Whitney Museum of American Art
“Quiet as It’s Kept,” the 2022 Whitney Biennial (on view through September 5, 2022), fills two floors—one dark and labyrinth-like; the other bright and open—with works that explore the fluid and experimental nature of current art practice. Blurring definitions, categories, and the physical and psychological boundaries of space, social and political frameworks, and artistic models, curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards seek to foster a reciprocal exchange of ideas through immersive presentations, some intended to evolve over the course of the exhibition.
Sculpture, installation, and multimedia video offer enticing encounters across works, even when installed on different floors. Many pieces engage in conversations on social identity and political life, while others seek to reclaim earlier artists whose works had already explored these issues. The themes of displacement, exile, and immigrant experience circulating in the textual works, artist books, films, and performances of South Korean artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha from the early ’80s—especially her experimental book Dictee (1982)—find an echo in a three-channel video by the Navajo artist Raven Chacon. On view on the floor above Cha’s mini-retrospective, Chacon’s video installation of three generations of women, each playing a single snare drum and singing in their native tongue, speaks to resistance, the displacement of the Long Walk and Trail of Tears, and the loss of rivers and lands.
Adjacent to Chacon’s work, a chilling installation by Alfredo Jaar restages the events of June 1, 2020, when Black Lives Matter protestors were ousted from Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, for a Trump photo-op, as helicopters flew low over the street. Grainy black and white film, the loud sounds of stun grenades, and strong blasts of air from industrial fans on the ceiling create an immersive experience whose intensity continues to resonate long after leaving the room. Coco Fusco’s video, which shows her rowing around Hart Island, New York City’s public cemetery, is similarly mindful of social life and recent history, though its tone is more commemorative than confrontational. As Fusco rows and drops flowers into the ocean, the camera sweeps over her and around the island; a text spoken by Pamela Sneed provides an elegiac reflection on loss, survival, and endurance in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Explorations into the interface between identity and body politics continue with Woody De Othello’s colorful ceramic sculptures, which transform ordinary household objects into surreal biomorphic vessels—some with hands and feet—whose multiple perspectives and tactile surfaces entice with strangely provocative narratives. Nearby, the large cell phone-like screens of Andrew Roberts’s La Horda (The horde) conjure a zombie presence. On each screen, an allegorical computer-generated figure, collaged together from recycled NAFTA products and logos, low-resolution videos, and game consoles, serves as a stand-in for the queer Latino artist, constructing through sound and image overlay a brutal, dystopian vision of identity in the contemporary geopolitical world. Likewise, in Charles Ray’s three large-scale male figures, made with the artist’s meticulous attention to process and materials, mundane everyday activities of eating, drinking, and drugging become monuments to deviance and marginality.
For many artists here, words and text perform as conduits for agency and enactment. Rayyan Tabet’s 100 Civics Questions, randomly encountered in stairwells and other spaces, deploys phrases drawn from the U.S. naturalization test to probe what it means to be a citizen. In the lobby, Renée Green’s hanging banners invite the viewer to compose a poem in space, while Tony Cokes’s nearby videos use the omission and deletion of words as a strategy. Juxtaposing quotations from Judith Butler, John McCain, Elijah McClain, and others with a lively soundtrack, Cokes transforms the experience of reading into a communal encounter that juxtaposes police violence with the pandemic, just as it happened in the summer of 2020.
Ultimately, the deconstruction of institutional reserve allows encounters with a broad and diverse range of approaches and narratives, leaving viewers free to curate their own exhibitions as they wander about without focus or direction.