The 2017 Whitney Biennial traces an immeasurable circumference around our contemporary moment, looking for the “edge of an irregularly shaped idea,” according to co-curator Mia Locks—who, together with Whitney Associate Curator Christopher Y. Lew, assertively orchestrated a perpetually shifting fugue of sixty-three artists and collectives for its seventy-eighth edition. Intimacy interwoven with public call, empathy with rage, the show teeters among—and willfully commingles—works that demand a full spectrum of engagement, by artists separated by eight decades, yet all collectively reborn in a coagulated present. The exhibition circulates throughout two floors of the museum’s new building, as well as additional sites and spaces within and outside of the museum.
In an interview during the first week of installation, Lew and Locks ventured to vocalize and calibrate their thinking around what was not yet uncrated, installed, digested as a physical whole—sailing the boat as you build it, to quote Lew. Their insight into what a year and a half of research and travel culminated in, and their evolved vision for the biennial, carved a modestly facetted kaleidoscope through which I viewed the survey—a device which multiplied patterns of ideas, mood, and intention, but couldn’t begin to contain the asymmetrical, sprawling nature of the unexpected relationships that arose in the resulting show.
“No matter how old an artist is, or no matter what kind of work they’re making, the aim, for us, was to bring together works and ideas that feel as though they’ve been circulating or coming to the fore in the past couple of years as urgent issues that connect to the current cultural climate,” said Locks. “There is something about the present moment that feels elevated and intense right now, so no matter what, the exhibition arises alongside that same energy.”
Lew followed, “There are so many different perspectives coming from across the country and different parts of the world”—a diversity the curators were confident would transcend their own framework—“so, it’s not just, in a sense, the two of us being authors of the exhibition. Mia and I have been thinking about what the framework is that we want to create, or what are the kinds of ideas to explore within the show. But when you’re dealing with sixty-three artists, they’re all coming with their own perspectives and voices. And for us, it’s important to have that textured quality, both within the physical experience of the galleries and the related programming.”
“The biennial is such a big undertaking in the sheer number of artists and projects and their complexity,” Locks continued, that even language seems limited at this stage. We can only describe our own experiences and our own ideas, but people will experience the show and have responses of their own. Certain things may very well communicate, and other things will emerge; we won’t know exactly its totality until people are in the space seeing the show for themselves. But that’s part of it, the discourse that surrounds the exhibition, and that’s equally important.”
At a moment when disparate moods, natures, histories, tendencies, and affections are all the more critical in fostering complex dialogues such as this, an unanticipated tension, more palpable than between subject matter or content, arose: a friction between modes of looking. Almost equally divided between painting and sculpture and interactive or activated media, the show maintains two paces, two pulses, two expectations for its viewers: to look thoughtfully, and to surrender.
Thrust onto the museum’s fifth floor, an immediate expanse of hanging banners, monumental paintings, constructed walls, architectural interventions, weighty sculptures, and distant video screens abound. At once, it is alive, active and emotive, and simultaneously is transparently objective, constructed—like a playground.
William Pope.L’s (b. 1955) reigning pastel room, Claim (Whitney Version) (2017), immediately beckons with its weeping dusty rose walls—its moisture soon coming into focus as glistening runs of grease from the thousands of sweating bologna slices tacked onto a methodical enwrapping grid. On each, an indiscernible black-and-white portrait pressed into frosting-like paste both magnifies and confuses the “claims” of its correspondence to one-quarter of a percent of the reported population of Jewish citizens in New York.
Opposite Claim, quiet wooden sculptures with echoing grids are mounted in a trail of seemingly identical forms. Executed with a precision reminiscent of Minimalist works, the delicately carved conceptual objects by Matt Browning (b. 1984)—one of the younger artists in the biennial, and one of few who take command of a slower viewing experience—deceivingly, and contrastingly, assume mechanical production.
