A coherent and audacious Whitney Biennial
The surprisingly cohesive and bold Whitney Biennial is a material manifesto of the institutional culture of the end of the pandemic. Long on installations and videos and short on painting, conventional sculpture and pure photography, it is exciting without being particularly enjoyable – thought-provoking. Innovative and intimately collaborative curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards ignore rather than oppose the pressures of the ever-changing art market, which can fend for itself. (The hundreds of contemporary works that are still on display in commercial galleries constitute what could be described as a permanent floating Diurne.) Delayed a year by covid-19, the exhibition consolidates a trend that many of us did not suspect: a kind of fortuitously shared conceptual sensibility that suggests an in-group but is open to all who care about the relationships of art with the wide world. Even the most expressive artists selected by Breslin and Edwards seem to be geared not to personal feelings but to concrete facts of common experience. Far from the moonbeams. Does the outward-looking spirit coincide with the emotional convulsions occasioned by the war in Ukraine? This is the case for me.
Any focus on specific works, many of which require lengthy explanations of their motives and nuances, would have to await the recording of the collective power of the spectacle. (I suggest skimming through the whole thing, then backtracking to gaze at the individual exhibits.) The effect is less cumulative than immediate in each of the two main sections. The museum’s expansive, sunny fifth floor has been stripped of interior walls to become an open maze of freestanding sculptures and white-painted wooden frames that showcase smaller rooms. Aerial structures, in themselves sculptural, are deleterious to paintings and any other pictorial, which aspire to the serenity of flat walls. But the inconvenience for the images is justifiable by an exceptional curatorial expedient (not expendable, I hope). The essence is an orderly tumult of sensations fueled by, and fueling, a haunting sense of urgency.
The Whitney’s sixth floor is home to a maze of black-walled spaces that allow the viewer to immerse themselves in gnomic creations, many of which function in service of the show’s most overt embrace of identity politics, tied to the past and present trials of Native Americans in (let’s face it) settler society, and to some of their enduring folk traditions and ever-changing artistic concerns. In addition to this goal, there is a pervasiveness on both floors – sometimes ostensibly, but usually factually – of artists who define themselves as something other than heterosexual white men, indicating a potential climax after years strident agitation for diversity. . Provisional complicity reigns. If that sounds utopian, so do the fragile but stubborn wishes of many of us for the redemption of our multi-fractured America. We don’t need to stop dreaming even when shocked by aggressive realities.
Don’t necessarily expect to understand much at a glance. A piece by Rebecca Belmore, an Anishinaabe artist from Canada, “ishkode (fire)” (2021), centers on the depiction of a sleeping bag, cast in clay, which appears to envelop a standing, unencumbered figure. obvious otherwise. Around him, on the floor, are thousands of small-caliber bullet casings interwoven with copper wire. It’s beautiful both before speculating on its thematic focus and after. I single it out for the glory of the painstaking design that characterizes the dozens of works in the exhibition. I imagine pandemic isolation, both depriving and relieving artists of the demands of their careers, has fostered the solitary culture of perfection. This year’s Biennale title, “Quiet as It’s Kept”, is from a 1960 Max Roach album, and was later used in Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel “The Bluest Eye”, and for a show which was organized in 2002 by David Hammons, the New York provocateur in many mediums. The phrase suits art which, emerging from a period of obscurity, is as insistent as an unexpected pat on the shoulder.
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Perfect, of course, are the figures, placed outside on a fifth-floor terrace, by the imposing Californian sculptor Charles Ray. Hand-formed, then cast or machined from metal, three oversized seated men—ordinary, unprepossessing guys, judging by their appearance—impose a force field of jaw-dropping aesthetic tension and terse pathos. A few other established stars on hand and in good shape include Alfredo Jaar, Ellen Gallagher, Jane Dickson, Nayland Blake and the late Jason Rhoades. But most of the Biennale is dedicated to artists I don’t know, whose productions run the gamut from hanging fabrics to compact narratives. It should be noted in passing that video art, after nearly half a century of conscious experimentation, has come of age: a camera is also second nature and within reach for many artists today. than a pencil or a brush. The rare paintings on display reverse the focus on figurative imagery at the 2019 Biennale, tilting towards a recently widespread revival of abstraction in perverse styles that have yet to demonstrate their staying power.
