Hilton Als at the 2022 Whitney Biennial
Organized by David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards
SPLENDOR. That’s the word that comes to mind as one walks – navigates – through the 2022 Whitney Biennale. Splendor as a transformative experience, affecting soul and spirit. Curated with visual alacrity, emotional engagement and historical weight by Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin, this exhibition, which is so much about loss, discovery and eye-opening to the possibility of art in space, also destabilizes the museum as an institution. in relation to what makes an exhibition. No more walls, the curators seem to be saying throughout the exhibition, especially on the wide-open fifth floor, and while we’re at it, more trust in the viewer’s ability to “get” work that can be difficult. , and so what? We are all in the same boat.
It’s a democratic ethos, demanding discipline and vision, and rarely seen in a museum context. Is it asking too much of the viewer to work with the art instead of letting the ‘just’ art happen? Breslin and Edwards create a wonderful stage for this possibility, a stage that encourages either/or acceptance of the material they have collected with such rigor and love. By “acceptance” I don’t mean that there is something in art that we should or shouldn’t accept: if we look at something, it becomes part of us, no matter what; the work of the spectator is to remain porous to the experience of the gaze. Yet there are artifacts in the world, on our screens, in our minds – photographs of the Holocaust, images that document female mutilation, lynchings, etc. – which we don’t know what to do or how to be a part of. , because we still don’t know what to do with our terrible hand in all of this. The critical but never puritanical curation of Breslin and Edwards creates a context of pain as well as joy; they help us to carry what is ugly in each of us, to learn and to draw from it what we can to make new art, new experiences.
If we look at something, it becomes part of us, no matter what; the work of the spectator is to remain porous to the experience of the gaze.
Part of ugliness or difficulty is loneliness. Loneliness as a universal wound: this is what we see in the twelve-minute video by artist and writer Coco Fusco Your eyes will be an empty word, 2021. The work, a response to Covid-19 and the fast and slow erosion of life as she knew it, is as much an investigation into how to visualize death as anything else. Fusco does not rely on images of past plagues and pandemics to achieve its gripping and gloomy effects; she evokes grief through images of water – of the sea, which the poet Marianne Moore has compared to a “well-dug grave”, in that we take from the sea more than we give or have given . Fusco’s water bodies are filled with the dead, a horror sight of waves and flowers. On some shots, petals are scattered on the surface of the water, but in memory of what? Eternal whirlwind or bodies thrown overboard to better cross time and therefore history? We don’t know what’s beneath the surface of anything, not really, but part of the power of vision is how we use it. When we are very brave, we want to dive beyond the surfaces to understand what we humans mean when we create something that is meant to be seen, despair and joy included. But what if you were denied the privilege, if you were “completely lost sight of,” to invoke the title of Tom Kalin’s now historic and still relevant 1989 video about AIDS, grief and fear? What if your vision was a memory in the museum of your mind?
In 1981, writer Steve Cannon had just returned from a trip to Nicaragua when he noticed how chaotic his outlook was becoming. He had glaucoma and eight years later he became blind. Blindness did not kill his spirit. Indeed, it seems to have opened up her confident soul even more. A collaborator at heart, Cannon worked with his friend David Hammons and supported writers Eileen Myles and Paul Beatty, among others; he also founded, in 1991, the important review A gathering of tribes, which was born out of the energy Cannon felt at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and other noise-making venues in his beloved East Village. The writer, who died in 2019, lived on the axis where word, performance and sound converged, just like this Biennale. You could think of the exhibition as curating as performance, or as curating that has the immediacy of a performance, a show where artists – great artists, ranging from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha to Ralph Lemon to Matt Connors – are involved in music, performance and language too. Intuition and the spirit of improvisation – controlled freedom – are the order of the day in this exhibition, and that is what one feels when looking at these pieces from Cannon’s apartment, arranged in a special corner of the fifth floor of the Whitney, so filled with ideas and the scrap of life and framed copies of A gathering of tribes: a galaxy that has undoubtedly influenced that of the curators. How did Cannon see to create this world? What replaced his vision, he said, was the “kindness of strangers” – friends who read to him and described what was happening in the sighted world. Cannon’s story and presence, his haunted confidence, permeate this living exhibit, which is haunted by the power of artistic presence, and the eye of the beholder, and other exchanges of trust we cannot see. but to feel then that life carries us all from darkness to light and back.
Whitney Biennial 2022: ‘Quiet as It’s Kept’ runs until September 5.
Hilton Als is an editor for the New Yorker.