WV: Performance will play a large part in this biennial. One of the most intriguing choices is your inclusion of the Texas-based visionary artist Forrest Bess “by Robert Gober.” Can you discuss how this work relates to the show at large?
ES: Gober was interested in a specific aspect of Forrest Bess’s career from the end of the ’40s that grew out of Bess’s manipulation of his own body to be both male and female — operations actually made on his body and photographed. At a certain period of Bess’s art, some of his imagery was related to these ideas of hermaphrodidity that he thought were profoundly overlooked in our culture yet deeply embedded in human consciousness. So Gober’s installation for the Whitney will include a series of paintings and archival materials that he’s researched and brought together. This is a first-time reading of Forrest Bess
in a public institution, but it follows the “Thesis of Forrest Bess” himself.
JS: Gober found that Bess had proposed this “Thesis” show to his dealer Betty Parsons. To the best of his scholarly ability, Gober is going to constitute that unrealized show. Elisabeth and I decided early on that this would be a show of living artists, so the Bess presentation is an anomaly in that way.
ES: But this interest in art history does run across the biennial. It’s a thread that you can trace, from an absolute curation like Gober’s work to a deep referencing of history toward an accumulation of works of art from the past by Nick Mauss.
JS: There’s a range of practices that deal with looking back at less known, more esoteric corners of art history and then embodying that work in different ways. Some artists are more perverse or more invasive in the way that they engage the past, and some, like Gober, are more scholarly and walk with a lighter touch toward it. And there’s also a certain amount of work that deals with gender. Wu Tsang’s Wildness (2012) deals with the Latino transgender community, and the project of Richard Hawkins deals with Tatsumi Hijikata and Butoh, which also have transgender implications.
WV: Elisabeth, one of your bestknown curatorial endeavors was the 1993 Whitney Biennial. How does this biennial’s aesthetic and the art world’s engagement with politics compares with that of 20 years ago?
ES: Jay and I felt that we weren’t in the same generation of identity politics which so permeated my previous experience of the biennial. At first I thought we were dealing in an apolitical world, but that identity politics were still deep in the queering of the art world that you see throughout our show. Then in October, when we were coming to the end of our curatorial work, Occupy Wall Street broke out. So we had to talk about how a biennial should engage with a political movement that was right under our noses in New York. I felt that the aestheticization of activism and anarchism and the ideological debates that are going on in this country right now was not exactly the way to go. But as it turns out, there is some Occupy Wall Street in the show; there is some work that talks about the 1% and the 99%. It’s just subtler and more nuanced and less agitprop than 20 years ago.