Arts and Entertainment

Even Worse Than the Real Thing!

A review of the 2024 Whitney Biennial: Even Better than the Real Thing

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By Jayden Kuang

The 2024 Whitney Biennial, subtitled Even Better Than the Real Thing, attempts to epitomize artistic revolution, but that air of grandeur comes across as entrenched in superficiality. To justify its subtitle, the Whitney’s website claims, “Artificial Intelligence (AI) is complicating our understanding of what is real, and rhetoric around gender and authenticity is being used politically and legally to perpetuate transphobia and restrict bodily autonomy,” suggesting that the exhibit will simultaneously tackle questions posed by  augmented reality and contemporary identity politics. It relates the emergence of AI art to “a long history of deeming people of marginalized race, gender, and ability as subhuman—less than real.” It’s a shaky and confusing comparison—one which the exhibit fails to clarify. With intermittent exceptions, the Biennial’s pieces are underwhelming and unsubstantiated, and the works’ connections to politics often feel tangential or non-existent. Rather than offer genuinely innovative and compelling works, the Biennial provides art that is visually provocative, but confusing; it falls short of its artistic purpose.

The Biennial’s aim is to explore the metaphysical nature of art by directly immersing museum-goers in pieces that are tangible and three-dimensional, so it frequently highlights large-scale installations. Nikita Gale’s Tempo Rubato (STOLEN TIME) (2023-2024) is the exhibit’s strongest use of this medium, combining light, movement, and sound to endow the sculpture with a haunting atmosphere. Tempo Rubato is a brown piano sitting in the center of an isolated black room. The light in the room fluctuates, dimming and illuminating rhythmically. The piano is automated so its keys are pressed down with no pianist, but the instrument is also devoid of pitch: all viewers hear is the throbbing of the pressed keys. “Tempo rubato” refers to when a piece of music’s rhythm shifts in intervals. The piano embodies this technique by occasionally erupting in a frenzy of clicking ivory; the subtle throbbing noises layer over each other in a rush of unnerving urgency.

Unfortunately, many of the other installations feel uninspired in subject matter, relying almost exclusively on their spatial dominance. Kiyan Williams’ Ruins of the Empire II or the Earth Swallows the Master’s House (2024), which is displayed on the museum’s sixth-floor balcony, is a life-sized construct of the White House’s facade, partially submerged in a plot of dirt. Cracks appear on the dirt-smeared dark brown walls and columns. Chunks of the columns’ capitals have fallen off, and an upside-down American flag sits on the rooftop. Staring at the ruin is a silver statue of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, holding a sign that reads “POWER TO THE PEOPLE.” Johnson has a blank expression on her face and is holding a cigarette. Her unbothered appearance recontextualizes the bleak scene as a triumph; the fall of the American government to the ordinary person’s benefit. Though the work is visually impressive, the image of American democracy in ruins is a tried and unoriginal motif. Williams fails to expand on the trope with any new critique of America’s political system, which is disappointing considering the exhibit’s history of avant-garde defiance.  

Ironically, the Biennial’s video works are more immersive than its installations. Dora Budor’s Lifelike (2024) is a compilation of iPhone camera shots of Hudson Yards, the epicenter of gentrification in New York City. At intervals, a vibrator attached to the camera activates, distorting and blurring the imagery of fancy office buildings, glass skyscrapers, and the Vessel. Occasionally, the vibrator’s distortion feels steady and fluid, but the vibrator accelerates, making the shot quiver uncontrollably and jarringly. The vibrator’s movement is intentionally unsettling, creating a loud, reverberating droning sound, though the shots themselves present the city as pleasant and soothing. The skies are presented attractively, shifting from clear to a yellow-tinted sunset. Sunlight reflects on the glass walls of the buildings. Moreover, each scene is tranquil, lacking the bustling noise typically associated with an urban landscape. Budor makes Hudson Yards feel mesmerizing and alluring, while simultaneously using the vibrator’s interjections to undertone the neighborhood’s ties to gentrification and capitalism—eliciting ambivalence and guilt in the viewer.

The intentionally provocative spirit of Lifelike is commonplace within the exhibit, but this aspect often feels overdone and extreme in other works. This is most egregious in xhairymutantx (2024), a series of prints made with AI software. The prints all feature variations of a female figure with enlarged orange hair, thick olive outerwear, and exaggerated, grotesque proportions. The prints are intended to represent an AI interface developed by artists Holly Herndon and Matt Dryhurst, which produces the image of the idiosyncratic character upon inputting Herndon’s name. While The Whitney implies that the novelty of the technology is what warrants its place in the exhibit, there is nothing stylistically interesting about the works themselves. The prints reiterate the anatomical inconsistencies and hyperrealistic shading typically associated with AI-generative software found on the internet, their only distinguishing feature being their common subject matter. Given that the exhibit premised itself as a counter to AI art’s rise, xhairymutantx’s blatant betrayal of those themes makes the work feel incongruous and contradictory. 

The Whitney Biennial wants to be bold, impactful, and thought-provoking, but many of its works lack the substance and meaning to justify such braggadocious claims of self-importance. Contemporary art can and should be controversial, but it should be done with reason and intent.