Curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards were tasked with capturing the tumultuous past three years through artwork.
Pao Houa Her’s “Untitled” from “My Mother’s Flowers” is featured in an advertisement for the Whitney Biennial outside the museum. Credit: Elizabeth Maline for NY City Lens
Like all previous biennial exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, this year’s show sets out to showcase contemporary American art that reflects the experience of living as an American today, and to “capture the spirit of the times,” as the museum’s director Adam Weinberg characterized it. But given the more than two years of global disruption brought on by the pandemic and worsening economic inequality, by racial reckoning, and by extreme political division, co-curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards were presented with a difficult task.
From the end of 2019 to March 2020, Breslin and Edwards began the process of curating this exhibition, with several works and themes in mind, only to learn, like we all would, that it would be upended. It became clear to them in the midst of the lockdown period that the show needed to reflect the “sense of instability, the sense of precarity, the sense of uncertainty that we were living minute to minute,” Edwards said during one of the exhibition’s previews.
The 80th edition of the biennial exhibition series, featuring the work of 63 artists and collectors, opened to the public on April 6 after a year-long delay due to the COVID pandemic. “Quiet As It’s Kept,” the title of this year’s exhibition, is drawn from three reference points: Max Roach’s 1960 jazz album, the first line in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, and an art exhibition curated by David Hammons in Vienna in 2002. One of the artists featured in that exhibit, Denyse Thomasos, is also featured in the biennial.
“The show, in a way, is set up empowering people to kind of go back out into the world and try to repair the world, through creative activity and through conversation and through connections, and not to lose hope, despite the overwhelming circumstances of our world,” Weinberg said. He spoke about the historical context and themes of social change that run through and connect each of the works.
The biennial will run through September 5, but unlike more traditional exhibits, “Quiet As It’s Kept” will evolve throughout the course of the show. The ever-changing presentation of the exhibition, including the swapping of individual artworks, the placement of the walls and the addition of performances, will give new life to the galleries, the curators said.
“One of the hunches that we had was that this show should have a metabolism, that it should kind of grow and change,” Breslin said during the preview event.
The broad theme of race in America featured prominently in this exhibition. Artist Alfredo Jaar utilizes video footage captured by activists and protesters during the June 1, 2020 demonstration against the murder of George Floyd in Washington, D.C. at Lafayette Square to create a cinematic, four-dimensional experience. During that protest, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered federal forces to clear the park so that former President Donald Trump could pose for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, holding the bible. In clearing the area, law enforcement fired on the protesters with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, but also flew two helicopters very low to the ground above the heads of the protestors.
Throughout Jaar’s five minute, 20 second film “06.01.2022 18.39″, powerful fans, operated by computers, blow wind that increases in speed as the helicopters approach, simulating the experience of standing under them as the protesters did. At their peak, the fans reach a speed of 39 miles per hour.
The video shows protestors holding their ground even in the presence of the powerful wind, some even making gestures to the helicopters.
“They’re resisting and I found that very beautiful,” Jaar said.
Jaar is personally afraid of helicopters. He grew up in Chile and lived through the Pinochet dictatorship. He recalls the presence of American helicopters the military used to capture and kill dissidents against the dictatorship.
“Helicopters had a very, very brutal connotation for us,” Jaar said. “So it was extraordinary to see helicopters acting like this in this country against U.S. citizens, protesting peacefully.” Jaar compared this scene to witnessing facism. He also said viewers approached him and told him they were reminded of the Vietnam war.
Pao Houa Her, another artist featured in the biennial, is from Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered.
“I think about that in a relationship to me as BIPOC, me as a non-white person,” she said “How can I be an ally to my Black and Brown brothers and sisters? In what ways can I participate?”
But Minnesota is also home to a large Hmong population, which Her is part of. Hmong are an indigenous people who primarily live in Laos (where Her was born), Myanmar, southwest China, Thailand and Vietnam. Her and her family moved to Minnesota as refugees when she was a child.
“I photograph the Hmong people in my community,” Her said. “I’m interested in ideas that are permeating within the community. I’m also interested in questions that surround my community.”
Her’s works in the exhibition span two walls. On one wall is a collection of photographs arranged in the style of a collage, across from four large black and white portraits on the opposite wall. Those images are from a series called “After the Fall of Vho,” which translates in English to “country.”
“It is very much about the search for a homeland,” Her said. “Hmong people don’t have a homeland. We originally are from China and during the 1800s, we sort of were kicked out of China and made our way down to Southeast Asia. The majority of us call Laos our home. But Laos is not our homeland.”
For Her, the usage of black and white in these portraits draws on the idea of collective memory and evokes the past.
“My viewpoint as a Hmong refugee living in America, and what American culture does to a refugee, is also prevalent in that work,” she said.
Given Her’s speciality in photographing portraits, the pandemic served as a pivot point. She made her way to Northern California near Manchester, where she had learned Hmong people were relocating to places like Minnesota and Wisconsin. She began photographing the landscape there.
“It was very new to me, and also something that maybe I would not have done had it been for the pandemic and my inability to be close to people,” she said.
