Published as part of 3/2022 of XIBT Magazine of Contemporary Art, Berlin
CHECKLIST FROM VISITING THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL 2022:
✓Female and feminist artists
✓Pandemic and post-pandemic gloom
✓Nebulous video works
✓Concrete video art
✓Intriguing new art
(x) An overarching conceptual vision that brings all these elements together
Curating a cross-cultural slice of contemporaneity is a complex endeavor. Contemporaneity by definition is a fleeting concept, it is in the constant process of flux, an imperceptibly shared moment. As Nietzsche and Giorgio Agamben, both agree contemporaneity is a quality of being out-of-joint and yet, to see and accept this; to see the black hole of time along with the bright rays that this hole emanates without being swayed into either gloom or bliss. How this paradox is to be approached within an institutional context? Institutions are under a set of constraints to be universal, and yet, subjective enough to have a character and a mission. They are bound to provide enriching individual experiences and also a valid and deep commentary on the moment through the presented objects.
Should we not expect this from a reputed institutional biennial? Since 2018 there has been a continuous global discussion about the biennales as apparatus of a multilevel presentation and how relevant they still are. If they are successful, they are operating from the height of a curatorial grandeur, if they are less noteworthy, many factors are usually to blame. The overall sensation that comes over a visitor at the Whitney Biennial is an underwhelming sense of all the checkmarks being there and yet the overall feeling of blandness. The curators David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of Curatorial Initiatives, and Adrienne Edwards, Engell Speyer Family Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs at The Whitney titled this year’s edition “As Quiet as It’s Kept” – bringing these words from Tony Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye,” a story of incest, abuse and secrets. The title, although being
completely appropriate for the recent political, social, health, and racial history of the United States and the world, also describes a lingering sensation after viewing the exhibition. Quiet and too smooth around the edges to be remembered through the years. The ambition of what was brought together for us is not to create some type of an intense encounter with the new, but rather to quietly and individually mull over what we have experienced since the last Biennial in 2019. This latter goal is obviously accomplished, maybe this should be an afterthought, not it’s set agenda, so straightforwardly expressed in its title?
Autonomy of artistic expressions is carefully preserved, but gone are the days of the watershed 1993 ‘politics of identity’ Biennial, an event that took its chances to be political and uncomfortable. Discursive element is there today though clarity, definition, authority of the curators is missing. Although the exposition presents sixty- three artists and collectives to make a review manageable a few themes are important across two floors. A note on floors: sixth is colored mostly dark, consisting of enclosed small spaces; fifth is airy, open, and light.
Three main themes stand out to me as being at the center of the exhibition: Deconstruction of language, confrontation with existing limitations and identity quest. Among the presented mediums textual art and video are most intriguing, painting playing a rather subservient role of creating an atmosphere rather than making any concrete statements except for a few exceptions.
Deconstruction of Language
Renèe Green’s installation Space Poem #7 greets visitors on the first floor of the museum. Her distilled associative texts are presented as threads on polyester nylon and double-sided banners of green, yellow, red, orange, pink, blue — a fitting entrance into the biennial that encompasses the last few years of global chaos and our attempts to reflect on it. Texts such as ‘there is no material here- they slim,’ ‘to thrive in the culture of my eye,’ ‘that flee into the void,’ ‘yellow melting like a firework petal’ stop a visitor as she tries to absorb the conceptual meaning behind this distillation. The artist fosters a reading and mis-reading of the short snapshots as we tend to understand instances of her life, looking at them through the lenses of our own shortcomings.
The engagement with the textual approach is presented in Tony Cokes’ purposefully brash video works featuring condensed version of words. ‘ANGR IZ N NRG’ is one example as an artist conveys an experience of living in a metropolis with its non-stop flood of messages, music, ads, twitter feeds. Jonathan Berger’s six texts included into An Introduction to Nameless Love document his long-term relationships among others with the autistic writer/philosopher Mark Utter, turtle conservationist Richard Ogust, artist Ellen Cantor providing a sense of human connectivity, shared understanding and value. However, the presentation of the texts as tin and nickel sculptural installations makes for a very uncomfortable read, one longs for a simpler way of reading these interconnecting truths.
Yet, the most interesting encounter with the language comes within the mini- retrospective of Theresa Hak Kyong Cha (1951-1982). As a thinker, performer, poet, and video artist Cha vacillated between certainty and abstractness of languages. She is presented in a mini- retrospective through her videos, but also her prints and photography. She clearly is one of the centerpieces of the Biennial also because, similarly to Alex Da Corte, her work does not purposefully fit within the checkmark categories, but indeed transcends them. Cha, an immigrant from South Korea and transplant to New York has acquired a sizable knowledge of linguistic and critical theories, deeply looking into ideas of belonging and othering. She did this through finding her way back into shamanistic practices of South Korea and trying to collapse the wall between a speaker and her language, by an experimental approach to poetry. Vulnerability of her non-white background is always at one’s mind when one approaches her legacy as Cha was raped and brutally murdered at the age of 31 in New York, at the most productive stage of her career.
