The 2017 edition of the Whitney Biennial is remembered for the animated debate surrounding the inclusion of a controversial painting by Dana Schutz titled ‘Open Casket’ (2016). It spurred an open discussion about cultural appropriation, white privilege and freedom of creativity. It divided much of the art world and prompted a discussion panel with The Racial Imaginary Institute titled ‘Perspectives on Race and Representation.’ The painting ultimately remained.
Despite the best intentions of curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, this year’s Whitney Biennial wallows yet again in controversy. It all started in November 2018 when the online publication Hyperallergic published an article linking tear gas canisters found at various sites of protest, including Standing Rock and the US/Mexico Border, to a company named Safariland, a lethal and non-lethal weapon producer owned by Warren B. Kanders, who sat on the board of the Whitney Museum as vice-chairman until recently. Staff members of the museum were quick to sign a letter demanding that Kanders be removed from the museum’s board. An open letter followed, backed by over one hundred scholars, academics, artists and art professionals, in support of the his dismissal. Subsequently, a series of protest actions ensued: Michael Rakowitz declined to participate in the Whitney Biennial and the activist group Decolonize This! held weekly demonstrations at the museum on Fridays over the nine weeks leading up to the opening.
Amidst this strained context, the Biennial opened as planned. With the exception of a few pieces, the exhibition curated by Panetta and Hockley is not as overtly political as one might have expected. Yet, the project it is a testimony to diligent curatorial research. The curator duo conducted over 300 studio visits in 25 cities across North America. Three quarters of the 75 selected artists are under 40 years of age and, most notably, a significant number either are not represented by a commercial gallery or haven’t been until recently. This is an exhibition that taps into the emerging voices of contemporary art in North America; one grounded in poetry while undoubtedly aware of the current testing political climate.
Concentrated on the fifth and sixth floors of the museum, the Biennial also spills out onto the third floor and the lobby of the museum. Rather than being organised thematically, the juxtaposition of the works suggests that it is up to the viewer to construct their own associations, to thread the pieces together and make sense of their combined message. This is the sophisticated power of a well-curated exhibition: it does not explicitly hold up a missive like a political banner. Rather, it is a slow read, one that welcomes the public to propel it forward. Despite the debate that surrounded the Biennial, there was nothing worthy of controversy within the selection itself, but individual works that tackled contentious issues which raised eyebrows.
As with any exhibition of this size, there are a number of standout pieces: Nicole Eisenman’s ‘Procession’ (2019), a large-scale moving installation on the sixth floor’s terrace, is equal part decadent and mesmerising. Brendan Fernandes’s installation occupies an entire room with a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows. The installation is activated by dancers throughout the Biennial, performing exercises grounded in discipline that draw a topological link between the world of athleticism and the underground practice of BDSM. ‘Triple Chaser’ (2019), a work by the UK-based collective Forensic Architecture asserts itself as the nucleus of this Biennial with an investigative film directed by Laura Poitras that addresses the Kanders controversy.
But perhaps the best works are precisely those that don’t stand out, the more subtle ones. The pieces that had the greatest impact were the gentle acts of self-preservation such as Martine Syms’s photographic installation ‘People Who Aren’t Friends or Lovers or Exes’ (2019) that questions so-called safe spaces and Maia Ruth Lee’s steel glyphs accompanied by a chart titled ‘The Nine Tools for Self-Defense’ (2019) that offers ways for one to shield themselves from their own emotions: fear, anger, deception, stress, hate, and jealousy. I was touched by the exercises in empathy, messages of love, and calls for solidarity in the film program, which combined the work of Garret Bradley, Sofia Gallisá Muriente, Steffani Jemison, Autumn Knight, and Caroline Monnet. Quiet acts of rebellion inspired me, particularly Christine Sun Kim’s charcoal drawings series ‘Deaf Rage’ (2019) showing charts that graph various levels of rage-inducing scenarios she experiences as a deaf person. There were objects of celebration that instilled reverence: John Edmonds’ arrestingly beautiful series of photographs and Jeffrey Gibson’s elegantly beaded garments suspended from the ceiling on the fifth floor. I left the museum with the impression that I had experienced a complex exhibition. It left me feeling invigorated; it had quietly energised me. I made me want to go and see it again, because as it is often the case with such surveys, it’s an impossible exhibition to consume over a single visit. The lasting impression it left took a while to settle.
In mid-July four artists published an open letter respectfully demanding that their work be taken down from the walls of the museum. The museum’s high management inaction in the face of months of protest had taken its toll. Nicole Eisenman, Nicholas Galanin, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani had had enough. Despite all that had been said and done, despite the support of hundreds, including more than half of the participating artists, and a significant portion of the museum staff, Kanders still sat on the board. In fact, he had just been reappointed vice-president in June. Four others quickly joined them: Eddie Arroyo, Christine Sun Kim, Augustina Woodgate, and the collective Forensic Architecture. I wondered how an exhibition like this one would live on without the precious contribution of those artists. Some artists felt compelled to take a position. Maia Ruth Lee used social media to explain why she decided not to remove herself while supporting the movement to dismiss Kanders: “the artist voice isn’t what needs to be sacrificed in this tragedy, especially with the voices of those who are underrepresented and have been given a chance to speak.” Days later after the artists’ letter was published, Kanders stepped down. Their works, in turn, continue to be exhibited until the end of the Biennial.
This Whitney Biennial is a strong exhibition, but what makes it arguably a successful one is that it is being used by artists to leverage their position as valued workers and yield a profound institutional shift, which will hopefully continue to have resonance in the way the Whitney Museum is administered and continue the process of institution decolonisation.