Until this year, Whitney Biennial film programs have felt like hastily arranged afterthoughts. Video artists would be granted their white-box loops, but filmmakers outside of the museum circuit would be sparsely represented. The 2012 edition came as a pleasant shock by including 15 directors, who, for one week each, would present their work in a dedicated screening room. This came about because Biennial curators Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman tapped veteran film programmers Thomas Beard and Ed Halter to co-curate the section.
Halter and Beard have made it their mission to break down boundaries between the contemporary art and film scenes. Halter helmed the magpie New York Underground Film Festival from 1996 to 2006 (which has since turned into the Migrating Forms festival), and both now lead the Brooklyn-based venue Light Industry, which presents installations and performances alongside rare screenings by Godard, Straub-Huillet, and other titans of the film avant-garde. For the Biennial, they selected works from all over the artistic spectrum—experimental (Nathaniel Dorsky, Jerome Hiler, Laida Lertxundi), documentary (Laura Poitras, Frederick Wiseman, Thom Andersen), and even (gasp!) narrative (Kelly Reichardt, Matt Porterfield).
While the film section was previously run as a separate entity, this year it was programmed as part of the main exhibition, so the works selected for the theater enter a conversation with the pieces in the gallery. The first filmmaker scheduled, Luther Price, is a materialist who scratches and draws right onto the film frame, and has some of his slides are included in the galleries, objects of contemplation that start dancing when set in motion through a projector in the Whitney’s second-floor screening space.
Nathaniel Dorsky’s films dance in their own way, although his are more traditionally produced through a camera lens. He is a patient image-grabber, lugging around his 16mm Bolex searching for moments of offhand beauty, whether a fugitive hand gesture or an accidental lens flare. He combines these disparate images into instinctual montages that flow according to a logic that seems to lie tantalizingly beyond conscious thought. He told Scott MacDonald in A Critical Cinema that, “I want successive images to be disparate and connected, and I want each shot to link back to earlier shots. The connection can be as simple as the return of a simple red or of a particular pattern. Sometimes it’s the iconography. There are various levels where your mind can make connections.” (The approach is a striking contrast to Werner Herzog’s forced connections in his second-floor installation piece, Hearsay of the Soul, which randomly mashes up landscapes by Dutch painter Hercules Segers with the music of Ernst Reijseger.)
Werner Herzog, Hearsay of the Soul
There is an astonishing moment in Dorsky’s The Return (2011) when a woman is having a conversation in a café; only her hands are visible, framed behind a glass wall. There are no words, since his films are always silent (his artistic manifesto is named Devotional Cinema for a reason), forcing focus onto her expressive hands, which twirl through elaborations and then punctuate thoughts in staccato movements. It is a mini-ballet of embodied thought, whose arcs of movements are echoed throughout the rest of the piece, in the sway of a flower or a ray of the sun.
Forrest Bess, The Penetrator
Dorsky seemingly has easy access to the maneuverings of his unconscious, and can give himself over to it, linking his work to one of the revelatory exhibits in the main galleries, that of Forrest Bess, the late Texas eccentric expressionist. Bess, a sometime Jungian who exchanged letters with Carl, was convinced that the truths of his existence lay somewhere beneath his consciousness, which he thought he could unlock by becoming a hermaphrodite and opening a hole at the base of his penis. The backstory might elicit shocked giggles, but his work silences those knee-jerk reactions. Using his invented symbology (there is an explanatory legend in the exhibit), Bess alternates between bold, comic-book style compositions of animals or evocative abstractions that work as psychedelic Rorschach tests, provoking associations as unexpected as those in Dorsky’s films. His Untitled #31 (1951) is either the uvula of a man counting sheep, or the penis of a perv into bestiality. Your imaginations may vary.