The lockdown period was also a critical time for artist Danielle Dean, whose work centers around labor and industrial America. She was able to explore these themes further during the pandemic by using Zoom to work with and observe Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, who are featured in her pieces “Felled jungle ready for burning, 6.15 am” and “2.00 am.” Amazon Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing website for businesses to hire remote workers to complete tasks computers are currently unable to.
“It was a time where a lot of people were doing online work because they couldn’t go to offices, so it also was a poignant thing to think about at that point,” she said. “I don’t think it’s like suddenly we’re in a new world, but we’re in a new world because none of us have seen a pandemic before. But at the same time, I think that the conditions, the things that it exaggerated, were already there, like how some people live very precarious lives.”
Dean’s series in the biennial, which includes watercolors and animations, is primarily inspired by archives of Ford motor company advertisements dating back to 1904. Dean used the multiplane camera technique that splits landscapes present in these advertisements into layers. She then redrew them and created a roughly 20 minute long animation that transitions between the landscapes, omitting the presence of the car.
Dean was born in America but grew up in England and spoke about her uniquely American and international viewpoint. During her time in Detroit studying these advertisements, she learned about Fordlandia, a location in Brazil where Ford extracted rubber for tire production.
“It’s not just focused only on America, because, you know, in the case of Henry Ford, he was looking globally, to not only distribute his cars around the world, but also to extract raw materials for the production of the cars around the world,” she said.
In her watercolor paintings, Dean combines the Ford advertisements with more modern iterations of the American labor force, in this case the Amazon Mechanical Turk workers.
“I kind of wanted to combine the history of Ford with the presence of post-Fordism,” she said.
Artist Emily Barker also comments on the power that large corporations hold in the United States through their art about the struggles associated with living as a disabled person.
“We’re all gaslit to think that we should be making money for CEOs off of our own suffering, and that we should be paying a third of all of our earnings to taxes while Bezos and Zuckerberg get subsidies from the government,” they said.
When Barker was 19 years old, an accident happened that resulted in a spinal cord injury. Barker now uses a wheelchair. Their piece “Death by 7,865 Paper Cuts” showcases a pile of photocopied medical bills from three years of their life.
“It’s not even the accumulation of all my medical history, which would probably take up a room,” they said. “I want people to understand that this is the reality for a lot of people and that this could be them. Could they imagine dealing with the burden of $1.5 million of medical bills?”
Barker’s other piece, “Kitchen“, explores the feeling wheelchair users have of not being able to utilize everyday, functional spaces.
“I have an incredible disdain for the way our world has been built,” they said. Barker exaggerated the height of the countertops to simulate for visitors how it feels for Barker to navigate the space. “It was easier for them to create a standard based off of the average height of the U.S. male than it was to consider the needs of everyone and make them a little bit shorter so that little people and disabled people can also participate in the built environment.” For this reason, Barker said a space like a kitchen is just as useless as the sculpture itself.
Barker hopes visitors recognize that the world is built in a way that does not consider the needs of everyone.
“I’m reflecting the current state of our nation in a very direct way, and asking people if it’s okay that the world is built like this, and if it’s okay for people to suffer on top of an accident with the inability to afford care,” they said. “And I hope that this piece, and my work going forward, can really reflect what the world actually is for a lot of people.”
Many of the artists featured in the exhibition are emerging artists, and for some, this exhibition is the first time they are being featured in the museum. For any artist, having their work featured in the Whitney Biennial is a significant stepping stone in their careers.
“I’ve heard that it can change the trajectory of one’s career,” Her said. “It is a huge thing for artists and especially as an art student, my professors all told me that this is what I need.”
According to Weinberg, it’s equally exciting for the museum to invite new artists to partake in the exhibition.
“It’s great to have new voices entering into the conversation,” Weinberg said. “You may not agree with what they’re discussing, but at least you’re all at the table, and I think that’s a really nice thing.”
But still looking for a seat at that table are the museum’s union workers, including employees in visitor services, membership services, the registrar and the curatorial staff, many of whom played an integral role in executing the exhibition. During the VIP opening of the exhibition, the union staged an event drawing attention to their stalled communications with the museum over their pay.
“We chose the VIP opening for the biennial just because we knew it would be very visible,” Jessica Pepe, an Associate Registrar, said.
There is a history of staged opposition associated with the Whitney Biennial. The union workers were acutely aware of this in staging their event.
“It’s not a Whitney Biennial, unless there is something in the press, unless there is a protest or pushback. So we kind of knew we were in good company in that respect,” Pepe said. “We know that the world is watching the Whitney Biennial, we know that New York City is watching the Whitney Biennial, and so it just made a lot of sense to take advantage of this opportunity to get our message out.”
Though art lovers and artists will flock to the museum in the coming months to witness this exhibition, some even more than once as the exhibit changes, no one will spend more time among the art than the museum’s security guards.
“There’s always things that come out when you see it the first time,” Roberto Perez, a guard on the fifth floor, said. “The second time you look at it, the third, you do suddenly start seeing different things that you didn’t notice.”