Museums

Whitney Biennial 2014: Where Have All the Politics Gone?

by Jillian Steinhauer on March 5, 2014

Lisa Anne Auerbach, "American Megazine #2" (2014), inkjet prints and staples, twenty pages (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Lisa Anne Auerbach, “American Megazine #2″ (2014), inkjet prints and staples, 24 pages (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The 2014 Whitney Biennial has many things: oversized ceramics, big abstract and figurative paintings, experimental jazz, videos of people having sex, and bead curtains. What it doesn’t have all that much of is politics. For the most part, the art in this year’s biennial faces inward, reflecting on itself and sometimes the larger world in safe and comfortable ways. You won’t be too put out, turned off, or riled up. You’ll probably just have a good time.

Charlemagne Palestine's 12-channel sound installation "hauntteddd!! n huntteddd!! n daunttlesss!! n shuntteddd!!" (2014) fills the Whitney's stairwell. (click to enlarge)

Charlemagne Palestine’s 12-channel sound installation “hauntteddd!! n huntteddd!! n daunttlesss!! n shuntteddd!!” (2014) fills the Whitney’s stairwell. (click to enlarge)

There is some excellent work in the show. Sterling Ruby’s large, ritualistic ceramic bowls are fabulous. Zoe Leonard’s room-size camera obscura is delightful. Sculptors Alma Allen and Carol Jackson offer brain-bending formal innovations, and I felt as though I could have sat and listened to Charlemagne Palestine’s droning, mesmerizing staircase sound installation for an hour. Paintings by an under-appreciated Chicago Imagist (Philip Hanson), a sound piece made from field recordings of Chicago on September 11 and 12, 2001, when air travel was suspended (Academy Records/Matt Hanner), a gigantic magazine with text culled entirely from psychic consultations (Lisa Anne Auerbach) — there’s plenty to like. But that’s just the issue: the biennial is overly neat and likeable, scarcely messy or funny or challenging.

Carol Jackson, "Pandemonium" (2013), wood, acrylic, papier mâché, and inkjet print

Carol Jackson, “Pandemonium” (2013), wood, acrylic, papier mâché, and inkjet print

Is that a disastrous thing? No. Is it a shortcoming? Absolutely. All art need not be political, but a show that disregards politics in the United States in 2014 is a delusion — not simply because of the state of the country and the world, but also because of the state of art itself. Social practice is experiencing a moment of profound attention and criticality. Artists of color are being included more than ever in the mainstream, yet often still in a segregated way, which many of them question. Within the art world itself, certain practitioners have taken up residence at the border between institutional acceptance and an outsider stance, carving out space for satire and critique. By and large, none of that is in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

I’m inclined to think that this omission stems at least in part from the exhibition’s lack of diversity. It’s telling that one of the strongest, most openly political showings comes from Dawoud Bey, whose two diptychs were curated by Michelle Grabner on the fourth floor. (Bey’s photograph of President Obama also hangs, lonely, at the entrance to the floor.) Bey recently spent seven years visiting Birmingham, Alabama, where, in 1963, white supremacists bombed an African-American church, killing four girls, and shot two African-American boys to death. His research led to The Birmingham Project, a series of black-and-white photo diptychs that pair portraits of African-American youths the same ages as the victims with those of African-American adults the ages the victims would have been in 2012. The gazes of the subjects are both inviting and unsettling.

Dawoud Bey's prints from "The Birmingham Project" (2012) hanging behind Peter Schuyff's carved pencils

Dawoud Bey’s prints from “The Birmingham Project” (2012) hanging behind Peter Schuyff’s carved pencils

Probably the only other artist as explicitly political as Bey is Fred Lonidier, an artist and longtime union activist who focuses on labor issues in his work. Lonidier’s contribution, curated by Stuart Comer on the third floor, consists of a 1976 piece called “GAF Snapshirts” — T-shirts obtained by the artist from a manufacturer called GAF and then custom printed with notes and images from his research into the company — and a 2003 work titled “‘NAFTA…’ Returns to Tijuana/‘TLC…’ Regresa a Tijuana,” two photos relating to a project that Lonidier undertook exploring the conditions at a light assembly plant in Tijuana, Mexico. The works (especially the T-shirts) are eye-catching, but even with their accompanying wall text seem to suffer from a lack of context.