A collection of photographic works by Laos-born artist Pao Houa Her documents and poetizes his Hmong family and community in North America. There are fifty-two images, and not too many. The sense of an intricately woven story, unfolding in the present while radiating from memory, left me with an appetite for even more. This gestation in the personal testimony, distanced aesthetically, is another frequent tone of the show. It infuses a poem by mystical NH Pritchard, a New Yorker with Caribbean parents who was steeped in art history and was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop, a group of black writers who met in the Lower East Side in the 1990s. sixties. He died in 1996, at the age of fifty-six. “Red Abstract / fragment” (1968-69) is a text in lyrical verse typed on a red background brushed and scribbled with restive erasures, revisions and notes. Its meanings dance on the edge of comprehension, but with infectious rhythms of improvisation.
The quality of upside-down personality sings in a poignant film by South Korean Berkeley graduate Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, which is projected onto translucent fabric and includes haunting portraits – eyes closed alternately with eyes open – of the artist and a sister of his. In 1982, at the age of thirty-one, Cha, an extremely learned linguistic philosopher (concerned, she writes, with the “roots of language before it is born on the tip of the tongue”) and novelist as much as artist, was raped and murdered in New York, at the Puck Building, by a security guard. She appears at the Biennale as an underrecognized progenitor of ideas and forms still in play for art and far from being exhausted.
It’s nothing new for the Biennale to include deceased artists who seem relevant to current creative trends. The exhibition has served, traditionally, not only to inform the public about the state of contemporary art – mostly American, of course, this being a mandate registered in the name of the museum – but also to propose benchmarks and challenges to future generations, even by welcoming a few foreign talents of local renown. What distinguishes this edition, for me, is the determined constancy of its taste in this respect, which avoids the jerky eclecticism that has weakened the exhibitions of a few years. (Are our city’s art people going to love the result? No. Hating the Biennale is practically a civic duty, or pledge of non-allegiance, for connoisseurs here – and we bless it, because it fuels the contrarian passion that makes New Yorkers dream of being better than…well, whatever you’ve got.) I won’t forget the shock of learning of Cha’s terrible fate. I was assailed by it, having first discovered and savored his work, stumbling from rapture to horror within minutes. But the pleasure remains. When it comes to art, death should only be an inconvenience and, as in Pritchard’s case, being nearly invisible may have turned out to have been just a speed bump.
Even among the living, death broods here and there in the catacomb-like sixth floor rooms, where it finds explicit reference in my favorite work in the series. Undeniably disturbing and captivating, “Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word” (2021), by Cuban-American veteran artist and singularly simple social activist Coco Fusco, is a magnificent twelve-minute video exploration of Hart Island, the potter’s field of New York for strangers. or unclaimed corpses. Shots of the artist working in a rowboat along its shores are intercut with overview drone views of a truly lovely place where rows of small stone markers superficially commemorate countless lives lost. Beauty replaces unconsummated mourning. The work may seem to invoke the cascading fatalities of covid pandemic and, coincidentally, the current ruthless carnage in Ukraine, where the destruction of so many makes headlines as grim as these stones. To be alive now is to be overwhelmed by the awareness of the untimely dead who, in Ukraine, have resigned from their role in a drama of increasingly urgent military, political and humanitarian imperatives. Their silence rumbles.
On a far less serious but, in itself, oddly elegiac note is “64,000 Attempts to Circulate” (2021), by young Queens artist Rose Salane. It consists of tables filled with incredibly diverse slugs – metal pucks, casino and arcade chips, religious medals, play money, and more. – which were used as counterfeit bus tickets in New York City between 2017 and 2019. Transit Authority’s auction of unwanted assets.) Call content tort populism, representing in each case a motivated person’s remedy out of need or out of sheer petty greed. Most of these people, if they don’t include us (shhh!), still walk among us, mute witnesses to the wickedness of mankind chafing at the restraints of the law. The disconcertingly beautiful ensemble amusingly sums up the predominant detour of this Biennale, for the moment, from the exaltation of autonomous art to the bravery of the routine chaos of a world where no form of comfort or conviction can be sure to persist overnight. ♦