When Michael Rakowitz announced his withdrawal from the 2019 Whitney Biennial in February, he was the only artist out of 75 announced participants who decided to leave in protest of the museum’s vice chairman, Warren Kanders. On July 19, four more artists involved in the prestigious exhibition announced their intent to withdraw from the show, reenergizing calls on the cultural institution to eject Kanders, the chief executive of a weapons manufacturing company, from its board of trustees.
Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin addressed their letter to the curators of this year’s biennial, Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta. The notice was first published with Artforum, which two days ago ran a statement entitled “The Tear Gas Biennial” by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett. The essay called upon artists still participating in the biennial to withdraw their work as a boycott of Kanders.
“The Biennial is a prominent platform, and the teargassing of asylum-seekers, including children at the US-Mexico border a few months before its May opening, has thrust Kanders and Safariland into the public eye,” the three critics wrote.
After the first letter was published, artists Eddie Arroyo, Agustina Woodgate, and Christine Sun Kim confirmed to Hyperallergic that they also requested to have their work withdrawn from the biennial. In an email, Arroyo told Hyperallergic, “My decision is in solidarity with the artists who have already asked for their artwork to be removed.”
On July 20, Forensic Architecture announced its decision to withdraw from the biennial. The London-based research group plans to replace its 10-minute video about the global spread of tear gas and bullets produced by companies linked to Whitney Museum vice chairman Warren Kanders, with new evidence they’ve found that directly links the weapons manufacturer to violence on the Israeli-Palestinian border in Gaza.
Arunanondchai, Bennani, Eisenman, and Galanin’s letter is republished in its entirety below:
Dear Ru and Jane,
We respectfully ask you to withdraw our work from the Whitney Biennial for the remainder of the show. This request is intended as condemnation of Warren Kanders’ continued presence as Vice Chair of the Board. We would appreciate if you presented this letter to the Board to let them know the seriousness of the situation.
We care deeply about the Whitney. Over the years, many shows at the Museum have inspired and informed our art. We were angry when we learned of Kanders’ role as CEO of Safariland, a company that manufactures teargas and other weapons of repression. At the time, we had already accepted your invitation to participate in the Whitney Biennial and some of us were well into fabrication of major pieces for this show. We found ourselves in a difficult position: withdraw in protest or stay and abide a conflicted conscience. We decided to participate.
But the Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists has made our participation untenable. The Museum’s inertia has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence.
We have enormous respect for you as curators and it has been a pleasure working with you.
In a statement sent to Hyperallergic on July 19, Rakowitz said:
I am deeply appreciative for the article written by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett in Artforum. It is an excellent analysis of our responsibilities and all that is at risk. I stand in support of and in solidarity with the difficult decision of the artists, and I express my continued solidarity and gratitude to the activist groups who have tirelessly exerted pressure on the museum and have committed to continued demonstrations to raise visibility of this crisis and refuse to allow it to disappear. I remain especially grateful to the Whitney Museum staff whose brave letter to Director Adam Weinberg concerning Kanders’ presence on the board brought all of this to light.
Nicholas Galanin responded to a follow-up request for comment. “We are the first five of hopefully many to reject the museum’s inert approach to a serious issue that affects all our community,” he said. “Does the Whitney want to be complacent in the violence and treatment of people of color in New York City, on our shared boarders, and abroad? Do these institutions exist to amplify the artists thoughts and perspectives while educating community?”
He continued: “Is the Whitney able to do this and bring our community together while neglecting to speak to the violence happening now, or is this something they will proudly celebrate and show in twenty years time from a position they have failed to take today? Refusal to take a stand is complacency, especially when you are an American institution with so much influence and voice.”
The Whitney Museum has responded to the requests for withdrawal. In a statement, the museum’s director Adam Weinberg said, “The Whitney respects the opinions of all the artists it exhibits and stands by their right to express themselves freely. While the Whitney is saddened by this decision, we will of course comply with the artists’ request.”
Spinello Projects in Miami, which represents Arroyo and Woodgate, said in a press release that it will close the artists’ current exhibition, Within Time, in solidarity. “The exhibition would have concluded July 31st and was a special presentation of new works by the Miami-based artists on the occasion of their participation in the 2019 Whitney Biennial,” the gallery explained.
When asked for comment, Woodgate responded with a quote from the philosopher Hegel, “Slavery occurs in man’s transition from the state of nature to genuinely ethical conditions; it occurs in a world where a wrong is still right.”
“As a mother to a 2-year-old daughter, it terrifies me that my work is currently part of a platform that is now strongly associated with Kanders’ teargas-producing company Safariland,” Christine Sun Kim told Hyperallergic in an email, which was also sent to the biennial curators. “I have recently taken her to several demonstrations and that further heightened my awareness of the situation. I do not want her to grow up in a world where free and peaceful expression is countered with means that have left people injured and dead. I therefore can’t have my person and work be associated with Kander and his enterprises.”
Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture said that until yesterday, his organization was planning to release the new research alongside an ultimatum for the removal of Kanders from the Whitney’s board of trustees. Recent news of other artists withdrawing from the show — one of the world’s most prestigious exhibitions of contemporary art — convinced the group to expedite its plans. Forensic Architecture says they have informed curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta of their decision.
Editor’s note 7/19/19 8:45pm: This article has been updated to include new information that Eddie Arroyo has also requested his work be withdrawn from the biennial.
Editor’s note 7/20/19 8:55am: This article has been updated to include new information that Agustina Woodgate has also requested her work be withdrawn from the biennial.
Editor’s note 7/20/19 10:10am: This article has been updated to include new information that Christine Sun Kim has also requested her work be withdrawn from the biennial.
Editor’s note 7/20/19 2:58pm: This article has been updated to include new information that Forensic Architecture has also requested its work be withdrawn from the biennial.
07/20/19, 5:56pm correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Forensic Architecture made their decision to withdraw in consultation with Decolonize This Place. This error was made due to a miscommunication between the two organizations; the decision was made solely by Forensic Architecture. We have removed the error from this article.