Fred Lonidier, "GAF Snapshirts” (1976) (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

Fred Lonidier, “GAF Snapshirts” (1976), 32 photo- and text-printed T-shirts (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

Also on Comer’s floor is the much-discussed 2012 documentary film Leviathan, made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Shot on tiny waterproof cameras, some attached to nets and people, others thrown into the sea, the 87-minute-long film explores industrial fishing in an unprecedented way, through dark, disorienting images and almost entirely without words. Although its origins at the Harvard lab explicitly position the work as “ethnographic,” critics have pointed out its almost de facto politics. At the Whitney, plunging underwater with Leviathan feels like bursting through the museum’s walls to let in the world outside.

Ken Lum, "Midway Shopping Plaza" (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass (click to enlarge)

Ken Lum, “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass (click to enlarge)

Other artists in the show come to politics, as many of us do, by way of identity. Ken Lum’s towering “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014, fourth floor/Grabner) is a witty amalgam of tacky signs for Vietnamese-owned shops, except all of the names relate to the Vietnam War. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s Relationship series (2008–13, third floor/Comer) consists of photographs of the two transgender artists in the process of transitioning in opposite directions, a fascinating subject, although the pictures are a bit generic. A.L. Steiner (also third floor/Comer) exhibits her film “More Real Than Reality Itself” (2014) within an all-over installation of photos, “Cost-benefit analysis” (2014), both of which attempt to use the artist’s body and autobiography as a starting point for mining questions of radicalness and activism. It’s one of the few pieces in the biennial that pulls you in with a seductive complexity.

AL Steiner, "Cost-benefit analysis" (2014), pigmented inkjet prints, photocopies, and paint; "More Real Than Reality Itself" (2014), multichannel video installation, color, sound, 54 min

A.L. Steiner, “Cost-benefit analysis” (2014), pigmented inkjet prints, photocopies, and paint; “More Real Than Reality Itself” (2014), multichannel video installation, color, sound, 54 min

Part of the problem of politically minded art in a setting like the Whitney Biennial is that its surroundings are unfavorable. In a show of such scale, viewers often gravitate to larger, flashier works and don’t have the energy or time to do the reading required to understand projects such as Lonidiers’. (Why linger on wall text when you could walk fewer than 10 feet to the Bjarne Melgaard room, which the artist has tricked out with plush, trippy furniture and oversexed female mannequins?) In this biennial, too, a fair amount of the political work is from the past, making it feel less relevant to the present day. (Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins have curated a room of appealingly strange paintings by Tony Greene, who died of complications from AIDS in 1990 and whom Hawkins calls “the first one out of all of us making work specifically about HIV.”) On top of that, some of the older work is presented in a pristine archival format, which makes it seem even more sealed-off and distant. (A room by Public Collectors on the Anthony Elms-curated second floor presents the archive of Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago experimental jazz enthusiast and activist. It contains mostly music recordings and memorabilia arrayed neatly in glass cases, above which one well-composed photograph of Ritscher protesting hangs on the wall.)

Public Collectors' Malachi Ritscher archive

Public Collectors’ Malachi Ritscher archive

There is much more to come in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, as the performances, videos, and other time-based works are unveiled. Who knows what political ideas may yet unfold. But right now the exhibition’s three floors offer a kind of cozy art cocoon — a sentiment not nearly as distanced from the art fairs as some observers would like to think.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial opens to the public on Friday, March 7, and continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 25.

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  • Jason Foumberg

    Malachi Ritscher burned himself to death in public as a war protest. The show is actually full of “political” art, one just needs to learn how to see/read it. Jillian, you did not define what “political” art is, but assume that we all know it means x, y, or z. So, you want to see more protest signs…? One section opens with a portrait of Obama. Is that apolitical for you?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Ritscher’s burning of himself is a powerful political statement, but it’s still separate from the way the archive is presented in the biennial, which I found to be innocuous and deemphasizing of his politics. As I wrote above, I found the Obama portrait to be completely out of place because there was barely another other political work on view. (And no, I did not update my review to include your reference—the line was already in the piece.) As for defining political art, you’re right that I don’t offer a precise definition, something I thought about but decided wasn’t necessary. I suppose I took it as self-evident that I mean art that’s openly engaged with politics and those of the wider world. But I accept the criticism that maybe I should have spelled it out more. AND as for all of the potent political art that the show is full of that I missed, I’d love to hear about it.

  • Jason Foumberg

    good job updating your review to include my Obama reference. Crowd-sourced criticism, anyone?

