What a rollercoaster ride it was for the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Although the exhibition included a record number of women and artists of color, initial reception was tepid, with some critics calling it banal and derivative and others saying it wasn’t political enough. Even before the show opened, there were protests organized by Decolonize This Place calling for the resignation of Whitney Board of Trustees member Warren Kanders, whose company, Safariland, produces the tear gas that had been used on the U.S.-Mexico border, at Standing Rock, and against protestors in Baltimore and Ferguson, Illinois, as well as in Palestine, Cairo, the Sudan, and elsewhere. Early on, one artist—Michael Rakowitz—refused to participate. As a way to help deflect criticism, the London-based research collective Forensic Architecture was invited to screen Triple Chaser, their documentary video on Safariland. Despite the protests, which focused the spotlight on the ethical accountability of museums and their boards (in tandem with actions staged by Nan Goldin and PAIN Sackler against Sackler family funding), it seemed that the Whitney Biennial would continue as usual, until three social practice artists, including Hannah Black, called for a boycott in a long essay published in Artforum. The next day, four artists requested their work be removed, followed shortly by four more, including Forensic Architecture. This action created a dilemma for everyone concerned—some of the best pieces in the show were about to be removed, and many other participants, for whom the biennial brought higher visibility and recognition, found themselves in a difficult position. A week later, Kanders and his wife Allison (who was also on the board) resigned, and the eight artists agreed not to remove their work.
The Kanders protest may have pushed the Whitney to deal with its cultural and ethical responsibility, but that was only one of many issues raised through the work of the 75 artists and collectives on view. Clearly the current political situation, along with ongoing concerns about the erosion of democratic systems and human rights, attacks on immigrants, social, racial, and gender inequality, and the very pressing issue of climate change and the environment, shaped the selections made by curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta. Their goal of presenting an inclusive and purposeful exhibition was evocatively conveyed by the first work that visitors saw when exiting the elevator: Kota Ezawa’s video National Anthem, an animation of watercolors painted from news footage depicting NFL football players taking the knee as part of the Colin Kaepernick-led protest against police violence aimed at unarmed black men. This poetic, resolute work set the tone for the whole exhibition, a show that invited contemplation, discussion, and debate, with sculpture leading the way.
Daniel Lind-Ramos’s richly metaphorical assemblages, made from materials found near his home in Loiza, Puerto Rico, addressed loss, colonialism, history, and spirituality. The large-scale Maria-Maria, for example, combines a FEMA tarp, coconut lamp, and palm tree trunk, among other things, to suggest both a devotional statue of the Virgin Mary and the destructive hurricane that killed more than 3,000 on his native island. The provocative 1797: Vencedor (1797: Victorious), whose many elements include a machete, tools, and a baseball glove, examined the role played by black Puerto Ricans in thwarting the British invasion of San Juan, a struggle against colonizing political power that, as Lind-Ramos suggests, continues today.
Brian Belott also recycled, fashioning found materials and discarded refuse into frozen objects displayed in industrial refrigerators. Enticing in color and shape yet distant and untouchable, these odd bits of salvage, suspended in a state of cryopreservation, became iconic totems of our throw-away commodity culture. Josh Kline shared a similar focus on the environment in his display of Plexiglas vitrines, each containing a photograph—from the American flag at the Supreme Court and a statue of Ronald Reagan to views of Manhattan architecture and the offices of Twitter—that, slowly filling with colorful murky water, captured the entropy of the present whether it be in sinking cities or political decorum.
Set apart in a white, fluorescent-lit room, Agustina Woodgate’s National Times might have been mistaken for the control room of a factory. Forty working, synchronous analog “slave” clocks interlinked in a grid to one master clock connected to NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) and powered by the local utility linked the passing of time to models of economic production based on efficiency and mass labor, exploitation and ownership. Almost Orwellian in its stark depiction of systems of power, National Times was subversively and somewhat poetically undercut by the sly addition of sandpaper to the minute hands of the slave clocks; with every turn, the altered hands scraped and gradually erased the numbers until, no longer able to tell or keep time, the clocks were rendered dysfunctional.
A number of works explored the social politic of the body. In Brendan Fernandes’s performative sculpture, The Master and Form, dancers interacted with scaffolding, holding ballet poses that framed and enacted the body at work. Like Fernandes, Choctaw-Cherokee painter and sculptor Jeffrey Gibson views the body as the site of performance and social narrative. Fashioned out of canvas, beads, cloth, neon-colored ribbons, and teepee poles, his large hangings, suspended banner-like from the ceiling, resembled Native American ceremonial garments. PEOPLE LIKE US evoked the rituals of the Ghost Dancers (who believed peaceful group dancing and spiritual resistance would keep white settlers away), while the two-part STAND YOUR GROUND conjoined references to Trayvon Martin, the Bears Ears National Monument, and queer club culture to envelop us in the gently swaying but insistent dance of confrontational indigeneity.
Forensic Architecture’s videos uncovered the precarious dynamic between bodies and hidden systems of power, focusing on the use of tear gas to control and criminalize the body while robbing it of its ability to breathe or see. Ragen Moss’s transparent plastic sculptures, painted and sometimes filled with objects, vaguely resembled human torsos. Suspended on poles, like so much meat on a rack, these oddly shaped forms intended to represent types such as a miner, driver, author, theologian, and even an ogler, reflecting the many ways that the body navigates through life.
Wangechi Mutu’s Sentinel I and II combined natural elements such as bones, wood, a gourd, quartz stones, and beads with processed materials like paper pulp and concrete to form large standing figures that merged the classical nude with the cloth-wrapped bodies of women from the artist’s native Kenya. Suggesting a protective female body as well as mutant aliens or androids, each sculpture assumed a watchful waiting position, as if standing guard against a hostile, decaying environment. Nearby, Simone Leigh presented her own take on black women’s agency through mixed-media sculptures that combined ceramics, utilitarian vessels, pipes, and heads with eyeless faces to articulate the resistant and restorative healing power of black female subjectivity.
There are many other artists whose works bear exploring in this well-installed exhibition, but leave it to two artists (who were among the first four to request the removal of their work) to convey the complex, diverse, and engaged but subtly subversive narratives at play in this Whitney Biennial. Meriem Bennani’s wild sculptural video kiosks insisted on immersion and connectivity, only functioning when someone sat at a monitor or a button was pushed. When activated, high-definition video collages interwove the stories of Moroccan teens, who attend French schools left over from the colonial past, with social media posts, animation, advertisements, documentary film, and reality TV, humorously misusing clichés of North African culture to explore today’s complex codes of visibility and fractured identity.
Nicole Eisenman’s Procession, a motley group of Brueghelian figures cobbled together in an absurdist fusion of traditional casting and constructivist bricolage (foam, feathers, socks, stickers, and recyclables), seemed both old and new in its evocation of our troubled times. Bending and pulling, toiling and marching, gurgling and farting, this strange and seemingly endless assembly of abject, struggling humans—whether disenfranchised immigrants, the homeless seeking asylum, or the rest of us in the future—trudged and rolled across the patio, confronting the public on every side with their recalcitrant grotesqueness. If, for some, artist activism and protests against museums might seem inappropriate or even detrimental, Eisenman and many other artists in this Whitney Biennial provided an enterprising counter-narrative through work that was resistive, revealing, often curative, and always aware of its social role and responsibility, even if surrounded by the sacrosanct walls of high culture.