The last time the Whitney Biennial was held, in 2022, its production was extended an extra year due to the Covid pandemic, and curators had to plan the exhibition and meet with artists in virtual visits on Zoom.
To prepare for Biennial 2024 — the latest iteration of the landmark exhibition of contemporary American art, opening March 20 — this edition’s organizers, Whitney Museum curators Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli, have hit the road. They have conducted approximately 200 studio visits across the country and well beyond. They have visited dozens of exhibitions and art events, from the German mega-spectacle Documenta 15 to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie International.
So this cycle has been, in a way, more normal. But normality stops here. The drastic phase of the pandemic, with its restrictions, may have receded. But the landscape it leaves behind is one of worsening crises – and for artists, like everyone else, a time of great uncertainty and anxiety with the US election looming.
As they moved, Iles and Onli said in a joint interview at the museum, they felt environmental pressure everywhere, whether they smelled smoke from wildfires wafting across Los Angeles freeways — a reflection of excessive land use and climate change — or that they felt firsthand from women and LGBTQ artists the effect of the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the spread of laws that undermine bodily autonomy.
“We understand that we are in a turbulent period, which will lead to another turbulent period,” Onli said. To create an exhibition under these conditions, she said, “the exhibition had to be politically charged.”
The museum on Thursday the names of the artists revealed who will participate in the Biennial, entitled “Even better than the real one.” It’s relatively compact, with 69 artists and two collectives spread across the gallery show, accompanying film and performance programs — and the global map: 20 artists, many filmmakers, live or work outside the United States.
For Iles and Onli, the focus is not so much on the state of American art as on America itself in a difficult and vulnerable moment. They were attracted to artists who explored how people carried and processed society’s wounds in their bodies and minds – and what creative regeneration this triggered.
As for the title, it’s something of a multi-pronged riposte to the culture wars over what’s “real” — from the rise of artificial intelligence to efforts to enforce social and physical conformity. “There’s a kind of strange playfulness there,” Onli said of the offerings — a tongue-in-cheek humor that insists, “Of course we’re even better than the real thing!”
The group is heterogeneous, as is the case with recent biennials. There are two deceased artists, Jamaican-born architecturally inspired painter Mavis Pusey, who died in 2019 at age 90, and filmmaker Edward Owens, who died in 2010. There are five elders, born between 1941 and 1944 : pioneering feminist artists Mary Kelly and Hammond Harmony; celebrated black abstract painters Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Susanne Jackson; and trans sculptor and performer Pippa Garner. For the rest, the exhibition tends to favor the younger ones: 17 of the 42 artists present in the main galleries were born in the 80s and nine of them in the 90s.
It’s no surprise that New York City is well represented: 13 artists in the galleries and seven in the film and performance programs live here. Twelve artists in total are based in Los Angeles. Four, it appears, live in New Mexico: Hammond, who moved there in the 1980s; indigenous artists Rose B. Simpson and Cannupa Hanska Luger; and the painter Maja Ruznicborn in Bosnia and influenced by mysticism and psychoanalysis.
You film and show programs — organized by invited curators asinnajaq, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Zakary DruckerGreg de Cuir, Jr. and Taja Cheek – include works by Southeast Asian filmmakers contending with America’s broad cultural and political reach, and by indigenous filmmakers of Sami, Inuit, Mongolian, and Native American descent seeking exchanges across colonial borders.
Few artists are celebrities or market stars. Perhaps most notable is filmmaker Isaac Julien, whose lush five-screen installation “Once Again… (Statues Never Die),” premiered at the Barnes Foundation in 2022. It examined issues surrounding African art objects in collections Westerns and will make his new York debut at the Whitney.
In brief telephone interviews, several artists described the work they will present.
The artist P.Staff, based in Los Angeles and London, has one of the most spectacular and shocking works: “Afferent Nerves,” a large installation in which viewers will walk under an electrified fence, out of reach but “somehow” crackling. The area is bathed in neon yellow light. The intention, the artist said, is to create a sense of “choreographed danger” that increases the visitor’s awareness of the art, and perhaps their own sense of safety.