    • Mostafa Heddaya

      Jason Foumberg: I edited this piece. Though any and all attempts at close reading are encouraged, I assure you that the Obama reference was in the original draft of this article as published.

      • Jason Foumberg

        No, it wasn’t. But that’s beside the point. Still curious how the reviewer thinks a portrait of Obama is apolitical though.

        • Mostafa Heddaya

          The thing about arguing over this is that I can just take a screenshot of our backend revisions log (attached) and conclusively end speculation over whether you are bad at reading or not, your unrepentant indignation notwithstanding.

          • Jason Foumberg

            I did a page search for “Obama” before posting and nothing came up, so that’s what i was basing this on.

  • Jillian Steinhauer

    I wrote about the few pieces I could find because I wanted to highlight them, but I listed entries by 8 artists here; there are over 100 participating artists in the biennial. So, no, I don’t think it’s rife at all. But I agree that the setting definitely contributes to the neatness—both the setting of a survey like this, where so much is presented in a confined space, and the specific context created by this specific show, with the distancing and archiving actions I mentioned above. As well as the fact that, since so much of the art is about art and technique and craft, the little political work there is gets a bit lost.

  • Linda Smith

    Actually, it sounds like this show is more than political and not enough about art.

    • Linda Smith

      Wall text isn’t art. Artwork shouldn’t have to be explained in order to experience it.

      • Jillian Steinhauer

        As I said in the comments above, I wrote about the 8 politically minded artworks I could find. Sorry if that’s misleading, but there are nearly 100 other artists and pieces! Trust me, the show is more than plenty about art.

        • Linda Smith

          Eight obviously “political” pieces is more than enough. Art weighted down with obvious political content (and wall text) is diminished as art. It merely becomes a format for making statements about something else and loses its ability to allow the viewer to enter unencumbered. On the other hand, art that is merely a display of craft or materiality is also something less than art. As Ad Reinhardt once wrote, “The meaning of art is not meaning.”

      • Jillian Steinhauer

        Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about this comment, and I have to disagree. In theory, yes, it sounds ideal to be able to look at a work of art and simply be drawn in and engage, have its meaning be transmitted to you wall-text-free. But I think learning and reading about artwork often makes the experience of it far more interesting, complex, nuanced, and meaningful—whether that work is meant to be explicitly political or not.

  • Marjorie Perloff

    What is more PC ” today than a focus on “diversity”? Every corporation in America has its diversity brochure and counselors. So I hardly think that more “diversity” would have made the show stronger. How about genuine difference and revaluation?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I am all for that. You’re totally right that “diversity” has become a buzzy corporate word, but for me it still signifies something genuinely useful. But maybe I need to think about finding new terminology.

  • Luis

    I live in Buenos Aires, i cannot visit the Biennal, I totally got what you wanted to say. There´s not enough work engaged or compromised with contemporary questions, problems and /or aesthetics. The Biennale appeared to you as too comfortable, too much craft, too “arty”. I apreciated your article because i live in a city (also in a world) in crisis, and i wonder all the time: what are we artists choosing to talk about? and for the other comments: what´s wrong with u people? one person talks his mind out about an important issue such as it is contemporaneity and instead of adding to the discussion you say no, no, no, she didnt see the politics. damn. We already read the aesthetics of politics (Rancier), we already know a painting can be political, she is saying: the show is too correct, is too “arty”, not strange enough, not mounstrous enought, not absurd anough, not funny enough, not sad enough, not angry enough…I apreciate you speaking up your apreciation.

  • Severine7

    When seeking politics in an art exhibition, and being disappointed, it may be that one is disappointed with art itself and what it is capable of. And disappointed in a self-congratulatory art industry that doesn’t care as long as someone gets rich, or published, or tenured, and the champagne keeps flowing.
    Join the club.

  • Viktor Witkowski

    Excellent article – thank you!

  • Stephanie Cormier

    seems like there is a fair amount of political stuff in here….at least from your review…so what’s with your title and opener?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      As I replied above: I wrote about the 8 politically minded artworks I could find. Sorry if that’s misleading, but there are nearly 100 other artists and pieces! It’s insular.

  • Jillian Steinhauer

    Thanks for the comment. I missed the booklet but will read it at the link posted. My positioning and perception of the Ritscher archive could probably use explicating and revisiting—I suspect the way I read it has more to do with the larger setting of the biennial and the Whitney than your presentation.

  • hill

    Not that I need entertaining wall candy, but this shit is just out right uninteresting, worse than Art & Languages old phrase, visual muzak.

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