Whitney Biennial 2019: why is this year's show so safe?


When the doors open on the sixth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the first thing one sees is a snowman painting by Calvin Marcus. It’s an underwhelming statement for the Whitney Biennial, arguably America’s most politically charged art event, which opens on Friday.

The curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, both staffers at the museum, wanted to take a more subtle approach for this 79th edition of the biennial, which features 75 artists, half of whom are women. Despite the country’s political upheaval and the looming elections in 2020, it comes as a surprise that resistance art is so little represented.

“While artists didn’t go the Trump route, they’re looking at history, the parallel histories in this country, and thinking how to harness what we learned or didn’t learn, and then are looking to the future,” said Panetta in the museum’s boardroom this week. “It’s something we knew we wanted to have.”

The Whitney Biennial has always been the punching bag of all biennials. Controversy dates back to 1944, when it was criticized for having too much “fantasy art”, and in 1946 it was too “overwhelmingly modernist” for including too much abstraction. In 1987, protests erupted after female artists accounted for only 24% of the program and in 1993, the biennial was accused of being “too political”.

“It seemed at the time, the public weren’t ready for a museum exhibition that overtly responded to urgent issues of the day; poverty, Aids, racism, homophobia and class lines,” said the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg. “Sadly, these issues all continue to remain in the present. We continue to address them head on.”

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Curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta.



Curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta. Photograph: Scott Rudd

This edition is more of a “beat around the bush” version, or as one critic calls it, an “elegant but safe portrait of right now”. What Weinberg didn’t mention was the recent controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in a casket, which sparked outrage for using a “racialized spectacle” at the biennial’s 2017 edition. He also didn’t mention this year’s controversy – a board member with ties to military weapons.

Alongside 100 staff members of the museum, more than half of the artists in the biennial are protesting against the Whitney trustee Warren Kanders, who is the CEO of Safariland, which sells teargas, batons and grenades. On 5 April they signed a public letter, stating that Kanders was “responsible for the manufacturing and marketing of weapons such as the tear gas used against migrant families at the US and Mexico border, water protectors at Standing Rock, protesters in Ferguson, Oakland, Palestine, Puerto Rico, Egypt, and more”.

As a result, one artist, Michael Rakowitz, declined to show at the biennial. “One artist dropped out so it certainly was a concern to us,” said Hockley. “We were happy to keep the show together. We are, like everyone, thinking about it.”

Triple Chaser at the Whitney Biennial 2019



Triple Chaser at the Whitney Biennial 2019. Photograph: Courtesy of Forensic Architecture

The only piece that tackles the controversy head on is from Forensic Architecture, a group who have made Triple Chaser, a video tracing the impact of Safariland’s grenades and teargas. In a film narrated by David Byrne, the artists have created an online monitoring system where computers can track teargas canisters in online photos. It was developed alongside Praxis Films, a project of Laura Poitras, the award-winning director of Citizenfour.

But this artwork is very much the black sheep of the exhibition, it isn’t talked about by the curators, it isn’t in the press images and it wasn’t mentioned by Weinberg. It’s a bit ignored, hidden away in a dark room. The curators’ focus was elsewhere.

“The most critical issues artists are dealing with today are racial and gender equity, questions in this country that felt right from the get-go we wanted to have present in this biennial,” said Hockley.

In line with this theme is a new piece by the Los Angeles artist Martine Syms, who presents an installation including a voice recording of herself, where she angrily asks, “Are they trying to fuck with me? Who wants to fuck with me?”

Sensus Plenior by Steffani Jemison.



Sensus Plenior by Steffani Jemison. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

There’s also a video by Steffani Jemison called Sensus Plenior, which follows a performer working in the tradition of black gospel mime in Harlem, which is meant to draw attention to “the distinction between black private life and black public life”.

The Kenya-born artist Wangechi Mutu shows a series of sculptures of the female form made from tree bark and clay, which is a thought on “nature and our place in it”, according to the artist.

And the Chicago artist Alexandra Bell edits pages from the New York Daily News for a series looking at media coverage of the Central Park Five, the case of five teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in 1989. It’s what Hockley calls “how we can draw parallels to our current moment, how events around people of color are covered”, she said.

The biennial also includes a visually arresting series by Josh Kline, who shows LED-lit framed images of political locations and social media logos, like the Senate and Twitter, filling up with water.

“They’re about the potential of climate change and the sea level rise it will cause to wash away the systems that govern our lives – the systems that we take for granted,” said Kline. “The frames in the biennial are slowly washing away the photographs they house; Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters will probably be underwater mid-century.”

When asked about their vision, the co-curators look to the past to understand the present. “We hope and believe the show is topical and feels of its time,” said Hockley. “People will recognize what the artists are interested in but see their approach through a different lens, a sideways approach, an inversion away from the accepted way of seeing things. Art is different from journalism.”

“It feels representative of the complexity of this moment,” adds Panetta.



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