Confronting the “Shocking” Virtual-Reality Artwork at the Whitney Biennial
By Alexandra Schwartz
Here’s what goes down. Viewers are directed to a counter, handed noise-cancelling headphones and virtual-reality goggles, and instructed to grip the railing below them. The video begins with a view of clear sky glimpsed between buildings on a wide Manhattan street, as if you’re lying supine on the ground. You can almost smell spring. Then a cut, and there, kneeling on a stretch of sidewalk, is a young man in jeans and a red hoodie, an obscure, plaintive expression on his face as he holds your gaze. A man in a gray T-shirt stands over him: the artist. He takes a baseball bat and whacks his victim in the skull, then drops the bat, drags the man by his legs to the center of the sidewalk, and proceeds to bash his face in with a series of stomps and kicks. Blood gushes. The victim grunts and is silent. In the street, indifferent traffic is lined up bumper to bumper. Pedestrians mill around in the far background. The bat has rolled into the gutter; the batterer retrieves it and carries on. The camera cuts to a dizzying view from above; it feels like hovering upside down in a dream. Throughout, a man’s voice sings the two Hebrew blessings that Jews recite over the candles during Hanukkah. Abruptly, the sound cuts, then the image.
The whole thing lasts two minutes and twenty-five seconds, if you make it that long. “Oh! Oh!” a man in a beanie and duster coat shouted, flinching. He walked away shaking his head. At the opposite end of the table, a woman who had declined a headset stood next to her boyfriend, anxiously watching him watch the video on behalf of them both. A couple of boys who had just squeaked over the age limit took off their headphones, looked at one another, and broke into laughter. An older man, bald and flushed, pulled off his headset, blinking the vulnerable blink of the nearsighted. His glasses had gotten stuck inside. A museum employee darted around, wiping the gear with disinfectant.