The Whitney Biennale grapples with three years of trauma
It’s an ideal introduction to the Whitney Biennale, which opened earlier this month. Many of the artists included in this 80th edition of the landmark exhibition grapple with the dual meanings of black and white, struggling to overcome simplistic dichotomies while maintaining moral clarity about the world and its plight. Thomasos’ paintings were made in 1993 and, like some of the best works in the exhibition, they are reflective. If art matters, it matters over time, and curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards remind us not only that the present moment is tied to the past, but also that the wounds that feel fresh today are deeply rooted in the history of the world.
The opposition of light and dark also reflects the basic design of the biennale, which spans the fifth and sixth floors of the museum, with even more work on the exterior terraces and other levels of the building. The sixth floor is a maze of small, dark spaces, many of which are intended for video; the fifth floor is open and bright and takes advantage of the massive column-free space designed by architect Renzo Piano. Together, the two floors stage a familiar experience of art: the disconcerting feeling of being lost, interspersed with moments of illumination and clarity. Biennials, which often attempt to obtain an encyclopedic snapshot of the art world, follow the same dynamic: they are necessary but futile efforts, too kaleidoscopic to make sense of the current moment, but with occasional discoveries and epiphanies. .
The 2022 Whitney Biennale, subtitled “Quiet as It’s Kept”, is the first since the pandemic began in 2019. The subtitle is familiar, referring to the idea that some known things shouldn’t be or are not mentioned, that certain secrets, in particular collective traumas, are held firm. These words are as effective as the paintings of Thomasos in summarizing the context of this biennale: All the great traumas of the past three years, including the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic, have also been moments of exposition, underlining the hypocrisy of a society that treats inequity and bigotry like open secrets, in plain sight but quietly guarded.
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The larger social context of the show is best understood with a list. Topics explored by the artists include: racism, misogyny, homophobia, environmental degradation, gun violence, immigration, Native American identity and displacement, water rights, colonial and postcolonial legacies, police brutality, China’s great urban migration, the decline of democracy, health care inequities, and the constant erasure of difference across America. And this is a partial list.
Some artists come directly, others by more elliptical paths. Alfredo Jaar, who was born in Chile and experienced right-wing fascism during the reign of Augusto Pinochet, uses an immersive environment to deal with the fallout from Floyd’s murder. In “06.01.2020 18.39”, grainy video of the military and police forcefully dispersing a June 2020 protest in Washington’s Lafayette Square is shown as overhead fans mimic the dangerous blast of air from the helicopters of the DC Army National Guard who flew as low as 45 feet to create panic among largely peaceful protesters. It sounds fanciful, but the effect is powerful and lends force to Jaar’s summary of the event: “Fascism has come to America.
Alejandro “Luperca” Morales addresses his subject, the violence that has ravaged Mexico’s Cuidad Jaura where he was born, through a clever rebellion against scale and immersive aesthetics. He loaded 35mm slides of the city, downloaded from Google Maps, into small magnifying viewfinder keychains. You gaze down at a small plastic toy and are somehow as deeply engaged in the images as you are in Jaar’s more assertive scale piece. It’s a clever way of playing with scale, slowing down the viewer, under-promising and over-delivering, and perhaps there’s an echo here to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Given Given’, also accessible via a small, unattractive peephole.
Somewhere in between is one of the works that I found particularly powerful, the combination of Sable Elyse Smith’s videos from law enforcement reality shows with a slow-moving black ferris wheel that works like a mysterious chronometer. The video is the usual police state porn, both fascinating and morally unassailable. Meanwhile, the big black wheel slowly spins and clicks and grinds. The video captures the wake of violence and ugliness that we swim in so often that we become oblivious to its filth. The slowly spinning clock-like wheel hints at the toll it is taking, slowly crushing our world into atoms. However, the wheel is also an antidote: when you see it, you can distance yourself, for a moment, from the toxicity of violence as entertainment.
Some artists operate in whining mode; others are impartial and analytical. Some find it difficult to show the gravity of the mess in which we find ourselves; others want to know, how did we get here? One of the most enigmatic rooms is near the sixth-floor entrance, a dark space with a single museum-style display case containing a small corked glass tube. Ambient sound is a work by artist Diné Raven Chacon, who recorded the buzzing background noise of a silent protest by women against the Dakota Access pipeline. The glass tube, we are told, supposedly contains Thomas Edison’s last breath, captured by Henry Ford. We fetishize the weirdest things. Money makes heroes harmful men. Science worships industry, which worships science. Hundreds of women will dress for the cold on a gray November day to protest a pipeline that could taint their water and will almost certainly lead to the final taint of the planet.
Jacques Louis David, master of propaganda, master of drawing, at the Met
The “everything is connected” feeling comes and goes sporadically throughout the show. Coco Fusco’s slow, hypnotic video of Hart Island, the site of a New York potter’s field where prisoners dug graves for the bodies of covid victims, is bewilderingly beautiful, somehow capturing the depths of the loneliness and isolation that many have felt over the past few years. Kandis Williams’ “Death of A” juxtaposes the chaos, wars and violence of the last century with a monologue by an African-American actor that includes references to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” The description of the work in the catalog states that the piece emphasizes “the black body as a site of experience at the same time as it is co-opted as a politicized symbol by the viewer”. It does that. It also links violence to the banality of American aspiration. When I saw it, I had no idea he was using Miller’s play as inspiration for his lyrics, but somehow it reminded me of the first time I saw “Death of a Salesman”, and how I left the show feeling broken by the nod from The Life of Willy Loman. I got goosebumps hearing Williams’ fracture and recontextualization.
The Whitney Biennial is often defined by controversy. In 2019, there were protests over the museum board membership of Warren Kanders (whose wealth was tied to a company that made tear gas); in 2017, a white artist, Dana Schutz, was unfairly pilloried for appropriation when she contributed a painting of Emmett Till, an African-American boy lynched by white men in 1955. At times, conservatives seem to court Controversy ; other times, controversy is forced upon them.
This time it seems they have carefully avoided it, not out of cowardice or misplaced discretion, but because they see it as a distraction. Like most large, comprehensive art exhibitions, works presented at the 2022 Whitney Biennale have a success rate of around 20%. This is to be expected. But the show feels earnest and thoughtful throughout, as if difficult times compel us to abandon old strategies of confrontation and performative anger and get down to the hard work of understanding the world. It’s encouraging to see the art world reject a show strategy.
“Whitney Biennale 2022: quiet as it is kept” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 23. www.Whitney.org.