It is no surprise that the idea of place runs throughout the 2017 Whitney Biennial. This year’s edition (17 March–11 June) is the first in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s two-year-old downtown home, a Renzo Piano-designed building that has become the nucleus of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District since it opened in May 2015. This venue offers a very different experience from past Biennials at the museum’s former location.
BIENNIAL CO-CURATORS MIA LOCKS AND CHRISTOPHER Y LEW.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SCOTT RUDD
In Marcel Breuer’s Upper East Side landmark, thick concrete walls and an abundance of stone conveyed a certain amount of gravitas, but with a fortress-like insularity. By contrast, the new Whitney connects site and city in a way that the inward-facing Breuer building does not, like the long-missing final piece of a puzzle that expands east across Greenwich Village and west along the Hudson River. “The building helps to set up a real conversation with the city,” says the museum’s Christopher Y Lew, who co-organised the show with independent curator Mia Locks. “A lot of the artists are excited at the prospect of engaging with the building.”
AN EXHIBITION VIEW OF THE 2017 WHITNEY BIENNIAL. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.
Postponed by a year so that the curators could make the most of the new surroundings, this Biennial includes 63 participants ranging from artists in their twenties to such seasoned practitioners as Jo Baer and Larry Bell, age 87 and 77, respectively, along with artist collectives. With media including painting, sculpture and film along with performance, virtual reality and video game design, this Biennial feels particularly all-encompassing. And while organised during the lead-up to the 2016 US Presidential election, the exhibition was not conceived as a response to the political climate. “People often ask us about that, but the artists were thinking through a lot of these ideas long before the election was fully on the radar,” says Locks. If the show “is by nature socially responsive,” she adds, “it’s more of an entwining and enmeshing than a direct reaction.”
ENGAGING WITH JORDAN WOLFSON’S VIRTUAL REALITY PIECE REAL VIOLENCE. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.
A fitting theme in a building that is a feat of urban and civic transformation, place emerged in multiple ways as an intensely relevant and fertile approach to digging into current events. From “the importance of place and land” to “the individual’s place in a turbulent society,” to how place factors into “how we all live together,” the idea was on artists’ minds, as the curators discovered while they toured the country to make their selection of participants. “There was no predetermined notion of what the show should be,” says Lew. “It came out of conversations with artists and what we were seeing in studios.” Adds Locks: “The conversation kept returning to large questions about what was happening in this country, how people are thinking about collectivity and about more imaginative ways of considering infrastructure.”
WORKS BY KERSTIN BRÄSTCH AND DEBO EILERS, THE DUO KNOWN AS KAYA. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.
In many cases, the artists’ investigations directly involve the Whitney’s building and environs. The New Orleans native Zarouhie Abdalian has created a site-specific audio project: installed on a staircase landing linking two outdoor terraces, Abdalian’s piece incorporates the sounds of tools used in the meatpacking and shipping industries that once dominated this waterfront district; it points to the disappearance of that manual labor in the late-20th century. For Los Angeles artist Samara Golden and Brooklyn-based Raúl de Nieves, the Whitney’s wide windows and views have inspired new works – Golden looking out toward the river and de Nieves east, toward the city.
RAFA ESPARAZA’S ADOBE BRICK INSTALLATION WITH STONE SCULPTURES BY BEATRIZ CORTEZ AND PHOTOGRAPHS
BY DORIAN ULISES LÓPEZ MARCIAS. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.
In its ongoing Debtfair project, the collective Occupy Museums addresses the financial pressures incurred by artists with an open call for submissions from debt-drowned creators across the US. Its contribution to the Biennial, Stress, Fear and Anxiety Bundle, 2015, comprises paintings, sculptures and drawings by ten artists whose collective debt totals more than $732,462 and is embedded directly into the museum’s walls.
SCULPTURES AND STAINED-GLASS WINDOWS BY RAÚL DE NIEVES.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.
In some cases, the site-specificity transcends the physical architecture. “More than one artist asked what the IT network was like in the building,” says Lew. Among them is Irena Haiduk, who has set up a Wi-Fi network that piggybacks on the Whitney’s. When museumgoers access the network on their devices, they discover that a “.yu” extension has been added to the URL of any website they visit as a kind of ghost network of the former Yugoslavia. There is a second aspect to Haiduk’s project: Once on the network, visitors are invited to make investments into a virtual cooperative bank the artist has set up. The funds will ultimately be used to purchase land to counter foreign development in Serbia.
CLAIM (WHITNEY VERSION), BY WILLIAM POPE.L. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.
Not all variations on the theme of place are so global in scope, or in such unconventional media. Sculptor Larry Bell, for instance, is showing his largest installation ever, a series of red cubes within cubes that become increasingly transparent and change hue as you move by them on the outdoor terrace. “People know his work, but now he’s scaling up and thinking about how these minimalist cubes engage with the body,” says Lew, noting that Bell’s installation is conducive to slowing down and contemplating one’s own physical space amid the cubes and within the city.
PAINTINGS BY ALIZA NISENBAUM. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.
Compared with some of the more immersive experiences on offer, painting might seem to have two-dimensional limitations, but at the Biennial that medium also manages to speak to the importance of place. Portraits by artists such as Aliza Nisenbaum and Henry Taylor bring to mind the way our surroundings affect our experience of the world. Similarly, a series of paintings by Jo Baer – who is best known for her early Minimalist work – features rock formations in Ireland, where she used to live, as a way of exploring people’s ties to the land. Other than the fact that these paintings have never been shown in the US, “The reason why we were so excited about including them,” explains Lew, “is that they investigate the importance of place through landscape and a certain kind of reverence for the land – something that feels especially relevant now.”
THE VERY LONG LINE, A VIDEO INSTALLATION BY POSTCOMMODITY. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIAN CASSADY.
As for the emotional power of place, one of the Biennial’s most political entries may be a disorienting, four-channel, floor-to-ceiling video projection by the collective Postcommodity. Titled The Very Long Line, 2016, it shows the border between the US and Mexico whipping around four gallery walls. “We selected that piece almost a year ago,” says Locks. “Now, of course, it has a different resonance, and if anything, it is more pertinent.” Even at their most topical, the artists celebrated by the Biennial can be counted on to transcend the everyday.
View the slideshow for a first look at the 2017 Whitney Biennial.
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TOP MAIN IMAGE: THE WHITNEY’S TERRACES, WITH VIEWS OF THE HUDSON RIVER. © BILLY FARRELL/BFANYC.COM