The Whitney Biennial has surveyed the landscape of American art, reflecting and shaping the cultural conversation, since 1932. The eightieth edition of the landmark exhibition is co-curated by David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards. Titled Quiet as It’s Kept, the 2022 Biennial features an intergenerational and interdisciplinary group of sixty-three artists and collectives whose dynamic works reflect the challenges, complexities, and possibilities of the American experience today.
Alia Farid lives and works in Kuwait and Puerto Rico. The work she made for the Biennial addresses the destruction of the ecology of south Iraq, the displacement of people, and the struggle for sovereignty. The daughter of two architects, Farid has an interest in the built environment and works in many different media, including film, sculpture and installations. Farid fabricated this installation of artificial palm trees specifically for this terrace. Farid, who is from Kuwait and Puerto Rico, makes work that explores “the complex and fragmented histories of the places (she is) from.” The palm tree holds a specific resonance for the artist, whose paternal side of the family hails from southern Iraq and Kuwait. Her grandmother is from Basra, a city formerly renowned for its date palms and lush vegetation. Basra’s palm groves were decimated during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) to deprive enemies and dissidents of cover. These artificial palm trees, Farid has said, “are low-grade stand-ins for the palm groves that once covered large areas of the south. The installation is part of a group of works that probe how nature and landscapes are weaponised, harnessed, and destroyed by governments and extractive industries.”
Dyani White Hawk made this work by affixing loomed strips of thin glass bugle beads onto aluminum panels. Her art draws from the history of Lakota abstraction in beadwork, painting, and quill work, a traditional form of embroidery using porcupine quills. White Hawk also situates her practice in dialogue with that of abstract painters such as Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock, who claimed Indigenous art as an influence. As she has stated: “Using glass beads references the history of cross-cultural trade relationships that have influenced the evolution of art forms over generations. The work is uniquely Lakota, tied to a lineage of artwork that speaks to connections between land and life. The title, Wopila | Lineage, expresses deep gratitude for the interwoven network of ancestral and living communities that make the work possible. I believe beauty is medicinal. The work, as an offering of beauty, is a gift of reciprocity. Simultaneously, the work presents critical dialogue that aims to shift collective narratives toward truthful reflections of the complex history of this land base.”
The paintings in Denyse Thomasos’s distinct visual lexicon use dense overlapping lines to achieve spatial distortion, a sense of chaos, and the intensity of events that are impossible to represent. As Thomasos has explained: “I used lines in deep space to re-create these claustrophobic conditions, leaving no room to breathe. To capture the feeling of confinement, I created three large-scale black-and-white paintings of the structures that were used to contain slaves—and left catastrophic effects on the black psyche: the slave ship, the prison, and the burial site. These became archetypal for me. I began to reconstruct and recycle their forms in all of my works.” As much as they refer to the violent systems and structures that shape our world, the paintings are deeply personal. Displaced Burial is also a memorial to her father: “Overall I’m not trying to give the audience a happy experience or a dark experience. I’m trying to give a complex experience. I really get the complexity of humanness.”
“How do you make sense on an emotional, intellectual, and pragmatic level of the visual residue one leaves behind?” This is a pivotal question for Adam Pendleton’s recent abstract paintings on view here, which involve a process of accumulation in which the surface of the canvas teems with sweeping gestures, language, drips, splatters, and moments of erasure in a reflection of how we evolve in life. Pendleton has explained that these works “verge on the monumental; they can take months to make and capture a deep history of marks and impressions. Minor moments become major moments because of how they articulate who we are or who we might be at any given moment. It’s a visual poetics of disruption.” These paintings, Pendleton has suggested, ask: “how do you leverage, subvert, and deploy your subjectivity? We all are doing it all of the time. It becomes more interesting when we’re aware that we’re doing it.”
Adam Pendleton began making video portraits ten years ago. In September 2016, he heard activist Ruby Sales on Krista Tippett’s public radio program On Being. As he has recalled: “She was posing a very simple question: ‘Where does it hurt?’ It’s a question that urgently gets to the heart of the matter about being American.” He researched Sales and learned about her near shooting by a segregationist construction worker and part-time deputy sheriff in 1965. Jonathan Daniels, a white seminary student working alongside her in the civil rights movement in Alabama, took the shotgun bullet for her and was killed instantly. After the incident, she did not speak for months. Over the course of filming Sales, Pendleton realised there was another layer to the story—one “that was never told about her life and who she loves, how she loves, maybe even why she loves.”
In this film installation, Yto Barrada entwines a specialised visual vocabulary of age and decay with an exploration of motherhood, inheritance, and subjectivity. These forms, which often seem to accidentally refer to the history of modern art, actually describe fatigue and rot by processes that are imperceptible in real time. The footage was produced at two “weather acceleration” facilities across the U.S., in Miami and Phoenix. The purpose of these industrial labs is to simulate the effects of the sun in a condensed time frame in order to test the durability of consumer products and materials such as plastics, automotive and domestic parts, paints, and textiles against fading and corrosion. Workers share surreal fields and offices with machines, and it is the human eye that must be constantly calibrated as a tool of measurement.
