Controversy and Conversations Around the Whitney’s Biennial

Shock. Controversy. Conversations.

        The Whitney Museum of American Art’s latest exhibition, “Whitney Biennial,” can be summed up in just three words, and while they can be used to describe just about any contemporary art show, the biennial makes the ideas conveyed by these words literal. The show, put together every two years, generally spotlights the works of younger, more contemporary artists, with the first biennial occurring in 1973.

This year, the Whitney targets the biggest issues America faces today—from climate change to wealth inequality to racial tensions—all while showcasing newfound intersections between art and technology, as well as art and activism. The ultimate theme seems to be that nothing is sugarcoated. Every problem is real. Every face is real. It’s time to face reality.

The controversy of “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, compared to the praise of “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!” by Henry Taylor speaks volumes. Though similar in subject matter, the two have been received in very different manners.

“Open Casket” is based on photographs of Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered by two white men, in his coffin in 1955. The photographs were released because his mother wanted to let the world know what had happened to her son. Schutz, as a white painter, is seen as inappropriately appropriating such subject matter, though she does use interesting techniques to represent Till’s disfigured face on a canvas, such as raising the surface on various sections to make the painting three-dimensional. The day after the opening of the biennial, protesters (many of whom are artists) wearing shirts stating “Black Death Spectacle” began standing in front of the piece to block it from being viewed.

Black Death Spectacle

art by Catherine Joh

Taylor, a black artist, depicts the shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer in “THE TIMES…” As a color block piece, the painting immediately draws attention, with deep yellow windows contrasting with the dark blue and green car in which Castile lays lifeless, one eye open with specks of paint, not blood, splattered across his white shirt. Interestingly, the mustard yellow windows are like blocks of paint, keeping all that is happening outside the car out of view; only the police officer’s gun in one window and a sliver of the sky in the corner of another window are featured. The Whitney’s mission of highlighting artists that represent a new generation is evident in this particular work, as Taylor’s source was the Facebook live video taken by Castile’s girlfriend. Taylor transforms the event into a visual symbol, using paint to convey the overwhelming chaos and feelings of Castile in the video.

In the next room, the Whitney explores a related topic in another medium: virtual reality. Viewers are provided a trigger warning and must be over 17 to watch. They are given headphones and virtual-reality goggle sets, are told to grip the railing below, and are closely supervised by staff. The approximately two-minute video, titled “Real Violence,” is of a white man, the artist, Jordan Wolfson, taking a baseball bat and horrifically pounding another white man before dragging the man and graphically kicking his face in. Blood is everywhere, but despite it being set in the bustling city, no one pays attention. However, the viewer, trapped by the goggles and headphones, has no way of ignoring the horrific scene. The video ends as the sound of the man singing Hebrew blessings ends, with the camera shifting unsteadily, like it was all a dream.

Created with a doll to produce the most realistic content, Wolfson’s work speaks to the charged atmosphere of America today, and because it does not deal with race or social class, it brings light to the bigger problem of violence in America. It shocks and angers viewers who aren’t sure what to expect before becoming suddenly immersed in the scene. The curators’ choice to place the work so closely to the ones dealing with racial tensions, however, gives each piece greater context.

While the biennial deals greatly with the problems of America today, other works bring more positive messages. Musician Kamasi Washington’s piece, “Harmony of Difference,” in particular, uses film and music to express precisely the opposite, or perhaps a solution, to the problems of America presented by the rest of the show. The work is split into five parts: “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective,” and “Integrity.” Each part features cuts of all different walks of life interrupted by images of a galaxy, as soothing jazz music builds to become richer and more exciting. The piece does not include the chaos that others in the show are portraying, but instead purposefully focuses on the idea of everyone living in harmony.

        Somehow, all the works curated for the biennial are incredibly topical, though many were chosen before the 2016 presidential election even began, and that fact only proves the necessity of a show that can garner huge audiences while pinpointing the various problems that continue to plague America. The sense of urgency the Whitney Biennial brings, along with the attention generated by its controversies, only proves the effectiveness of activism in art, and it prompts us, as viewers, to wonder what our roles are in the grand scheme of things.

        The “Whitney Biennial” will be on view until June 11, 2017.

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