Na Mira, a more recent transplant to New York also from the South Korean heritage builds on Cha’s legacy through presenting night visions and exploration of linguistic limitation. By showing herself performing in front of the Puck building where Theresa Hak Kyong Cha was murdered Na Mira tries to weave a line of continuity here. But this line is too thin at least for now.
Confrontation with Existing Systems
Denyse Thomasos’ large black-and- white linear canvases powerfully revisit effects of slavery on incarceration and victimization of people of color. “It occurred to me that prisons represent modern-day slavery, another mechanism of confinement and control… The prisons indicate the complex weave of intercedence between the poor underclass and larger and social issues, which I translate in my interweaving lines” – from the artist essay for the Whitney Biennial 2022 catalogue. Sable Elyse Smith also comments on the set principles of our carnival society by installing a small black wheel that keeps rotating, a metaphor of enclosed spaces, identity, the jail system.
Coco Fusco’s poignant and powerful meditation on class and what happens to people in the U.S. claimed by no one is probably the best work reflective of the pandemic time. Mass graves for unclaimed NY victims of the COVID-19 dug in by the prisoners of the Rikers island on Heart Island is another commentary of incarceration and lack of belonging.
Rebecca Belmore’s silent and terrifying statement against the ongoing gun violence is one of the most moving works at the Biennial. Prototype for Ishkode (fire) is a figure present through a heavy blanket surrounded by a perfect circle of empty bullet cases. The materiality of the figure is presented through it not being there, just as un-demonstrated gun violence and death are present through empty bullet cases. Menacing and dark is this work as is our time. The best work on the sixth floor, probably the darkest and the most telling of the whole exhibition.
Emily Barker’s transparent Kitchen, 2019 seizes upon American idea of standard. By constructing kitchen cabinets made of PET plastic and standardized height of countertop at 5.9,” the average height of an adult American male the artist eloquently confronts our idea of what the preconceived. Mass production that should care for the good of the society, but fails to do so.
Five striking Daniel Joseph Martinez’ photos with an impossibly long title are referencing post-human manifesto for the future along with origin of species. Their documentation of the artist’s transformative performance is another high point of the Biennial. The artist becomes a believable Frankenstein from 1994 film by Kenneth Branagh, Count Dracula from 1979 film by John Bandham, an Engineer from the film Prometheus (2012), an Alien Bounty Hunter from The X-Files (1993-2002) and the Drone Host from the Westworld (2022). Collection of these monsters alludes to the wide extremes that human nature could take without a moralizing principle of humanism. A cautionary tale of where we might be going.
Question of a cultural identity is examined with care and grace by Trin T. Minh-ha. The semi-documentary film What about China? is based on the artist’s footage from 1993-1994 shot in eastern and southern Chinese villages. Here the themes of harmony within society, within an ecosystem and within oneself is looked at from almost anthropological view. The resulting film confronts stereotypes, a binary nature of perception and operation of China as we think of. In a way this is a commentary on disappearance, on what Westernized modernization is most likely to uproot within this and the next decade. Trinh T. Minh-ha is clearly sighted to present this unsentimental and yet, lyrical time capsule.
Lisa Alvarado also shows a very distinct perspective upon the cultural identity. Working with elements rooted in Mexican American art traditions Alvarado brings together rich visual patterns and lines for her three screens titled Vibratory Cartography: Nepantla (2021–22). Coming from an American scholar of the Chicana culture Gloria Anzaldúa this concept stresses what Alvarado and in fact the whole Biennial want to accomplish – to serve as in-between space of various identities, issues, types of pain and discourse.
Alex Da Corte’s video work ROY G BIV is clearly one of the gems of this Whitney Biennial maybe because it does not purposefully engage with any scientific or academic or social issues, but rather aims to create one total aesthetic whole, an art object. Maybe it stands out through oblique references to what our brain automatically registers as art – the studio of Constantine Brancusi and his sculptures, Da Corte as Marcelle Duchamp installing Brancusi’s works
inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an animated stone sculpture, John Baldessari’s Six Colorful Inside Jobs. By juxtaposing the performance presented as video work with the screen itself that the artist’s brother, a professional painter, comes to repaint in different colors every 2 weeks of the Biennial the work lives on its own, without any need of interpretation or social commentary. And it catches your eye and heart right away.