On ViewWhitney Museum of American Art
March 25 – August 8, 2021
Madeline Hollander’s first solo museum exhibition, now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, reveals a great deal about contemporary research-based art practices. Such work often functions as a relatively literal vehicle of communication, proffering an encounter wherein viewers learn something new. More often than not, the knowledge presented is social, political, economic, or environmental in nature, and yet the plethora of artists engaged in this kind of work rarely possess a background in the auxiliary fields from which they draw. So no matter how compelling the project—and they often are very compelling—what level of accuracy and peer review can viewers expect from a practitioner with no accredited peers and no professional expertise? Hollander’s Flatwing (2019) throws this tension into stark relief, highlighting the potential unreliability of such artistic research projects, the ease with which amateurs can come to be deemed experts, and the possibility of disguising a failed experiment as an artistic success.
Flatwing (2019) is somewhat of an outlier within Hollander’s still nascent oeuvre, as it does not include any elements of dance or choreography—her principal medium. Instead, it chronicles the artist’s research and artistic processes over the course of a 16-minute video in a darkened room. An audio recording of an interview Hollander conducted with Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist and expert on flatwing crickets, is transposed onto wobbly infrared footage of the artist’s nighttime wanderings through the rainforests of Kauai, where she knowingly searches in vain for this relatively new species. Having developed a mutation that renders them mute, the flatwings remain safely hidden from their predators and Hollander alike. The press release explains that like their chirping relatives (who face imminent extinction), the flatwings continue to move their wings in a “choreography of survival.” Though no sound is generated, the latter successfully reproduce by intercepting mates who respond to the chirps of their fellows. Hollander is drawn to the movements prescribed by this mating ritual, and searches for an analogy by which to project the terms and concepts of dance onto the activities of another species.
Before entering the screening, viewers can survey a variety of notes, photographs, and diagrams—either framed or affixed to the wall of a narrow hallway with the type of pin used to preserve insects in a diorama—that attest to the artist’s search. As per the pseudo-scientific nature of this display, Hollander’s diagrams are more likely to feature poetic or punny responses to natural phenomena than hard data. One such note is titled (Future) Origin Myths and lists seven ideas for different fables, including “How the leopard got its spots,” “How the crickets got their dance,” and “How the sun got its hum.” Photos from Hollander’s trek around the rainforest punctuate the salon-style hang, as do delicate line drawings of what appear to be bodily movements featuring human figures. How the latter relate to flatwing crickets is difficult to tell. There are no explanatory labels for this material, which encourages viewers to receive it, in aggregate, as a kind of performance.
Hollander’s conversation with Zuk makes the distinction between artistic performance and scientific practice exceedingly plain. When Hollander wonders aloud if the silent crickets may evolve “some sort of replacement to that call in the form of a dance,” Zuk responds, “never say never,” but adds that it’s far more likely they will become extinct. Zuk additionally puts to bed a key fallacy by explaining that crickets don’t think like us, “they don’t learn from their behavioral mistakes,” and they don’t devise new means of survival on a conscious level. The accompanying essay by senior curatorial assistant Clémence White chalks this misunderstanding up to a miscommunication, stating that the two women repeatedly “talk past one another,” each unable to see outside the bounds and interests of their own fields.1
While this may be true, when listening to the dialog—which preceded the creation of the video footage and positions the viewer as a rather awkward bystander—one can’t help but wonder why the project played out in the way that it did. The impossibility of locating the crickets in the field and the absence of a cogent metaphor that could relate their movements to our own effectively compromises the ability of this work to communicate meaningfully. Since art’s ability to transmit meaning relies on metaphor and symbolization, what happens when the symbols don’t add up to anything? Is a self-conscious undertaking of a futile task enough to sustain interest? The press release, wall text, and White’s essay all acknowledge the failure of the experiment upon which Hollander’s project turns, and yet a convincing rationale for the production and exhibition of the result remains, like the flatwing crickets themselves, elusive.
This exhibition opened as Hollander’s career skyrocketed to new heights in a relatively short period following the artist’s completion of her MFA at Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts in 2018. Much of her previous work unites the identification, documentation (see her Gesture Archive begun in 2012), and choreography of rote movements with an extant system in a manner that brings order to chaos and beauty to banality. This is perhaps best exemplified by Ouroboros: Gs (2019): a meticulously choreographed installation of the Whitney’s flood mitigation system that was created for the 2019 Biennial.
Ouroboros: Gs benefits from a thoughtful integration of art and science, or dance and climate change, each field of study complementing and enhancing the other. So what differentiates this piece from Flatwing? While the former speaks to systems that are larger than life by proposing strategies to fend off looming disaster, the latter operates on an all-too-personal scale. Through oversharing the details of an artistic (as opposed to systemic) failure, this work loses sight of the bigger ecological picture, drifting further and further away from an interest in scientific phenomena and toward an amateurized spectacle of it. That being said, by choosing the rather doomed crickets as her subject, Hollander’s Flatwing highlights the enormity of an impact that can be brought about by even the smallest of changes, thus emphasizing the precarity of our present environmental situation and the intensely choreographed nature of the world around us.
- Clémence White, “New Instruments: A Search for Silent Signals,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 2021, https://whitney.org/essays/madeline-hollander-flatwing.