Immersion at the Whitney Biennial

Karen Kedmey
Jun 9, 2014 3:55AM

Among the (over)load of art in every conceivable mixed and non-mixed medium in 2014's Whitney Biennial, two wholly immersive projects stood out: Zoe Leonard's 945 Madison Avenue (2014) and Leviathan (2012) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. Though the works are at opposite adjectival extremes--Leonard's was delicate, quiet, barely-there; Castaing-Taylor's and Paravel's was lush, visceral, and intense--they both compelled me entirely into their gorgeous visions, and made the outside world drop away.

For her piece, titled after the Whitney's address, Leonard transformed a fourth floor gallery into an oversized camera obscura by blocking out all but a small oculus in the room's protruding window. As has been happening since the invention of this proto-camera, a projected image of the wall of buildings and the trafficked street that the window looks out on came streaming into the darkened gallery space on the beam of light emitted by its small aperture, spreading like a watercolor wash over every surface, and appearing flipped upside-down. The wall directly opposite the window and the gallery's black floor held images of the elegant brick and stone buildings. On the ceiling, barely noticeable, the Whitney's signature openwork cinderblock grid was tinted with projections of the street and sidewalk, with cars slipping by like colorful shadows.

All of this was invisible at first to the unadjusted eye. Leonard's camera obscura requires, and rewards, the viewer's time--to transition from the brightly-lit galleries containing a whirlwind of contemporary art into the silent interior of an age-old apparatus, containing lovely, ephemeral visions of the outside world delivered on nothing but a ray of light.

One floor down, in another, much smaller darkened space, I was plunged headlong into the grotesque and gorgeous visions of Leviathan, a documentary about the American fishing industry, and man's timeless relationship with the sea, whose story unfolds not through linear narrative and interviews, but through sights and sounds alone. By attaching numerous special cameras and microphones to locations throughout a ship, including the fishermen's own bodies and the capacious nets they continually hurl overboard, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel capture the violence, gore, and primordial beauty of open-ocean fishing.

The film was running on a loop, and I happened to walk in when the screen was filled with an underwater cascade of orange, pink, and white starfish, shells, scales, and other piscine detritus, trailing, as it eventually became clear, a net stuffed full with catch. This net would soon burst heavily out of the gurgling, slushing ocean, raised high by whining machines, and then drop with a bodily thud onto the mucky bottom of the boat itself, the trapped sea animals flopping, slipping, and sliding out in a hurt and living heap. And this is only a small part of the semi-abstract pastiche of sights and sounds that manages to get so thoroughly under the skin by bringing viewers nose-smashingly close to the experience of the fishermen and, for that matter, their catch.

If 945 Madison Avenue is transportive because it creates a space where viewers are immersed in nothing but the effects of light's seemingly alchemical, image-producing power, easy to miss, then Leviathan works by force, filling the eyes and ears relentlessly, over-abundantly, garishly with what it means to harvest the sea.

Karen Kedmey