The Whitney Biennial: A Tale of Two Exhibitions

New York

at Whitney Museum of American Art

Left to right: Eric N. Mack's installation Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag – Permanently, 2019; Jennifer Packer: Untitled, 2019; Jennifer Packer: An Exercise in Tenderness, 2017; Jennifer Packer: Untitled, 2019; Jennifer Packer: A Lesson in Longing, 2019; at the Whitney Biennial 2019. Photo Ron Amstutz.

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This edition of the Whitney Biennial has actually been two exhibitions. The first was a smartly curated show: provocative, engaging, and at times beautiful, as much a testament to the participating artists’ talent as to the vision of the two curators, Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta. The second was that same display transformed by protest. In this year’s biennial there are no artworks that have provoked an outcry akin to that directed at the painting Dana Schutz exhibited in the 2017 edition. Artist Parker Bright, critic Hannah Black, and others accused Schutz of exploiting black trauma with her depiction of Emmett Till, who was murdered by white supremacists in 1955. Instead, the museum this year found itself the target of sustained public criticism by artists, activists, students, journalists, and staff over the continuing presence on its board of multimillionaire Warren Kanders.

Kanders is CEO of Safariland, LLC, a Florida-based manufacturer of security implements including handcuffs, body armor, and, most notoriously, tear gas that has been used on protesters in the United States (in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and at Standing Rock) and around the globe. Last year, US law enforcement fired Safariland teargas at asylum seekers attempting to cross the border from Mexico. As Alex Greenberger pointed out in ARTnews recently, protests against Kanders began in November 2018 and have taken many forms. Whitney staff members wrote an open letter to the museum’s administration, demanding Kanders’s resignation. Activist groups Decolonize This Place and WAGE called for protests and boycotts. These groups also cohosted a town hall at Cooper Union with multiple other organizations, including the Chinatown Art Brigade, to strategize Kanders’s ouster. One artist that Hockley and Panetta selected for the biennial, Michael Rakowitz, declined to participate, but the rest, including a few who publicly called for Kanders to resign, did not.

Instead of withholding their art, this year’s seventy-nine artists and collectives offered works that are anything but apolitical, safe, or quiescent, expressing commitments to and proposed conversations with a society in crisis. Over half of the artists are women, over half are people of color, and over half are under forty. Many are immigrants. The show’s overarching concerns reflected these statistics. Representations of socially marked bodies, in their vulnerability and resilience, recur throughout the show, engendering motifs that feel especially significant two-and-a-half years into the creeping repressiveness of the Trump presidency. Indigenous artist Nicholas Galanin, who lives and works in Sitka, Alaska, contributed a woven wool-and-cotton tapestry, White Noise, American Prayer Rug (2018). Representing a television with static on its screen, the work played on multiple channels at once, extracting from its vestigial image a metaphor for white nationalism’s buzz, ever present but increasingly audible and visible over the last three years. A good deal of the biennial’s art was overtly feminist, in complex ways. Seoul− and New York–based artist Heji Shin’s “Baby 1–7” (2016), for example, comprises photographs of babies crowning and other intimate scenes of childbirth. In their candor and clarity, these large-scale images, produced through the generosity of their subjects, are urgent reflections on maternity at a time of ongoing political and legal threats to women’s reproductive rights. In a similar vein, a half-century after the Stonewall Uprising, Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s collaborative photographs, which range from demure self-portraits to explicit depictions of bodies coupling, affirm queer sociality, visibility, visuality, and imagination in the face of reactionary threats to LGBTQ rights.

When an artist belongs to a marginalized community, the act of centering the artist’s hand can have political resonance. In that spirit, the exhibition foregrounded plasticity and craft. Puerto Rico–based Daniel Lind-Ramos’s sculptural assemblages displayed his skillful handiwork, which draws upon African, Indigenous, and European traditions. His Maria-Maria (2019), a sculpture fashioned from coconuts, fabric, and found metal parts, is an abstract depiction of the Virgin Mary (and to these eyes, a magnificent, life-size vulva). Lind-Ramos’s sensitive selection of materials also evokes Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic effects on Puerto Rico, with the titular figure wearing blue robes fashioned from tarps that FEMA distributed across the island. The sense of artist’s hand extends to digital media in Ellie Ga’s collagelike Gyres 1–3 (2019), a video triptych in which superimposed fragments of maps, photographs, and slides are woven together in a complex narrative. A voice-over combines a personal tribute to the artist’s late parents, an account of a search for submerged relics in the Aegean Sea, citations of legendary Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, stories of refugees’ fraught journeys to Greek islands, and reports on the drift of consumer debris toward the Mediterranean basin from across the globe.

