Political Materialism

This year’s Whitney Biennial focuses on autonomous personal narratives. The political aspects are embedded in the processing of material and form.

Kota Ezawa, National Anthem (Buffalo Bills), 2018. Watercolour on paperl, 26.4 x 40.64 cm. Courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

The Whitney Biennial is the American cousin of European counterparts such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta. In contrast to the two European shows, which are international in their outlook and curatorial approach, the Whitney Biennial focuses specifically on American art. Having a biennial with a national focus has become something of a rarity in our postglobal international art world, but it certainly facilitates more tightly focused curating, which is one of the Whitney Biennial’s main strengths.

This year’s Whitney Biennial opened in May, but it attracted its first headlines long before then. Back in November of 2018, more than a hundred staff members at the Whitney Museum issued an open letter demanding that Warren B. Kanders be removed as vice chair of the museum’s board. The reason was Kanders’s ownership of the arms firm Safariland, which has been linked to the production of, among other things, the tear gas used against asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border between San Diego (California) and Tijuana (Baja).

Today, the previous instalment of the Whitney Biennial is probably best remembered for Hannah Black’s call-out of the painter Dana Schutz and the subsequent, highly confrontational debate on cultural appropriation and identity politics. Black brought these issues to the forefront of the art institution, making it incumbent on this year’s biennial to somehow deal with these issues: the curators must obviously consider the matter while working on this year’s edition. 

As it turns out, the two curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, have to a great extent succeeded in creating an exhibition with an agenda of inclusiveness, making room for postnational interpretations of the American narrative without instrumentalising the works and artists featured.

They do this primarily by inviting artists whose reflections on identity politics, art, and politics are translated into material practices, particularly ‘new materialist’ practices where the political aspects are embedded in the artistic processing of material and form. Discourses on ‘new materialism’, ‘speculative realism’, and ‘object-oriented ontology’ form the theoretical backdrop for many of the works on display. But contrary to the theoretical complexity of these discourses, the works on display have an immediate materialism which is borne forth by artistic necessity and personal relevance, with closer affinities with folk art and modernist interests in formal idioms than theoretical deliberations on the relationship between subject and object.

At the same time, the exhibition marks a clear farewell to postproduction and installation art, both in curatorial and artistic terms. Media-based artistic practices, postinternet art, and the posthuman body are also largely absent from this year’s biennial.

Olga Balema, Bread of Life, 2016. Tulle, latex, steel, 109.2 x 55.9 x 48.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles.

Overall, this is an exhibition where the art does the talking, and the fact that the catalogue is one of the least theoretical or densely worded biennial catalogues I have seen in the last twenty years speaks volumes about the curators’ intentions. Out of a total of 313 pages, only twenty-two are text (not counting the artist biographies) – and this includes the two curatorial texts. The rest is pictures.

The hang is entirely conventional, with white wall space separating autonomous works. Therein lie the exhibition’s strength and its obvious weakness. I shall return to the latter aspect later. The strength resides in the fact that such a hang quite literally provides space for each artist’s works to breathe, accommodating the personal, political, and artistic reflections and experiences carried within them.

Christine Sun Kim’s works are all based on her degrees of “deaf rage,” as she herself calls it. One example is the drawing Degrees of my Deaf Rage in The Art World (2018), which uses pie charts and handwritten texts to illustrate her various degrees of anger at the lack of understanding she encounters in the art world – ranging from “acute rage” to “full on rage.”

The artist uses the conceptual tradition, which echoes through the work – the mathematical mode of presentation, the pie chart – to render a personal experience ‘objective’, thereby establishing a reflective distance to the subjective experience on which the work is based. It is a work borne by personal anger, and as in all successful ‘expressive’ works, one feels and understands the frustration caused by obvious discrimination. The work is an excellent example of the curatorial intentions underpinning the exhibition. Here, there are no speculative metareflections about art, representation, and discourse, but ‘just’ a series of personal drawings – with obvious political implications – about the discrimination taking place against minorities every day.

Christine Sun Kim, Degrees of Deaf Rage While Traveling, 2018. Charcoal and oil pastel on paper, 125 x 125 cm. Collection of Ms. Du Yan. Image courtesy White Space Beijing and Yang Hao.

Similar substance and artistic nerve can be found in Kyle Thurman’s Suggested Occupation,a series from 2016 portraying traditional masculine (role) models, such as soldiers, priests, and athletes. The title refers to the possible career choices with which the artist was presented as a teenager.

One of the pictures shows two black men locked in an embrace, with nothing to establish whether they are fighting or whether we are witnessing an incipient sexual interaction. The work clearly indicates both possibilities, or perhaps both at the same time. Executed in coal and pastel, these works might well have hung next to an Impressionist pastel from the late 19th century, or in the modern section next to a Leon Golub painting. 

Matthew Angelo Harrison’s sculptural works embed authentic as well as mass-produced traditional African sculptures and artefacts in clear polystyrene engraved with abstract patterns and characters. The artist himself describes his works as “abstract ancestries,” and this is precisely what they feel like. The combination of signs and patterns, artefacts, and clear plastic enclosures lifts the pieces out of their African and African American origins and transforms them into hypermodern pieces, part culturally authentic and part fictional, rather like the crystal skull featured in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).

These context-less sculptural objects appear partly as an attempt to examine the origins from which they (and the artist) sprang, and partly as an effort to construct new postcolonial narratives of identity. Perhaps this is the most uplifting thing about the curatorial approach to this instalment of the biennial: it believes that art not only has critical potential, but also constructive potential driven by personal necessity and relevance.

Other contributions also point to a political materialism: Olga Balema’s formal work made out of garbage such as styrofoam, tape, Velcro, glue and thread; Robert Bittenbender’s assemblies of found objects; Wangechi Mutu’s humanoid sculptures of bone, papier-mâché, concrete, and glass beads; or Kota Ezawa’s exquisite small protest watercolours of American football players kneeling. In all these works, the political and personal is either explicitly present in the subject matter, or implicitly present in the work’s formal execution.

Of course, the show also includes works that are not obviously suffused by such political materiality, but only one work at this year’s biennial, Triple Chaser (2019) by Forensic Architecture Collective, deals with Kanders’s involvement in arms production and trade. An overwhelming montage of research, information, and activism, the work leaves the viewer in a state of disgust with the ways in which philanthropy is used for the moral laundering of capital in the name of art. On its website, Forensic Architecture promises that the film will be posted there later.

The weakness of the curatorial focus on autonomous, personal-political narratives and their material embodiments is that the walls on which the artworks hang are still every bit as white – literally, financially, and structurally – as they have been throughout Western art history. The Whitney Museum, the art world, and the rest of the world remain as governed by white capital as ever, and at the time of writing, the arms dealer Warren B. Kanders still sits on the museum’s board of trustees.

Forensic Architecture, Triple-Chaser, 2019. High-definition video, colour, sound; 10:43 min. Courtesy Forensic Architecture and Praxis Films. © Forensic Architecture, 2019.