The Whitney Biennial opened Friday March March 17th at the new Whitney in New York City. And those were the only things that did not surprise me about it. That and the $18 bourbon I had at the cafe after. Aside from the banal details, this was one of the most extraordinary exhibitions I have ever seen.
And I’ll tell you, I went in expecting what a giant monolith like the Whitney tends to produce–known artists, great and predictable work. In NYC, we're a bit jaded, you see. There’s so much great, cool art everywhere in this city that, like with most things, it’s kinda hard to impress New Yorkers. But this New Yorker was blown away. Not just by the quality of the art–but with how well it captured the humanity of our times. If one of the jobs art has is to evoke that which we have yet to find the language to describe–damn Whitney. You got me. You got me at hello.
My friend and I bought tickets in advance, so we walked past a line of maybe a hundred or so of the faithful, lined up to pay tribute to the great god of the white box. It was nice to get in out of the cold, rainy afternoon. The lobby was forgettable. In fact, I actually forgot what it looked like. But once inside, we went to the top floor to work our way down. At first there were a few artists that were confounding in the way I would expect. Huge, elaborate structures that riffed on famous classics and winked knowingly at art history buffs. There was the giant cube of dripping vaginas, the photographs of cardboard. But then there was An-My Lê. Her photography captures the strangeness of how we record our lives. How technology on top of technology are layered in such complexity and with such commonness that we barely see it anymore. But An-My Lê steps back just enough to see how awkward and alienated we become when confronted with intimacy and violence. This was a common theme. Primitive paintings with laptops, monitors framing images and framed by the painting’s frame give an infinity mirror feeling–everything is photographed by someone, even the person photographing it. But rather than this creating a cold disconnect, I got the feeling like we were all in it together. While I was thinking this, I took a photograph of someone taking a photograph of a photograph, and found my friend taking a photograph of me while I did. We laughed at how irrevocably modern we were.
My friend and I ducked into a dark room with a video playing. We were given 3D glasses on the way in and slunk into the front center row of cushions, settling in. We were immediately mesmerized. Anicka Yi. The plaque said Anicka was born in Seoul, South Korea, but that must be where heaven is. Her stunning images, weaved together with poetic verse describing a new mythology drowned me in wave after wave of beauty. Her description of a mythical journey into the Brazilian Jungle in search of the “Flavor Genome” hypnotized us. Pristine, jeweled boxes with flowers, smoke, silicon and caviar, shone with inexplicable beauty for no reason. We stayed to watch the 22 minute trip three times and finally tore ourselves away to discuss excitedly outside.
I can’t even tell you about the next thing we saw. Not without bringing back the feeling I had when I saw it. The Biennial is there to collect not only the best artists of our time, but also to capture the times. And such times we have. The US is facing a perplexing rebirth of racism, sexism, nationalism and all the ‘isms we thought we were too smart to embrace again. The times are violent–verbally and physically. Our White House Press Secretary was clearly treated very badly as a child. Someone told POTUS that morality is defined by who gets the most stuff and plain everyday people are given permission to act on their darkest impulses. There may have no other way to express this intimate violence, the kind that can happen in the street, unexpectedly, or between people who know each other, or while people stand by doing nothing. Jordan Wolfson made a virtual reality experience called Real Violence and it changed my life. Was it real? It was so horrifying that my friend lasted less than ten seconds in and started crying when we talked about it. I have not been the same since. But whenever I feel myself beginning to get angry at slow pedestrians or car alarms, I think of where it goes if the impulse is carried out. It is rare that art can sit with you for so long, lingering like lavender in the night air, unfading, like loss.
These two opposite perspectives gave the whole experience a deftly human feel. People looked at each other, strangers spoke, sharing elevators and opinions. We were clearly all in this together. And, in a time when it’s easy to hide out and not participate for fear of adding to the anger and violence of the world, this Biennial gave me hope. That while there is carnage and hate, racism and manufactured confusion at every turn, we are still all in it together. We are still all feeling pain, bleeding when cut, singing when victorious, crying alone in darkness, fearful of the stars spinning like a bad trip. It is still just us. I don’t care who you voted for, you seek love and run from pain. Can we do that together? Can we at least hold hands while we jump, the cliff better than the demons chasing us? Whatever we love, whatever hurts us, whatever makes us rather kill the feelings than be alive–can we please do that together? The Whitney says yes.