setting, these circumstances; people are not chatting, going to work, working, surrounded by their families, or even obviously suffering. They are alone, solitary, even when with other people. The forest is like a photographic studio in which the people are posing at one stage in their lives. Chan Chao gets to know some of them a bit. About Thaung Tin and Friend, May 1997, he writes, "They have been forced to relocate for the third time in one year. The guy in the white T-shirt is recovering from Malaria." About Young Recruit for CNF, January 1998 (who seems to be about 12), "I don't have much information on her. One thing I noticed was that she seemed very unhappy." But somehow it is normal; the stage they are living through is part of a natural and normal biological development. They are part of, they come out of the green of the forest and wait for, work toward, the next stage. Chan Chao didn't expect to find what he did. It was more than he expected. "I wondered if I had stayed in Burma, would I have had the courage to do what these people have done? These visits to the border camps were very much a kind of self-reckoning." Maybe even more than that.

Donald Goddard © 2002

The exhibition was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021.

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