Yet for all the power of this art, individually and collectively, which speaks within and to a spirit of aesthetic and critical resistance, the toxic stench of that Safariland tear gas connection remained, rotting the discourse around and within the museum’s walls. Only Forensic Architecture’s submission interrogated Kanders and Safariland directly. The London-based research collective’s fifteen-minute video Triple Chaser (2019), produced in collaboration with Laura Poitras and Praxis Films, documents the creation of an AI tool the collective used to trace the use of Safariland’s “Triple Chaser” tear gas canisters around the world. The searing presentation begged the question: why was there not more overt protest from the artists?

On July 17, more than two months into the biennial’s run, Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett brought this question to a head with a pithy critique published on Artforum’s website, branding the exhibition the “Tear Gas Biennial.” A boycott, they argued, would have struck a powerful chord by disrupting “the actual circuits of valorization”—those mechanisms by which institutions like the Whitney, operating in tandem with power and capital, legitimate and commodify artwork. The trio of critics argued against the idea that art should be divorced from politics (when is it ever, truly?) or the labor struggle (for what are any of the works in the biennial, or any museum or gallery, but the result of artists’ affective, psychic, and physical labor?). They pointed out that collective resistance and protest, however limited it may seem, can be effective, as with Nan Goldin’s protest of the Sackler family, longtime art patrons whose fortune derives in part from the aggressive marketing of opioids.

Two days after the Artforum article appeared, biennial artists Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Galanin published a letter asking the curators to withdraw their works. Eddie Arroyo, Christine Sun Kim, and Agustina Woodgate soon followed suit. On July 20, Forensic Architecture, which was planning to offer new research on Safariland’s ammunition business, announced plans to remove their project. On Wednesday, July 25, Kanders, a board member since 2006, officially resigned.

The festering Kanders crisis was thereby resolved during the biennial. But the terms of the exhibition were altered, with its context coming into sharper focus alongside the content of the work on view. The biennial became the nexus for new questions, still unresolved, about the nature and structure of institutions. Should not all funders, sponsors, and patrons be subjected to a certain level of critical scrutiny, and what would constitute the decisive criteria for rejecting funding? How far should that level of scrutiny drill down? Safariland’s record was fairly clear, but to what standard should we hold companies that made money off chattel slavery or worker exploitation, for example? Should every biennial, and every museum exhibition for that matter, provide at the very least a social, political, and economic genealogical chart or map, along the lines of Hans Haacke’s or Mark Lombardi’s critical artistic projects?

I believe we are at the moment when the artists should be encouraged to actively trouble the “circuits of valorization,” as prior generations of artists have done. I say trouble rather than disrupt, since the latter term has taken on particular connotations in the language of neoliberal capitalism, particularly in Silicon Valley and Wall Street. But what might the effects be of such a troubling on the lives and careers of today’s artists, especially those who, like many of this year’s biennial participants, come from groups, intersectionally understood, that have been traditionally excluded from participation in exhibitions such as this, as well as from elite art schools and institutions, and from the global gallery, art fair, and auction networks? What would more extensive rethinking, dismantling, and transformation of those circuits look like? How much energy and effort can and ought they expend in understanding and critiquing the ecosystem in which they are working? From an ethical standpoint, can they forgo such an undertaking, whatever the cost?

Whether the 2019 Biennial is understood as the target of a protest or as a vehicle for airing these vital questions requires a critical understanding of what the biennial is and for whom it is organized. The success of the show—and I believe it is a success—will be measured by the near and longer-term critical and imaginative effects that the art on view has on a wider public discourse. Among the many works in the exhibition aimed at creating such effects is Alexandra Bell’s suite of prints No Humans Involved: After Sylvia Wynter (2018–19). The prints consist of reproductions of newspaper front pages with various headlines highlighted or redacted to draw attention to the racist tropes and guiding assumptions underlying the mainstream media’s coverage of the 1989 Central Park Five case, in which black youths were accused of beating and raping a white woman. In light of renewed interest in the case, bolstered by Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, “When They See Us” (2019), Bell’s contribution speaks powerfully beyond the museum’s white walls. Tomashi Jackson’s 2019 mixed-medium work Third Party Transfer and the Making of Central Park (Seneca Village—Brooklyn 1853–2019) was similarly consonant with sociopolitical histories that inform civic life today. In her wall-hung works, Jackson creates dense layers of photographs as well as found materials. The images and snippets of text embedded in the semiabstract work make reference to the artist’s biography while pointing to histories of dispossession, from the African American community displaced to create Central Park to the ongoing government-backed Third Party Transfer gentrification program in Brooklyn, which has forced out longtime black and Latinx residents.

These works point to the museum’s vital role in unearthing histories as much as responding to immediate crises. Still, the Whitney and other museums can create space for curators and artists to grapple in public with difficult, and sometimes painful, questions about our institutions. Such conversations became integral to the exhibition this year through the outside pressure of activists. But this conversation can be made a deliberate part of the biennial process—effectively merging the two 2019 Whitney Biennials into one.