Six artists — Laura Ortman, Thirza Cuthand, Brendan Fernandes, Marcus Fischer, Nibia Pastrana Santiago, and Maia Ruth Lee — have publicly announced their intention to stay put in the 2019 Whitney Biennial following a wave of withdrawals from eight of 75 artists included in the exhibition as a protest statement against Warren Kanders, a vice chairman of the Whitney Museum accused of war profiteering.
Requests for the removal of artworks from the biennial began last Friday when four other artists — Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin — published a letter with Artforum declaring their intention to withdraw shortly after the magazine ran an essay calling for a boycott by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett.
“The Biennial is a prominent platform,” wrote the three critics, “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.”
Eddie Arroyo, Agustina Woodgate, and Christine Sun Kim later announced their decision to pull out from the exhibition. The collective Forensic Architecture also withdrew from the show, telling Hyperallergic that new evidence they’ve collected may tie Kanders to possible war crimes in Gaza.
All eyes are fixed on the remaining 67 artists in the Whitney Biennial, the majority of whom have not announced if they will withdraw from the exhibition. Four of those who have said they will stay explained their rationales to ARTnews.
Ortman, a Brooklyn-based artist of White Mountain Apache descent who has a video in the show, told the publication that she would not withdraw from the biennial because Kanders should go instead of her work. “Kanders must have the insight and conscience to kick himself out of the Whitney,” she said. “I want the world to see and keep seeing the ‘My Soul Remainer’ video that was made by all-indigenous people of North America. I want them to see it and keep on seeing it.”
Cuthand, a Toronto-based experimental filmmaker of Plains Cree and Scots descent, said she will still participate in a Sky Hopinka–organized film program due to screen as part of the biennial in September. “I am disappointed that the board of the Whitney has chosen to protect Kanders instead of the biennial artists who have been pressured since November to withdraw our work,” she told ARTnews.
A choreographer and artist, Fernandes hopes that “The Master and Form” (2019), a sculptural installation enacted by a troupe of ballet dancers, will catalyze institutional action. “Working with collaborators, performers, and institutions, I have a responsibility to approach the questions raised by these artists in dialogue with the others involved in my work,” he told the publication. “My hope is that the actions taken will result in deeper conversation and more direct action on the part of art institutions to address their complicated relationship with industries of oppression.”
Fischer’s sound work in a stairway named for Kanders and his wife Allison will stay as an aural metaphor for oppressed communities rising up. His piece, named “Ascent/Dissent” (2019), is also an homage to the Felix Gonzalez-Torres sculpture resembling a string of lightbulbs that hangs down through the central structure. “I opted to stay, and instead created a work that honored the intent and memory of Mr. Gonzalez-Torres, and also stood in protest of Kanders and his place in that building,” Fischer said. “For that to go silent would not be true to the intent of my piece, and for that reason it will also remain in place.”
The artist will also keep “Untitled (Words of Concern)” (2017) installed. The recordings of people voicing their fears about the Trump administration before the president’s inauguration will include performances at the museum in August. “I feel like that piece was given a second life by being included in the biennial, and the words and sentiment behind them strike me perhaps even harder now than they did in January of 2017, when we had no idea how bad things could get in this country. It is for that reason that I wish for it to remain in place. We have so much more work to do.”
On Instagram yesterday, the artist Maia Ruth Lee announced that she too would stay with the biennial. “I recognize that this tragic situation calls for direct action, she wrote. “However, collective action and protest comes in various forms.” Lee says that she made her decision after returning to the exhibition and spending 4 hours looking through the show.
Hyperallergic recently reported that the tear gas canisters used against protesters in Puerto Rico may have been manufactured by Safariland, a Kanders-owned company. Demonstrators were calling for the resignation of the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló when an artist-led rally outside his residence, La Fortaleza, was bombarded with the chemical smoke.
Artist and biennial exhibitor Nibia Pastrana Santiago was there and experienced the effects of tear gas. “I felt like drowning. I felt like fainting,” Santiago told the publication artnet News. Nevertheless, she has decided not to withdraw from the Whitney Biennial.
“I have been asked if I will ‘remove’ my work from the biennial. I must say I love this question, as it poses an almost philosophical question about body and time-based work” she told the publication. “My work is not something that can be uninstalled, the work in itself is my body in action; my body since last week is marching, dancing, screaming, sweating and protesting, first the renounce of #ricardorosello and secondly: again (since I signed the Verso letter along other biennial artists) asking for the removal of Kanders from the Museum Board.”