Installation view of “Whitney Biennial 2024: Even Better Than the Real Thing,” with Isaac Julien, Once Again… (Statues Never Die), 2022. Photo: Ashley Reese

Whitney Biennial 2024

New York

Whitney Museum of American Art

Unlike the confrontational Whitney Biennials of the past, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” (on view through August 11, 2024) is all about stealth. The title refers to artificial intelligence (AI), with its probing of the precarious ties between nature and the surrounding world and its questioning of relationships, bodies, and identities. For curators Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli, the show forms a “dissonant chorus,” as 71 artists and collectives deploy a range of strategies and often hidden or subversive narratives to explore the challenges of our mediated contemporary experience.

Demian DinéYahzi’’s we must stop imaging apocalypse/genocide + we must imagine liberation provides an example of the show’s sly tactics and aspirational subtext. Placed near the windows on the fifth floor, a cursive script in red neon mounted on a steel frame calls for alternative routes to liberation even as the words “Free Palestine” intermittently flicker underneath.

Like DinéYazhi’’s piece, a number of works address current cultural and political circumstances. Kiyan Williams’s Ruins of Empire II or The Earth Swallows the Master’s House, a large sculpture made of earth installedon the sixth-floor terrace, depicts the north façade of the White House leaning and sinking into the ground, its sagging edifice a startlingly literal evocation of the erosion and fragility of political institutions. Williams’s cast aluminum sculpture of trans activist Marsha P. Johnson holding a sign that reads “Power to the People” is installed nearby. In sharp contrast to the dark White House façade, Johnson’s shiny body and demeanor advance the possibility of new definitions of position and power that might arise from the ruins of tradition.

Uŋziwoslal Wašičuta (from the series Future Ancestral Technologies),Cannupa Hanska Luger’s clever installation of an inverted tipi, takes its title from a Lakota phrase meaning “the fat-taker’s world is upside down.” Floating like a hot air balloon, the tipi, inspired by the innovations of Northern Plains tribes, dislocates perception and proposes an alternative construction—one no longer held down by colonialism and capitalism.

Artistic activism continues in Carmen Winant’s The last safe abortion, an installation of 2,700 inkjet photographs mounted along a long wall. Resembling a colorful abstract tapestry at first, this striking arrangement soon comes into focus as a series of images documenting the providers and daily tasks of abortion care. Joined together, these images provide an inspiring record of collective action, and an intimation of a more fearsome near future.

Other works focus on identity and heritage. Rose B. Simpson’s four tall ceramic figures, fashioned by hand from thin strips of clay and decorated with symbols, amulets, and found objects, face one another in a circle. Merging formal patterns with Native American ceramic practices passed down from Simpson’s mother and aunt, Daughters: Reverence pays homage to matriarchy and feminism by binding bodies, totems, and ceremonial ritual into a powerful arrangement of protection and strength. Clarissa Tossin’s installation, which features display cases filled with 3D-printed replicas of pre-Columbian Maya wind instruments and a film accompanied by music played on those replicas, traces the dislocation and appropriation of Mesoamerican motifs across time while offering ways to reclaim contemporary Mayan culture.

Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio takes a more archival approach to historical memory and cultural identity. Paloma Blanca Deja Volar/White Dove Let us Fly, his large cast rectangle of modified amber (a petrified form of tree rosin), initially resembled a Minimalist sculpture, but because the amber was chemically altered, the form is unstable. Filled with clothing and detritus from the studio, along with embedded documents related to the efforts of white activists to promote justice in Central America, the sculpture has broken down over time to reveal narratives of process, privilege, and solidarity hidden within its entropic decay.

Isaac Julien’s expansive Once Again…(Statues Never Die) perhaps best encapsulates this Biennial’s veiled yet discerning agenda. Five screens alternate appraising views of African art collections from Oxford University and the Barnes Foundation with images of snowy buildings, landscapes, and scenes of intimacy; actual sculptures by Richmond Barthé and Matthew Angelo Harrison are on display in nearby vitrines. The film’s script, drawn from the writings of the Harlem Renaissance critic Alain Locke (played by André Holland) and his debates with the collector Albert C. Barnes (played by Danny Huston), critiques the collecting and display of African art while contemplating the possibilities of what Julien calls a “diasporic dream-space.” Peeling back history, he overlays poetic revelry with a corrective re-imagining of history, inviting us to decide which narrative is the better real thing.