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NY Conversation: I Wanna Art With Somebody

11 May 2012 | 1:06 pm | Tom Hawking

Conceptual art is a ravenous tumor lodged on the arse of the art world.

When you're having a really shit week, everything goes wrong. When everything goes wrong, you start trying to find fun things to do. And when you find fun things to do, even those things go wrong. And when even those things go wrong, you end up wandering round the Whitney looking at conceptual art while listening to dreadful performance poetry read by a simpering undergraduate.

So it has gone for NY Conversation this week, because after having largely avoided the Whitney Biennial 2012, we were lured there last week in the hope of seeing EMA play a hastily-arranged set in the midst of some sort of art installation. This all sounds great in theory — NY Conversation is, after all, a big EMA fan, and the idea of seeing her in a tiny intimate space is thoroughly appealing. Unfortunately, as it transpires, the subway is late, the "express" train gets stuck in a tunnel, and we arrive five minutes after EMA finishes her set. Balls.

For want of anything better to do, then, we end up spending the rest of the hour or so before the Whitney closes exploring the Biennal, which proves to be a valuable experience in at least one respect: it serves as a crash course in all the reasons that conceptual art is a ravenous tumor lodged on the arse of the art world.

For those not familiar with it, the Biennial is — as its name suggests — a biennial exhibition, and it's focused particularly on young, upcoming artists. Which is all very well in principle, but unfortunately, all this year's event serves to demonstrate is that if this is the best that young, upcoming American artists have to offer, we're in a pretty shite state of affairs.

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NY Conversation wanders round on the floor where EMA was supposed to be performing for a bit — we see, variously, a synthesizer that plays itself, a large sculpture made out of what appear to be elephant tusks, a boat of some description, a bird looking out a window and a lot of people standing around listening to a girl reading an interminable, obscure poem that, devoid of context or explanation, can mean absolutely nothing to anyone but her. Eventually, we mosey down to the floor below, which is dominated by a large empty room in which two people are sitting motionless behind a desk. Eventually, a poster on the wall behind them catches fire, and everyone gets up and leaves. Um. OK.

In fairness to the show, it isn't entirely awful — there's a fascinating if thoroughly disconcerting exhibit about Forest Bess, an obscure alcoholic painter who apparently performed surgery on himself in an attempt to turn himself into a hermaphrodite. There's also a rather fascinating sculpture by an artist called Sam Lewitt, who uses space-age "ferrofluids" to create weird apocalyptic landscapes on the floor of the gallery. And some of the photography is OK, particularly the work of one LaToya Ruby Frazier, who's created a series of stark black-and-white images exploring the industrial and social decay of her home town of Pittsburgh, PA.

But for every worthwhile piece, there's ten more examples of the sort of thing that makes the public tear its hair out about the art world — shoddy, self-indulgent pap more enraptured by its own cleverness than having anything to say. The thing is, conceptual art isn't an inherently terrible, ahem, concept. But the problem with 99% of it — and 99% of what's on show at one of New York's most prestigious art galleries right now — is that the concepts involved are hackneyed, dull, masturbatory and/or some unholy combination of all three.

So is this really the best of upcoming American art? Of course not. Outside of the art establishment, there's still a heap of fascinating art being made in NYC, even in this age of crushing rent bills and ever-encroaching gentrificication. Head out to Bushwick Open Studios, which happens next month, and you'll see a huge diversity of work. Some of it is terrible, sure — there seems to be a studio space in McKibbin Lofts these days for every trustafarian kiddie in NYC who's told daddy he/she want to be an artist — but some of it is thoroughly worthwhile. There's genuinely fascinating (and accomplished) sculpture, photography, painting and all sorts of other stuff, all of it with something to say and myriad fascinating methods of saying it.

Why the Whitney has ignored all such things in favour of an avalanche of conceptual shite is a question only it can answer, but it seems symptomatic of a bias in the art world toward art that's more about art itself than it is about anything else. As far as NY Conversation's concerned, visual art — like music, and literature, and every other art form — needs to evoke some sort of emotional and/or intellectual response in the person looking at it, otherwise it's simply not very good. The problem is that conceptual art's ultimate question is about what can and can't constitute art — hence everything from Duchamp's urinal to Tracey Emin's bed.

But surely the question "Is it art?" has long since been answered — the relevant question these days is, "Is it any good?". Sadly, at this year's Biennial, the answer is largely a resounding "No".