Arts and Entertainment

Quiet as it’s Kept

After all is said and done, is the Whitney Biennial still worth seeing?

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The opening night of this year’s Whitney Biennial stood at the intersection of fashion, culture, and contemporary art. The artists themselves were an extension of their work, placing emphasis on their connections to their cultures and personal histories. Extravagantly dressed visitors walked the floors and stairways of the museum, defying gender roles, international and cultural borders, and time. Gingham patterns, leather, studs, glitter beards, eight-inch heels, latex, and vibrant hair dyes were all gathered in one place for one purpose: to self-express. Yet despite the powerful imagery of each individual, none could compare to that of the artwork and its stories. Each piece was carefully presented to suit its message; some were shrouded in darkness, away from the majority on the floor, filling the viewer with powerful lonesomeness and anxiety. Others were brightly displayed, illustrating the artist’s love and respect for their homeland. Each floor filled its visitors with waves of emotion, joy, sorrow, loss, remembrance, discomfort, dread, one after another, each piece so different from the last.

The Whitney Biennial is an exhibition showcasing unknown and upcoming American artists at the Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District. This year’s event began on April 6, and I was fortunate enough to attend opening night as a guest. The exhibition closes on September 5, 2023. The theme this year, Quiet as it’s Kept, highlights the challenges and complexities of modern American identities. With this in mind, the most effective pieces throughout the exhibition were those with a complex conceptual background to them, revealing hundreds of years of human experience, history, and culture; art that shows its audience that there are layers to the American identity. One such piece is titled “Ecstatic Draught of Fishes” by Ellen Gallager. This mixed media work features multi-colored strands of metal leaf, representing water, and silver humanoid figures, tied together by these strands. The water suggests the Atlantic Ocean, which has historical connections to the violence of the slave trade. The foreground projects slightly off of the background, which looks like a multicolor, earthy-toned quilt. Gallager describes the piece’s significance in its wall text, describing how culture is seemingly left behind, but always resurfaces as an “insurgent memory.” At the end of her description, she asks the viewer: “In the face of relentless destructive attacks on a culture, a steady beat of anti-Blackness, what survives?” The piece alone is thought-provoking and meaningful, but posing this question at the end leaves the work stuck in the viewer’s mind above all others.

Upon entering the exhibition floors, the first work of art in one’s line of sight is Dyani White Hawk’s “Wopila | Lineage.” At first, the work appears to be nothing special, but upon closer inspection, it is meticulously constructed with thousands upon thousands of individual glass beads. White Hawk’s work is inspired by traditional Lakota abstraction, which also influenced generations of American artists, including Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock. However, this piece is unique to the artist and her lineage. White Hawk said that her work represents the connection between land and life, and the ancestral and living communities that make her work possible. On opening night, her whole family was there alongside her, showing their support and connection to her work. Of all the artists in attendance, no others had generations of their family with them. The intergenerational relevance of the piece shows its importance.

However, not every piece was effective or meaningful. One in particular, “La Horda (The Horde)” by Andrew Roberts, failed to deliver insightful or aesthetically challenging content. The piece depicts zombified workers of the major companies centered in America on a row of four digital screens. Each worker is shown alone, wearing a bloodied uniform and beginning to decompose. The message of this work was unfortunately lost in translation. The artist intended to convey workers gaining class consciousness, but instead shows them as brutish creatures who work mindlessly and purposelessly. Other artworks with anti-corporate messaging read far more effectively, like “Felled jungle ready for burning” by Danielle Dean. This multimedia collage shows sharp contrast between the beautiful, healthy landscape that exists in Brazil today and the post-industrial charred, deserted, and barren land that remained. Dean focused on Ford Motors’s attempt to “bring the principles of the assembly lines” to the rainforest, damaging the environment and harming the people in the process.

Aside from the occasional flop, this Biennial was unique and successful, especially compared to previous ones. In the past, many Biennials featured a lesser range of media, and limited emphasis on craft. This Biennial also emphasized the vast range of cultures throughout the country in comparison to others, which had a much more uniform, central idea. The artwork, too, was mostly thought-provoking and innovative, and many more pieces felt like they spoke to a much broader audience, which inspired more interpersonal connection.