Jacky Connolly created Descent Into Hell through two different forms of technology. She realised some scenarios as photorealistic 3D animations, incorporating AI image enhancement and “deep fake” audiovisual techniques. For others, she filmed within a modified version of the video game Grand Theft Auto V. The game engine’s built-in editor stores player-recorded scenes as data, which can be altered and sequenced. For example, Connolly removes most of the signs of graphic violence for which the game is notorious, instead turning toward the minor characters and ambient details of its virtual setting. She has described the narrative arc of the video as “a woman is alone in her apartment in an empty, abandoned world. This opens onto a story of a woman in an alternate timeline on a journey through California. She rides freight trains, explores hidden corners of the city, and encounters strange happenings along the way.” Connolly named the video after a novel by Doris Lessing featuring an amnesiac whose body lies in a hospital bed while his mind roams elsewhere.
Rayyane Tabet has populated the Whitney with questions from the U.S. naturalisation test. Tabet, who is himself applying for citizenship, frequently uses the matter and material of his life as a departure point for creating artworks that examine larger histories of colonialism and belonging. Born and raised in Beirut and educated in the United States, he plumbs what it means to be American, as well as the bureaucracy, ideology, and emotion that comes with changing citizenship status. As Tabet has explained: “The test requires being able to answer correctly six out of one hundred questions about American government, history, and geography and read and write one out of three sentences in English. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services provides study guides for these exams. While looking through those study guides, I realised that if these questions and phrases were taken out of context and disseminated throughout the space of the museum and across the website, they could be read like concrete poetry or open-ended, contradictory, and often hermetic questions.”
WangShui is invested in posthuman consciousness, which they conceive of as a re-entanglement among animals, environments, humans, and machines. The LED sculptures and aluminum paintings presented here were co-authored by the artist and AI (artificial intelligence) programs. The content displayed on the LEDs is produced with customised GANs (generative adversarial networks), a form of machine learning where neural networks are “trained” to generate imagery from existing information. For the paintings, the artist and AI programs participate in a feedback loop of gestures, forms, and colours. From each individual LED pixel to the aluminum panels and ceiling structure, the installation is composed of what WangShui has described as “interdependent modular particles.”
These five photographs document what Daniel Joseph Martinez has described as a “radical performative experiment of becoming post-human and the evolution of a new species.” Martinez uses his own body to interrogate and “to bear witness to the extraordinary moment in human history, our own self-destruction.” The artist inhabits the identities of Frankenstein’s monster from the film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Count Dracula from the film Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), the Engineer from the film Prometheus (2012), an Alien Bounty Hunter from the television series The X-Files (1993–2002), and the Drone Host from the television series Westworld. Martinez staged each photograph and then shot it on large-format film, printing the final image without digital alteration.
For Whitney Biennial, Ralph Lemon has developed a choreography of presentation, exhibiting hundreds of drawings from the past twenty-five years in five transient variations that unfold over the course of the exhibition. Elsewhere in the Museum, a single work is displayed that is also altered during the exhibition. Themes range from elaborate visual meditations and the nature of the artistic process itself to experiments refracting Black American culture, icons, music, and joy.
To make the figure in this sculpture, a sleeping bag was draped to suggest the contours of a human body and then cast in clay. The thousands of empty bullet casings that surround the ceramic form become a protective barrier. “In some way,” Belmore has said, “the work carries an emptiness. But at the same time, because it’s a standing figure, I’m hoping that the work contains some positive aspects of this idea that we need to try to deal with violence.” The title of the work, iskhode, means “fire” in Anishinaabemowin. In addition to calling attention to seemingly unending violence, the sculpture points to the centrality and precarity of earth itself. As Belmore has observed: “Everything we use to make our lives is of the earth, no matter how far removed its lineage. We are makers, who destroy and make again.
Aria Dean began Little Island by putting a digital model of a monolith through a collision simulation and then rendering the impact as a physical sculptural form. She fabricated the work in chromakey green, which is the colour of greenscreens—film backgrounds that allow separately filmed imagery to be added during post production. In some ways, the work recalls the anti-illusionism of 1960s minimalist sculptures—often monoliths—in which materiality was meant to be the only meaning. Resting on a pedestal in the form of an ionic column, Dean’s monolith puts this history in quotes, as the artist fundamentally shifts the terms of the question: “If reality might be illusions all the way down to the very core of it, then what would an object be that sits correctly within that conception of things?”
“Quiet as It’s Kept” on view from April 6–September 5, 2022
All info and images are are courtesy of Whitney Biennial