PRINT May 2019


Blitz Bazawule, The Burial of Kojo, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 100 minutes. From the Whitney Biennial.

Curated by Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta

THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL, always a flash point for controversy, is front-loaded with it this year. As we witness the rapid consolidation of America’s oligarchy, art institutions flush with its cash have become subject to fresh activist scrutiny. Whitney-board vice chair Warren B. Kanders’s ownership of Safariland—the maker of tear-gas canisters used by border agents against migrants this past November—is a high-profile, hard-to-swallow fact, even if it is only the tip of the iceberg. But the show must go on, and fortunately, among the seventy-five artists selected by curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta for the seventy-ninth edition of the survey, there are many on whom we can count to respond, provocatively or sagely, to this volatile moment. By withdrawing his work from the Biennial, Iraqi-American Conceptualist Michael Rakowitz has already replied; the multidisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture, which uses 3-D modeling technologies to reconstruct incidents of state violence, has tweeted that it will confront the Kanders revelations directly with its contribution. For other participants, of course, critique of the broader political and historical context of such profiteering is a given. Hockley and Panetta’s list is a refreshing reflection of American demographics, featuring artists concerned with “equity along financial, racial, and sexual lines,” Hockley notes, as well as notions of community and “the vulnerability of the body.” While familiar names long known for their significant work in this vein include Nicole Eisenman, Barbara Hammer, Simone Leigh, and Wangechi Mutu, three-quarters of the participants are under the age of forty. Martine Syms and Meriem Bennani have in recent years captured hearts with their hybrid, sculptural, phone-footage-inflected installations; Elle Pérez and John Edmonds have stunned audiences with their startling, intimate photography; and there are plenty of participants I had to google, which is exciting. So is the emphasis on performance—we can look forward to pieces by visionary queer musician-comic Morgan Bassichis and the sister-duo Las Nietas de Nonó, whose work addresses the conditions of their semirural neighborhood in Puerto Rico. All in all, it’s a Biennial that looks great on paper and might go up in flames. What more could we ask for?