“What was important for both of us was to make a show that cuts across generations, in which there is an intergenerational dialogue happening,” says Lew, in response to a question on the responsibility to and illumination of emerging artists. “It’s a moment for all the featured artists to experiment and put forward their ideas to a wide audience, even works they themselves had not yet seen. For example Larry Bell, who during installation was just as elated as a twenty-year-old artist, seeing his work become realized.”
“It’s also the largest, most complex installation he’s done outdoors,” adds Locks on Bell’s staggeringly powerful forms on the museum’s fifth-floor terrace. “Even though he is a veteran artist, this is still an exciting opportunity for him—to push himself and to push his work.”
Pacific Red II (2017), consisting of six six-foot-tall immaculate red glass cubes, crystalizes not only a contemplative gradient, whose subtly differing hues somehow communicate on an emotional level, but also offers perhaps the most profound moment of stillness amidst the frenetic riptides of work inside.
Within the galleries, for work that demands—even whispers for—a slow approach and a gentle eye, its challenge is to overcome the bleeding of sound, surface, and somehow audible pulse of the more aggressively communicative works. The inordinate visual noise of Jon Kessler’s Exodus (2016) and Evolution (2016) deafens the words of Casey Gollan and Victoria Sobel’s window vinyl adjacent; the infinite illusion of Samara Golden’s disorienting interiors portray a profundity incomparable to, but perhaps more photogenic than, the incredibly vivid and exploratory depth of Shara Hughes’s canvases. Material is both nurtured as a sensuous subject and witnessed as an increasingly flattened tool for communication.
“There’s room for different methodologies that will hopefully capture something about the moment we’re in and what art can do,” emphasized Locks.
Mexican-born Raúl de Nieves (b. 1983) harnesses a spectacular monument of metamorphosis in his opus beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end (2016). Its sprawling stained glass panels of acetate and other modest materials, that background opulently adorned figurative sculptures and stalagmite accumulations of glitter and stones, embody how masterful and unpredictably vibrant conglomerates of seemingly disparate elements—and reflectively, people—can be.
Multiple videos and films throughout the biennial explore a spectrum of narratives, from identity and history, to sensory experience and perception. Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s The Island (2017), set in the jungles of a dystopian future, asks for help to survive, to live in freedom. Tehran-born Tala Madani’s indifferently haunting animation watches a gum-popping, spaghetti-slurping child receive a sex-ed lesson from the almost asphyxiated voice of a raunchy god out of frame. Anicka Yi’s 3D video, The Flavor Genome (2016), is as sensational as the contorted descriptions of the flavor chemist whose voice guides us through the Amazon on the hunt for a medicinal plant, inspiring a reflection on the synthesized biological transformations, hybrids, and mutations being exploited today. Together with the artists of the Biennial’s film program, co-curated with Aily Nash, they form a choir of affective experience aptly reflecting our current social and political moment.
Opening in the wake of the new president’s inauguration, the biennial had taken shape alongside the election campaign, with polarizing rhetorics often woven into conversations with artists in the year leading up to the show.
“While not always pointed at the election,” said Lew, “in our conversations we were having with people as we were traveling, anxieties and fears, or just divisive energy was always present. So with that broad sense of politics in mind, if you think of the Biennial as a certain gauge of a moment, then the times in which we’re working have been so infused with political and social debate. A lot of that informed our way of thinking.”
“It’s hard because no matter what, so much in culture right now is being read through a political lens, and I think we can’t help but read things in that way, because there is so much uncertainty,” affirmed Locks. “The political aspect is in there, and it’s important; it’s not something we want to sidestep. There are obviously works that bring with them a lot of energy and ideas from the sociopolitical realm, but at the same time, there is a lot in the show that I think is about a much broader conversation in the U.S. right now, and in the field of contemporary art. There are many ideas and questions about the social, in the broadest sense of the term.”