While Dorsky is a major figure in experimental film circles, his longtime partner Jerome Hiler is a word-of-mouth master who has mainly showed his work at home to friends. Hiler’s usual medium is stained glass, creating panes for private homes, and the sculptural delicacy of the light in his rapturous new film, Words of Mercury (2011), attests to this experience. Hiler told MacDonald that “As a result of all the things that can happen with the great Projector in the Sky, what a piece looks like at ten in the morning in autumn is not what it looks like at six in the evening in summertime....’” In Words of Mercury he uses in-camera superimpositions to allow for a similar variability in the quality of light: capturing an image, rewinding the film, and recording a different visual over the same stretch of film stock.
Jerome Hiler, Words of Mercury
This process creates conversations within shots as well as between. Upon first glance I thought the structure was to layer images of manmade and natural images, where a clock would be absorbed into the image of a field, which would flutter back and forth between background and foreground, a battle for supremacy. This turned out to be bunk, forcing my own need for structure on a film that operates on intuition and jaw-dropping spectacle. The images are their own justification.
Laida Lertxundi also invites speculative narratives, but for a wildly different stylistic approach. Lertxundi is a Spaniard who now lives and works in Los Angeles, and her elegiac work expresses the solitary curiosity of the expat, built around the contrasts of loneliness and wonder. Cry When It Happens (2010) flips between images of boxy enclosures (windows, TV screens, bedrooms) and the open sky, set to the shimmering mod rock of the Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby”, a plaint that is also an offer of escape. A Lax Riddle Unit (2011) uses James Carr’s “Love Attack” as the emotive backdrop to the indolent adults whirling aimlessly inside, the churning soul track expressing emotions Lertxundi’s actors won’t provide, locked inside their boxes, dreaming of the world outside. I found her work echoed in the languorous undated “sketches of women” by Eyre de Lanux, the writer and art deco designer, which feature emblems of femininity in scattered array, reclined torsos and pursed lips, emblems of eroticism and yearning. On the reverse side she writes the text of a lament: “oh my darling where are you,” a passive version of the Rondos’ lyrics of loneliness: “I need to see you/See you alone.”
Laida Lertxundi, A Lax Riddle Unit
While Lertxundi wrings pathos from being an L.A. outsider, Thom Andersen is a native Los Angelean whose curmudgeonly historical excavations reveal a secret history of the city. His legendary “city symphony in reverse” Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) traces the history of the city’s representation on film, filtered through Andersen’s gimlet eye. The more traditional documentarians on hand, Laura Poitras and Frederick Wiseman, give a cross-section of contemporary approaches to the form.
Poitras is making a trilogy on the effect of 9/11 through, as she describes it, a “micro-macro” approach, following one individual to get a sense of the larger, fissured picture. My Country, My Country (2006) tracked a Sunni doctor as he ran for office before 2005 elections in Iraq, while The Oath (2010, being shown at the Biennial) looked into the life of Abu Jandal, an ex-Al Qaeda member (and current sympathizer), who once worked as a bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden. Because of her frequent visits to Iraq and Yemen to make these films, Poitras suspects she has been placed on a Homeland Security watch list. Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com has recently spotlighted her endless travails at U.S. customs, where she is always detained, and her electronic devices taken (and the data presumably copied). For the final chapter of these journalistic narratives, for which she has said will take place in the U.S., she may now be able to incorporate her life into her art.
Latoya Ruby Frazier, Grandma Ruby Smoking Pall Malls
Wiseman is represented by Boxing Gym (2010), his sweat-drenched portrait of a small, un-air-conditioned gym in Austin, Texas. It’s every bit a dance film as his ballet portrait (La Danse, 2009) and burlesque show movie (Crazy Horse, 2011), and its portrait of working-class life mirrors the work of Latoya Ruby Frazier, whose series of stark B&W photographs document the industrial decay of her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania.
This year’s Biennial percolates with such unexpected artistic dialogues. As Wiseman is considered alongside Frazier, and Dorsky with Bess, the arbitrary boundaries separating film art from fine art begin to disappear. And with independent theaters closing at an alarming rate due to the onerous costs of new digital projection equipment, moving images need the legitimacy and screening spaces of contemporary art museums more than ever. The 2012 Whitney Biennial is an inspiring template for how that union could work.