This past week Eddie Arroyo, Christine Sun Kim, Augustina Woodgate, and the collective Forensic Architecture joined Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin in the withdrawal of their work from the most noteworthy exhibit of the year. Earlier this month, Arunanondchai, Bennani, Eisman, and Galanin wrote an evocative open letter on Artforum to the museum curators (Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley) outlining the reasons why they would be withdrawing their works from the exhibition and urged other artists to do the same; it did not take long for their conviction to catch on. They join Michael Rakowitz who left in protest of the museum’s vice chairman Warren Kanders earlier this year. Needless to say, their audacious stance achieved a moment of victory as Kanders resigned from the Whitney board on July 25th.
Every two years the “art-world” is reinvigorated by a series of biennales from many of its leading institutions and the public eagerly waits. However, by the time biennales roll around the initial excitement of seeing the artwork is often short-lived. Instead we find the exhibitions surrounded by controversy and striking headlines. The reasons for these politically-driven stand-offs typically stem from a (sometimes not so) murky place involving donors, and socio-political factors that contradict the mission statement of the organization. Participating artists are then forced to consider what their association to the institution, and therefore the controversy, would mean. These major exhibitions are places for the public to see the most compelling up-and-comers of contemporary art engaging in a visual dialogue about the current state of our world. For many artists, participation in a biennale can be the moment in their career that validates “making it”. These moments of friction can detract from this celebratory moment of culture, a way of chronicling historically significant works of art. In our polarizing times it is vital to take pause and appreciate the compelling artwork in this year’s Whitney Biennale.
The floors making up the Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennale have an attitude that is distinct from its predecessors. The show feels quiet but not subtle, the inverse of their “Instagrammable” counterpart. Rather than relying on photographically marketable views that saturate the flurry of typical exhibitions we see year-round, the curators and artists ask more of their viewers than simply looking through one rose-tinted lens. A quiet discontentment seeps through every piece, a firmly planted foot saying “this is my space to take up”, while simultaneously manifesting curiosity and openness to discourse.
While some mediums in the biennale feel familiar: painting, photography, sculpture, the resulting works use materiality in surprisingly experimental ways.
Artist Heji Shin upsets idealistic representations of a mother and child, sexuality, and the female body. Instead the artist gives us a voracious portrait of human life. Heji’s other works in the show depict the divisive celebrity – Kanye West as an embodied representation of American culture and its contentiousness.
Christine Sun Kim takes our typical notion of drawing and derails it, giving us a hard lesson on inclusivity and Deaf Culture, while maintaining a tongue-in-cheek attitude.
Brian Belott’s sculptures use mundane and discarded objects encased in blocks of ice and then suspended in commercial freezers. Playing on our perceptions of time and value while also bringing to mind stained glass windows and religious spaces. The pieces titled Untitled are self-aware, absurd and endlessly relatable. A constellation of abjection and humanness manifested by the ordinary nature of the materials.
Video work transcends typical definitions with perspective being a vital component. Carolyn Lazard uses dystopic devices to change the way we interpret broadcast media content, displaying cable television through the sterile arm of a medicalized apparatus.
Conversely, Ilana Harris-Babou presents her work in a recognizable manner, three monitors mounted to the wall at gallery height, but her evocative video works disorient audiences with humor as she analyzes the marginalization of African-American inequality. Using Restoration Hardware as a stand-in for the systematic way that oppression is poeticized and capitalized.
Many of the sculptures in the exhibition border on installation, the materials weaving in and out of personal space and “art space”. Very few black lines of tape were visible, warning us to keep a distance. There was an inviting lack of “do not touch” signs. Instead, viewers move in closely, faces almost pressing against artworks. Bodies weaving through works like Nicole Eisman’s, Procession appear almost collaborative as the pieces move, generating new configurations between life and art.
Augustina Woodgate uses synchronicity in a completely different way. Her installation is partitioned off in a room where dozens of analog “slave” clocks line the walls of the space, a gridwork of metal connecting them to a “master” digital clock that keeps time from a direct transmission from the local power grid. The grid is oriented to the clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technology– the place that establishes official United States time. The hands of the “slave” clocks are retrofitted with sandpaper, slowly wearing away the circuit of numbers on the clock. The “slave” clocks are forced to participate in the system of labor while obliterating their own value.
Viewing this exhibition is not something that should be done swiftly; to truly appreciate the full extent of the work requires more than a fast-paced glance. Be generous with your time, with your eyes and with your physical space in the gallery. Representing the type of inclusivity that the art-world should strive for, this year’s biennale had many voices. The exploration of these narratives give us a realistic perspective of present-day life–both the good and bad sides.
By Bridget Moreen Leslie