The Whitney Biennale 2019 – Catalyst for a political position

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Last week, Eddie Arroyo, Christine Sun Kim, Augustina Woodgate and the Forensic Architecture collective joined Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman and Nicholas Galanin in the withdrawal from their work of the most remarkable exhibition of the year. Earlier this month, Arunanondchai, Bennani, Eisman and Galanin wrote a open letter on Artforum to the museum’s curators (Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley) outlining their reasons for removing their works from the exhibition and urging other artists to do the same; it didn’t take long for their conviction to take hold. They join Michael Rakowitz who left to protest the museum’s vice-president, Warren Kanders, earlier this year. Needless to say, their bold stance won a moment of victory in Kanders resigned from Whitney’s Board of Directors on July 25.

Every two years, the “art world” is invigorated by a series of biennials of several of its main institutions and the public looks forward to it. However, by the time the biennials take place, the initial excitement of seeing the artwork is often short-lived. Instead, we find the exhibits surrounded by controversy and striking headlines. The reasons for these political deadlocks usually stem from a murky (sometimes not so) location involving donors and socio-political factors that contradict the organization’s mission statement. Participating artists are then forced to think about what their association with the institution, and therefore the controversy, would mean. These major exhibitions are places where the public can see the most fascinating young talents in contemporary art engaging in a visual dialogue about the current state of our world. For many artists, attending a biennial can be the moment in their career that validates “doing it”. These moments of friction can interfere with this moment of celebration of culture, a way of chronicling historically significant works of art. In our time of polarization, it is essential to take a break and appreciate the fascinating works of art at this year’s Whitney Biennale.

The floors that make up the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennale have an attitude distinct from its predecessors. The show is calm but not subtle, the reverse of their “Instagrammable” counterpart. Rather than relying on photographically marketable views that saturate the flurry of typical exhibitions we see all year round, curators and artists are asking more of their viewers than just looking through a rose-tinted lens. Silent discontent seeps through every room, one foot firmly planted saying “this is my space to occupy”, while simultaneously showing curiosity and openness to speech.

While some mediums of the biennial seem familiar: painting, photography, sculpture, the resulting works use materiality in surprisingly experimental ways.

Baby VI, Heji Shin, 2016

Artist Heji Shin disrupts idealistic representations of 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 exhibition portray the celebrity who divides – Kanye West as an embodied representation of American culture and its controversies.

Degrees of my deaf rage in the art world, 2018

Christine Sun Kim takes our typical notion of drawing and derails it, giving us a hard lesson in inclusiveness and deaf culture, while maintaining an ironic attitude.

Brian Belott, Untitled, Mixed Media in the Freezer, 2019

Brian Belott’s sculptures use mundane and discarded objects encased in blocks of ice and then hung in commercial freezers. Play on our perceptions of time and value while evoking stained glass windows and religious spaces. The pieces entitled Untitled are self-aware, absurd and endless. A constellation of abjection and humanity manifested by the ordinary nature of materials.

Carolyn Lazard, Extended stay, 2019

Video work transcends typical definitions, with perspective being an essential element. Carolyn Lazard uses dystopian devices to change the way we interpret broadcast media content, viewing cable TV through the sterile arm of a medical device.

Conversely, Ilana Harris-Babou presents her work in a recognizable way, three monitors mounted on the wall at gallery height, but her evocative video works humorously disorient the audience as she analyzes the marginalization of African-American inequalities. Use Restoration Hardware as a substitute for the systematic way in which oppression is poetized and capitalized.

Ilana Harris-Babou, Finishing a rough basement, 2017

Many of the sculptures in the exhibition border on installation, on materials that enter and leave personal space and “art space”. Very few black lines of duct tape were visible, warning us to keep a distance. There was an inviting lack of ‘do not touch’ signs. Instead, viewers come up close, with faces almost pressing against the artwork. Bodies that sneak into works like that of Nicole Eisman, Procession appear almost collaborative as the pieces move, generating new configurations between life and art.

Nicole Eisman, Procession, 2019

Augustina Woodgate uses synchronicity in a completely different way. His installation is partitioned into a room where dozens of “slave” analog clocks line the walls of the space, a metal grid connecting them to a “master” digital clock which keeps the time from a direct transmission. from the local electricity network. The grid is oriented towards the National Institute of Standards and Technology clock, the place that establishes the official time in the United States. The hands of the “slave” clocks are re-fitted with sandpaper, slowly wearing out the number circuit on the clock. The “slave” clocks are forced to participate in the system of work by erasing their own value.

Augustina Woodgate, National Times, 2016

Seeing this exhibit is not something that has to be done quickly; to truly appreciate the full scope of the work, it takes more than a quick glance. Be generous with your time, with your eyes and with your physical space in the gallery. Representing the kind of inclusiveness the art world should strive for, this year’s Biennale had many voices. Exploring these stories gives us a realistic perspective on life today, both the good and the bad.

By Bridget Moreen Leslie

Bridget moreen leslie

Bridget Moreen Leslie is an Australian artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Bridget creates video, sound and light installations. She received her BFA from the University of Sydney and received an MFA with Distinction from the Parsons School of Design 2017. Bridget has exhibited internationally, from the Queens Museum in New York to CICA Museum in South Korea. Bridget has written for Artbook / DAP and her work has been featured in EMERGENCY INDEX and Vellum Magazine.


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