The Whitney Biennial has been a long time coming. Originally meant to open in 2021, the 80th edition combines three years of planning as well as 63 artists and collectives to present an event that has been described as both "dynamic" and timely by its curators.
"Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept," which opens April 6, is broken up into two experiences on the fifth and sixth floors of the Meatpacking District building. Each one presents a completely different atmosphere—on the sixth floor is a cavernous, labyrinth-like gallery, and on the fifth floor is an open and airy room where works are displayed together.
The exhibition mimics the range of emotions we felt during the past two years, from fear and pain to joy and hope, and everything in between. These days, a lot of us feel numb, but art makes you feel something, and that's what the Biennial attempts to do, according to Whitney curators, David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards.
And while Edwards and Breslin started planning out the exhibit before the turning point that was 2020, they were able to incorporate works that question and reckon with these major moments in our recent history. Artworks—even walls—will change and performance will "animate" the galleries and objects. The changing nature of the exhibition reflects these uncertain times.
"While many of these underlying conditions are not new, their overlapping, intensity and sheer ubiquity created a context in which past, present, and future folded into one another," they said. "We’ve organized the exhibition to reflect these precarious and improvised times. The Biennial primarily serves as a forum for artists, and the works that will be presented reflect their enigmas, the things that perplex them, the important questions they are asking."
While it's impossible to highlight all the amazing artwork on view at the Whitney Biennial, we've pulled out 10 of the coolest things we found below:
1. "Juárez Archive" Alejandro Morales
On the fifth floor through a hallway that leads to the terrace, a series of hanging novelty magnifying keychains containing 35mm slides. You're welcome to pick them up and look through the eyeholes to see images from the artist's hometown of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, that he took from Google Maps—with all their quirks, glitches and blurring. Morales was unable to travel there during the pandemic but what he has discovered through these images is a "taxonomy not just of the city but also the aesthetics of Google's processing" and everyday scenes that show evidence of the drug war and militarization within the city, the artist explains.
2. "64,000 Attempts at Circulation" by Rose Salane
Ever wonder what happens to the "slugs" that New Yorkers used to get into the subway without paying? Rose Salane has thousands of the coin-like objects from an MTA asset-recovery auction on the fifth floor and they're everything from arcade and casino tokens to religious prayer tokens, from washers and hardware to plastic play money and more. She has set them out in piles by type on five tables and printed out what every single one of them is in a series of four lists mounted on a wall behind the tables. Through the slugs, you can see how they "reflect a sample of the beliefs, experiences and movements" of the masses who live in the city, according to Salane.
3. "A Clockwork" and "Laugh Track, or My Window" by Sable Elyse Smith
On the fifth floor, it's hard to miss a giant Ferris-wheel-type of artwork that slowly moves in the back of the gallery by the windows. Smith's work does not elicit the kind of joy usually associated with Ferris wheels. The sculpture is made with furniture designed for prison visitation rooms—the low tables that keep bodies and movements exposed—and an accompanying video shows footage from Live PD featuring police patrols. It "underscores the ways that the entertainment industry and institutionalized violence mutually reinforce each other," explains the Whitney.
4. "North America Buff Tit" by Eric Wesley
You have definitely seen this figure before. Wesley faithfully recreated the iconic drinking bird at human scale and it actually works! The glass body (found on the fifth floor) is filled with a temperature-sensitive fluid, meaning heat will propel it forward and backward given the right environment. Not only is it cute but it's a playful sculpture that poses "existential and timely questions: How, if at all, does it work? Where does the will to move come from?" the artist suggests.
5. "Burger" by Charles Ray
Charles Ray created three new sculptures that are found nearby each other on the fifth-floor terrace. The first is a man staring blankly, followed by a man eating a burger and finally a drunken man—all surrounded by views of the Meatpacking District and the Empire State Building farther away. While each figure is distinct, as a set, they can be read as "emblems of our historical moment: drug-altered, precariously employed, drunk on beer and debt," the Whitney states.
6. "An Introduction to Nameless Love" by Jonathan Berger
Berger takes a rare look at non-romantic love in this memorial-like artwork of tin letters hammered and soldered to form lines of text from his conversations with three people—a former resident of the New York underground unhoused community known as the Tunnel; former turtle conservationist Richard Ogust and the first turtle he rescued; and autistic writer and philosopher Mark Utter and his communication supporter and collaborator Emily Anderson. The floor is made of charcoal tiles, meant to "contextualize the texts’ eclectic contents as unified within the larger idea of 'An Introduction to Nameless Love," the museum says.
7. "A Gathering of the Tribes"
This collection of objects and videos on the sixth floor places you in the late Steve Cannon's gallery apartment. Cannon was a poet, playwright, novelist and former Medgar Evers College professor who founded A Gathering of the Tribes, a literary magazine that grew into a nonprofit arts organization, a reading venue, artist salon, online literary magazine and art gallery in his home on East Third Street. The installation uses his personal effects and the Tribes archive. "Cannon, who was blind, held court from a couch in front of the crimson wall, and with the assistance of a dedicated group of friends he provided a space that empowered artists and writers of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ individuals, and people from diverse class backgrounds, who were bonded by a singular passion: love of the arts," the museum says. "Cannon’s gatherings fostered an open space for experimentation and rigorous intellectual debate."
8. "Mountains Walking" by Leidy Churchman
This serene painting on the fifth floor mimics Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" for sure, but it takes on a life of its own with carved feet at the base of the painting, meant to invoke the claws of a Buddhist protector deity. Its yellow grid fades in and out across the canvas "as though unable to contain the activity held within," the museum explains. The artist embraces interconnectedness and the zen thought that reality is interdependent and permeable. "Like Claude Monet’s water lilies, Mountains and Waters Sutra is porous. It enters the water lilies," Churchman said about the work. "They both create so much space. Water lilies are like graffiti, or emotions. They could just go on and on, and in Dogen’s world everything is mutual and enlightened."
9. "Palm Orchard" by Alia Farid
Outside on the sixth-floor terrace, stand a collection of artificial palm trees that certainly look out of place. For the artist, they symbolize her background—she's from Kuwait and Puerto Rico—and the way these trees have been weaponized by governments. Basra used to be renowned for its date palms and lush vegetation, but during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) they were destroyed in order to deprive enemies and dissidents of cover, the museum explains. 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 weaponized, harnessed, and destroyed by governments and extractive industries."
10. "06.01.2020 18.39" by Alfredo Jaar
This last installation on the sixth floor is one of the most vivid and works, at least for those who participated in or closely followed the 2020 protests that erupted across the nation after George Floyd was killed by police. Jaar captured the moment when U.S. Attorney William Barr ordered police to clear the area before a photoshoot former President Donald Trump took with the Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal Church. Police used tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets as well as two helicopters to disperse the crowd. The wind caused by the rotors broke tree branches and scattered debris. This militarized use of helicopters has been prohibited by international human-rights law and horrified Jaar, the museum says. "When, starting at 6:39 p.m., authorities set off a series of explosions in the middle of the crowd in Lafayette Square, I thought about my own experience in Pinochet’s Chile," Jaar explains. "A few hours later, I watched with horror the arrival of the helicopters. That is when I realized that I was witnessing fascism. Fascism had arrived in the USA."
To bring the experience to life, strong fans blow on audience members when the helicopters arrive in the footage, causing so much wind you almost can't stand it. It is both harrowing and transporting.
The Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It's Kept opens April 6 and will be on through September 5, with more portions and programs continuing through October 23, 2022.