Festival/Biennial | Quiet As It’s Kept

Chris Clarke reviews the Whitney Biennial 2022 in New York City.

Eric Wesley, North American Buff Tit, 2022, plastic, glass, stainless steel, and dichloromethane (213.4 × 66 × 66 cm), collection of the artist, installation view, Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York: photograph by Guang Xu, courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York. Eric Wesley, North American Buff Tit, 2022, plastic, glass, stainless steel, and dichloromethane (213.4 × 66 × 66 cm), collection of the artist, installation view, Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York: photograph by Guang Xu, courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York.

The colloquialism ‘quiet as it’s kept’ suggests a state of secrecy and collusion. It implicates others in a shared pact, an agreement to stay silent when in the presence of the uninitiated. As a curatorial proposition, and a phrase alluding to various works by artist David Hammons, writer Toni Morrison, and jazz drummer Max Roach, it allows for a certain ambiguity, encapsulating a diverse range of practices while inferring that, even if not immediately apparent, there’s an underlying logic at play. In adopting this idiom, the 2022 Whitney Biennial (6 April – 5 September) thus seeks to foreground sensitivity and seriousness, even if, in the process, it veers unnervingly close towards vague generalities and the familiar comforts of abstraction.

In certain respects, this is to be expected; the biennial has, after all, weathered controversy in its last two iterations. Several artists withdrew their work from the 2019 edition in opposition to Whitney board member Warren B. Kanders, whose company Safariland produced tear gas canisters used on the Mexico-USA border; while in 2017, the white painter Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), depicting the brutalised body of African-American teenager, Emmett Till, raised protests calling for the work’s removal. No wonder then that this biennial takes a cautious view, largely sidestepping overt attempts at polemics and provocation. With the works mainly occupying two levels of the Whitney Museum of American Art, alternately spread across an open, light-filled space, and cloistered within a labyrinth of darkened enclaves, the design of the exhibition is the most contentious issue here. 

In the airy atrium of the fifth-floor galleries, disparate works are jammed together, diminishing any sense of intimacy, and cluttering one’s peripheral vision. Eric Wesley’s comically oversized plastic sculpture of a drinking bird, North American Buff Tit (2022), teeters next to Andrew Roberts’s eight-screen CGI portraits of zombified employees reciting poetry, their shirts emblazoned with the logos of Walmart, Netflix and Amazon. Modular structures are positioned throughout the space, serving as supports for Ellen Gallagher’s densely layered collages of oil, pigment and palladium leaf, with embossed wave-like patterns, snaking conduits, and repeated silhouetted profiles of totemic figures floating across the surface, and for Dyani White Hawk’s Wopila / Lineage (2021) – a vast composition of shimmering loomed strips of glass beads and multi-coloured triangles, converging against parallel backdrops of black and white, which deftly employs traditional Lakota techniques of beadwork and embroidery. An arrangement of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s seminal works, presented through photography, text, and film, are sequestered within a tent-like enclosure. There is a fittingly sepulchral quality to the installation (Cha was murdered in 1981 at the age of 31), and the documentation of performances such as A BLE W AIL (1975), in which the white-robed artist moves through a curtained, candlelit, and mirrored environment, evoke the displacement that Cha felt as a Korean immigrant to America. 

There are glimpses here of what the curators intended, of abstraction as a political tactic, as a means of insinuating underrepresented histories. However, the overwhelming glut of objects and obstacles hinders any consideration of their inherent qualities. The upper floor, by comparison, recalls nothing so much as a series of black box screening rooms. Such a dramatic juxtaposition of spaces feels starkly at odds with the nuanced, unforced approach described by curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, in which assertions are supplanted by ‘hunches’ and national boundaries give way to external, outside viewpoints (the biennial pointedly includes artists from outside the United States). This layout, however, does allow for more measured encounters with specific works, such as Coco Fusco’s disquieting Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word (2021), in which the artist navigates the waters around Hart Island by rowboat. The site contains the mass graves of New York’s anonymous dead, buried by prison labour since 1869, and comprising victims of Covid, AIDS, tuberculosis, and other epidemics: “A mountain of unclaimed souls, perhaps a million, perhaps more, or perhaps less. No one actually knows.” Fusco tosses flowers overboard, honouring these unnamed individuals, as she ceaselessly drifts along the coast; a neat reversal of quarantine’s historical roots in keeping potentially infected ships at anchor for 40 days.

This lateral perspective is also found in Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s What About China? (2021), a filmed portrayal of rural life and the jarring transition to urbanism captured through instances of traditional village architecture. An indoor fire, burning from beneath the floorboards of a spartan home, heats an overhanging iron pot. Wooden beams intersect with crossbars. A bridge is “built with no nails and no rivets.” Chicken coops sit next to piles of firewood. A male voiceover describes the scene – “the drum tower, a cultural symbol and an indispensable space of public gathering” – as if pitching the official party line, while female commentators offer more personal, philosophical and introspective outlooks: “One can grasp the flux and reflux of time by observing forms. One can detect the true and the false by looking at beings in their concrete manifestations.” The cumulative effect reveals how change transpires in its smallest, most prosaic, details. Beneath the formal rhetoric, these developments trigger a cavalcade of miniature – yet individually seismic – ruptures. The transformations recorded here, despite never setting foot in America, may have greater ramifications for the United States and its global presence than any number of national concerns. Approached obliquely, from the side, the film takes on an issue that, addressed directly, might only elicit well-worn agreement or headstrong opposition. Instead, it comes in by stealth, without warning, and leaves the viewer unmistakably altered. 

Chris Clarke is a critic and senior curator at the Glucksman, Cork.