How to Talk About Whiteness

The Racial Imaginary Institute wants to “make visible that which has been intentionally presented as inevitable,” to disrupt the “bloc” of whiteness.

Left to right:  NADI, Cindy Sherman (photos), Rodrigo Valenzuela (video), Titus Kaphar (sculpture), Toyin Ojih Odutola (drawings), Ken Gonzales-Day (photo), Sandeep Mukherjee (sculpture), Anicka Yi, in On Whiteness at the Kitchen (© Jason Mandella)

The scholar Sara Ahmed opens her essay “A phenomenology of whiteness” with a series of questions on the project of examining whiteness: “If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness? … Could whiteness studies produce an attachment to whiteness by holding it in place as an object?” In other words, how do we talk about whiteness without solidifying, even strengthening it?

Ahmed’s text is one of the groundings for the exhibition On Whiteness on view at the Kitchen — the latest iteration of a project exploring this topic by the Racial Imaginary Institute, a project founded by Claudia Rankine with her MacArthur grant in 2016. The Racial Imaginary Institute decided to focus on whiteness as their first major initiative, in order to “make visible that which has been intentionally presented as inevitable,” to disrupt the “bloc” of whiteness. In addition to the exhibition, several other organizations in New York are hosting partner events, and the Institute published an online “Whiteness Issue.”

Though the exhibition’s curatorial statement claims that the exhibition works by “disorienting the particularly habituated space of the white cube gallery,” it is, more or less, a group exhibition on a theme. The main gallery is still an even, white square; the works are arranged and displayed traditionally, creating formal echoes between pairings. The artists are racially diverse, and present an array of media, content, subject, and conceptual concerns — some directly parody whiteness, others address it obliquely, some seem to have just woken up to it.

These are not failures of the exhibition’s curators as much as demonstrations of how early we are in the conversation. How does one, through the already-slippery languages and modes of contemporary visual art, attempt to disrupt a phenomenon as pervasive as whiteness? Perhaps in order to account for this tricky task, the exhibition’s curators asked each artist: “How does your artistic practice disrupt perceptual or phenomenological habits of whiteness?” The answers reveal as much about the subject’s relation to whiteness as the works themselves.

Installation view of On Whiteness, with Mel Chin’s “Aileen” (2015) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Cindy Sherman doesn’t answer, allowing her two photographic self-portraits from her 2000 “headshot” series to speak for themselves. It’s not clear that the pieces interrogate whiteness, so much as they presume the neutrality of whiteness in order to focus on different iterations of white femininity — makeup, dress, gesture, class. Especially considering her resurfaced blackface works, it would be nice if she said more. Titus Kaphar’s lack of response for his sculpture “A Pillow for Fragile Fictions” reads differently. A clear, glass sculpture of George Washington’s head lays on its side, filled with rum, tamarind, lime, and molasses. Kaphar’s anti-monument to the founding father, connecting his legacy to the violent transatlantic trades that produced him, speaks directly to the question on its own.

Several works use archival techniques to excavate the construction of the white bloc. Ken Gonzales-Day’s well-known series takes an archival image of a lynching, but removes the body of the slain person, leaving us with the over-exposed images of the white audience against a tree and dark sky. The audience is left to contemplate the expressions and mentalities of those onlookers, who ushered in the modern spectacle of black suffering. Ja’Tovia Gary, in “On Punishment,” draws on and scratches the faces of two white men in a public service television short from the 1970s. The film shows two rats being electrocuted on a wire cage, while one man blandly pronounces the benefits of physical punishment, and the surprising violence that results. One senses that Gary’s physical marks both disrupt and highlight the horrific scene, de-naturalizing what the two men present as necessity.

Charlotte Lagarde’s “Colonial White” also goes back to the roots of American myth. She asks a group of participants (as well as visitors to the exhibition) to take a ‘colonial white’ paint chip, photograph it in a situation or place that embodies the colonial, and write why. One participant compares colonial white to the trendy gray omnipresent in gentrifying buildings in San Francisco. Another takes a picture with the Capitol Building, noting that the relationship is self-explanatory.

Native Art Department International (screen), Mel Chin (sculpture on pedestal), Anicka Yi (sculpture on floor), Ja’Tovia Gary (projection). Behind NADI screen, you can see Ken Gonzales-Day (photo) and Titus Kaphar (sculpture) (© Jason Mandella)

Parody is another tactic in the exhibition. Mores McWreath contributes several of his Spots — weekly shorts he produces which use his subjectivity as a white man to examine those fears and ideologies to an extreme. In one, he sits on a couch, the disgruntled gamer, discussing his violent fantasies and desire for simulated sex. Next to those videos, Seung-Min Lee set up a water cooler filled with milk, which visitors are free to drink. A video sits atop the cooler — part documentary on the decline of the dairy industry alongside the adoption of milk as a symbol of the alt-right, and part performance piece in which Lee, dressed in a cow outfit, passes out milk in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. The piece is named “Intolerable Whiteness,” a nod to lactose intolerance which, according to the artist’s statement, affects most African Americans and Latinx people, and the vast majority of Asians.

Paul Chan contributed his Madonna with Childs to the exhibition — a series of ghostly, conical Klan-like figures made of white nylon atop fans that billow and wave in the style of those inflatable roadside attractions. The figures, hollow and comical, suggest the emptiness of the Klan’s terror. In his response to the curators’ question, he says, “I’m not aware that it does,” but that he edited and published Aruna D’Souza’s Whitewalling. It’s unclear if Chan is offering an honest realization, or a glib evasion. And his opaque answer points to larger questions — are the curators reading a critique onto the work that was never intended? Do the billowing figures only appear to skewer the Klan within the context of this exhibition?

Ken Gonzalez-Day’s “The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park)” (2006–2013) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Here, Ahmed’s conclusion is useful. She writes: “If we want to know how things can be different too quickly, then we might not hear anything at all.” That is, she encourages us to keep critique and possibility open while wrangling with the “ongoing and unfinished history” of racism. Whiteness is so embedded into our political, social, and artistic lives, it might not be clear what the most effective forms of dismantling it are.

Whiteness, if we don’t know it already, is a slippery, shifting set of markers, actions, and institutions. If, during the Obama years, whiteness was characterized by dog-whistling, evasion, and liberal blindness, it is having a resurgence today as open pride, supremacy, and terrorism — as the Institute’s online statement puts it, “the volume on whiteness has been turned up.” Amid the noise, this exhibition, and hopefully others like it to come, might be a place to start listening.

The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness continues at the Kitchen (512 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 3. 

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