Locks elaborated on Occupy Museums’ project that takes on issues of the wealth gap and rising inequality, using the example of the art world and artist debt as something that is embedded in the system—perhaps reflective of something beyond the art world itself. Yet works such as Henry Taylor’s unhesitatingly clear confrontations of increasingly visible and urgent racial tensions in the U.S., such as THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH! (2017) of Philando Castile, and Dana Schutz’s controversial canvas of Emmett Till, collide head-on with issues at the fraught core of our political moment, and necessary dialogues within contemporary art. Depictions of violence can be blinding, infuriating, confusing, or enlightening, but an ultimate clarity of our responsibility to such images, and responsibility to educate on the systems of injustice and oppression that support violence, feel to be the goals that conversations around these gestures can help us reach.
“A lot of people in the art world are perhaps familiar with [Schutz’s] work,” Locks clarified, “but there’s a different energy that she’s bringing to the new paintings, like Elevator. The elevator all of a sudden becomes this metaphor for the intensity of feelings in our present moment. It’s like a container to try to hold the excess of emotion, where things kind of erupt into violence and conflict. It’s deeply troubling how things have been playing out politically across the U.S. and internationally these past few years, and how it feels very much like we are divided against other human beings, struggling to understand each other, and trying to find a way to connect.”
Lew and Locks continued to discuss how in many ways, artists are the most sensitive to and committed to trying to find alternative routes, or trying to imagine different possibilities, and sometimes that transpires in polemic and provocative ways, and sometimes by shaping moments for reflection. These differing methodologies undoubtedly capture something about the present, yet, they simultaneously embody a polarity in of themselves that feels especially poignant, and perhaps has more to do with the way we receive information.
Jordan Wolfson’s virtual reality work, Real Violence (2017), which depicts the artist apparently beating a man to death on the street, is astringent, toxically distilled. Whether experienced as repellently vicious, shallow, terrifying, or tin-eared, it is Wolfson’s intention for his viewers’ bodies to assume the role of active sculptures—shaped by the effects of his “gesture”—that resonates most deeply. Internalizing that responsibility, the fear and terror in watching such an aggressive display of brutality, feeling helpless, is transmitted to a fear of ever becoming such a soulless brutalizer yourself.
Other artists take on a performative or interposing role, in less morally radical ways, many collectively carving a path that Lew described as relating to “the sense of the local, working from a very specific place, or thinking about the land in general.” Maya Stovall’s bizarrely ambiguous performances in liquor store parking lots around the McDougal-Hunt neighborhood of Detroit, where she lives and grew up, are specifically for and give voice to the residents of that area. Postcommodity’s seductively spinning video installation, A Very Long Line (2016)—a room of obscured floor-to-ceiling projection—was shot while driving along a stretch of the the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
“Postcommodity, which is operating out of the Southwest, have really been thinking about the border not just as a divided line,” said Lew, “but also thinking about the indigenous people who have lived in regions that were there well before the political national border was drawn.”
Locks added, “I think in some ways, as well, there’s an urge or maybe a need to connect differently with one another, and build different kinds of coalitions. Projects like Asad Raza’s hinges on a collaboration with a group of performers that he’s calling caretakers, engaging with visitors in the space of the exhibition. Or Rafa Esparza’s adobe installation in the lobby that is literally creating a space for other artists who he is collaborating with.”
The biennial, an exhibition of its own kind, that Locks described has never been concretely defined—“No one has really ever been able to agree about what it ‘should’ do, or what it’s ‘supposed’ to do”—continues to embody and support a fluid and flexing nature in order to accommodate perspectives of shifting times. And, though perhaps not an inextinguishable survey of contemporary art in the United States, it is a significantly diverse and admirably facetted endeavor, widening collective input, consciousness, and communication in an important moment.
“Sometimes we have to remind ourselves how much of an honor this is, not just for ourselves, but to be able to invite and support the artists that we really believe in,” said Locks, as she and Lew harmonized on the privilege of such an opportunity. “It’s a very particular experience that’s both exciting, but also really challenging. It has challenged me, personally, and I think also collectively challenged the two of us working together. The Whitney Biennial is a long tradition and a history we’re very grateful to be a part of, and that we take very seriously. At the same time, we’ve had a lot of fun sharing it with these incredible artists.”