Slate's pick of the Whitney Biennial.

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March 3 2006 12:47 PM

Jordan Wolfson

Slate picks a favorite artist from the Whitney Biennial.

Welcome to Slate's "Gallery." To supplement our regular art criticism, Slate offers this monthly feature that showcases art we think is worth taking a look at. The slide show is selected by Mia Fineman, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who writes regularly for Slate. (We'll have some guest curators, too.) Slate "Galleries" are wide-ranging, with an emphasis on exciting new video and digital art—the kind of art that is hard to reproduce in print magazines.

Choose your bit rate In a short film by the artist Jordan Wolfson, making its debut at this year's Whitney Biennial, a man in a tuxedo stands before a white background, speaking rapidly in sign language. The edges of the frame cut off his head and legs, focusing our full attention on the extraordinary eloquence of his hands, which seem to move at superhuman speed. (In fact, the black-and-white film, which was shot in 16 mm, is slightly sped up.)

What the man is reciting is the final speech from Charlie Chaplin's first talkie, The Great Dictator (1940), which predates The Producers as the first comic farce about Nazis. In the film, Chaplin plays a dual role as an unnamed Jewish barber and Adenoid Hinkel, a ruthless dictator based on Hitler. At the end of the film, the Jewish barber, who has been mistaken for his Hitlerian doppelgänger, delivers a rousing speech calling for freedom and democracy. "Let us fight to free the world," he cries, "to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance!"

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Chaplin's political sympathies lay with the left, and many believe that he broke character in this scene, using the film as a platform to speak out against patriotic militarism. When The Great Dictator was released in 1940, Chaplin's political activities were already under investigation by the FBI, and this controversial speech may have contributed to his blacklisting and eventual exile from the United States. (When Chaplin, a British citizen, traveled to London in 1952, J. Edgar Hoover negotiated with the INS to revoke his re-entry permit.)

Wolfson's silent restaging of Chaplin's famous speech invites us to contemplate a rare moment when politics disrupted the smooth surface of cinematic illusion. He derived his film's stark aesthetic from The Perfect Human (1967), a short, experimental film by the Danish director Jørgen Leth, in which a tuxedo-clad man performs against a blank background while a voice-over dispassionately describes and analyzes his behavior. (This was the film that Lars von Trier challenged Leth to remake five times, with each version subject to a different set of rules, in The Five Obstructions.)

A 25-year-old American who divides his time between New York and Berlin, Wolfson works in a variety of media in a style that might best be described as poetic conceptualism. As part of his participation in the Biennial, he has mounted speakers playing crow calls on the Whitney's roof. The aim is to attract crows and ravens to the roof during the course of the Biennial, which runs from March 2 through May 28. If you make it to the show, remember to look up: The curators did a test-run last week, and the avian shout-out seems to be working.

At the Whitney, Wolfson's film will occupy its own small gallery, where it will be projected continuously, but you can preview it by clicking on the video link at the top of this page. And click here to read the complete text of Chaplin's speech, which also serves as the (very long) title of Wolfson's short film.

—Mia Fineman

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