The New York sculptor Yes, Fan he does disturbing work in another register: he took a CT scan of his body, then 3-D printed various organs and sculpted and smoothed the resulting shapes. The inspiration is a type of tree from Hong Kong, where Fan grew up, that is aggressively cut down or infected with fungi to produce a prized incense.
The sculptures are part of a series, “Places of injury,” in which Fan explores how organisms, by augmenting trauma, “can generate something significant, a kind of regeneration that occurs in the formation of the scar,” which links to the human condition.
The Philadelphia-based artist Karyn Olivier, known for work that responds to historic landmarks and public art — most recently at Newark Airport’s Terminal A — is showing its “most intimate and quiet sculptures.” In one, “How Many Ways Can You Disappear,” she includes tangles of fishing nets, ropes and buoys; another is made from driftwood and discarded scraps of clothing.
Olivier said he feels able to process the upheavals and losses of the pandemic period. “They’re almost a metaphorical attempt at a solution,” said the Trinidad-born artist – and full of allusions to migration, displacement and her Caribbean origins.
Some messages are blunt. Luger, who was born in North Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation and lives in New Mexico, is setting up a life-size, upside-down tipi. “It’s a sign that the way we’re going as a species is reversed,” he said.
In “The last safe abortion,” the artist Carmen Winant of Columbus, Ohio – who describes herself as a “lapsed photographer” who works through collage and installation – offers a perspective on the lives of abortion workers in the Midwest, drawn from thousands of snapshots, mostly from clinics. The views are about mundane work: meetings, office work, answering the phone. “This is not about abortion at the 30,000-foot ideological level,” Winant said. “It’s about the human beings who keep it going.”
The post-Roe climate has raised the stakes for Winant, whose projects have also celebrated childbirth and domestic violence workers. Some clinics where you photographed have closed. “I’ve always had an ambivalent feeling about what art can do in terms of political impact and effectiveness,” she said. “But as I worked on this project I felt more and more that it was my imperative.”
For the older artists of the Biennale, if the recognition comes late it is certainly welcome. “This is not something I ever expected at my age,” said Jackson, who ran a well-known but short-lived black artists space in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and now lives in Savannah, Georgia.
Included in the survey are his abstract acrylic paintings hanging without a frame. “They are living structures that are pure painting,” she said, inviting viewers into a kind of dance.
Hammond, a figure of the New York feminist scene of the 1970s, was presented at the Whitney but long neglected by the Biennial. “I kept working,” she said from her home in Galisteo, New Mexico
Her recent output includes thickly layered paintings, sometimes incorporating straps, eyelets or duvet covers, with patches and slits that evoke women’s bodies, labor and wounds. In the colors that filter through the layers, Hammond said, he evokes “voices that have been buried beneath the surfaces and are asserting themselves.”
In organizing their exhibition, Onli and Iles involved some artists as partners in the process, breaking with the secrecy that often accompanies Biennale preparations.
One was JJJJJerome Ellis, an artist and performer from Norfolk, Virginia, whose work (and name) explores the condition of stuttering. Collaborating with four other people who stutter, Ellis led the development of a text-based billboard facing Gansevoort Street in Spanish, Mandarin and English in which disfluencies in stuttering – repetitions, prolonged sounds, blocks or pauses – are represented by typographical symbols .
Ellis will also produce a score for the Biennale, the form of which will be determined once the exhibition is mounted.
The Berlin-based artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis presents a dance-based film installation, “A Plot A Scandal” in the galleries: its subjects include philosopher John Locke, Cuban antislavery revolutionary José Antonio Aponte, and Lewis’s maternal ancestors in the Dominican Republic. It was Lewis who invented a metaphor that the curators found inspiring to describe their Biennial: a “dissonant chorus.”
As they install the survey, the curators said they aim to create a show that breathes and flows while honoring that dissonance. “What does it mean to be in the middle of that chorus as a spectator,” Iles said, “listening as well as seeing?”