Whitney Biennial curators share the process of selecting this year’s art – cialisdfr
Whitney Biennial curators share the process of selecting this year’s art
Whitney Biennial curators share the process of selecting this year’s art

The 2024 Whitney Biennial opened to the public on Wednesday. The biennial art show is the longest-running survey of American art in the United States.

This year’s event, dubbed “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” features 71 artists whose works include short films, sculpture and abstract painting.

WNYC’s David Furst spoke with biennial curators Chrissy Eales and Meg Onley on a recent episode of All That. An edited version of their conversation is below.

David Furst: Tell us about the show’s title, Even Better Than the Real Thing.

Only I: Over the past few years, we’ve seen political rhetoric that really questions ideas about reality when it comes to gender, especially around transgenderism and gender-affirming laws being restrictive. We wanted to think about it as a political backdrop as well as the rise of artificial intelligence and questioning these ideas of real truth as well as history.

Curating Whitney is no small feat, is it?

Only: Is not.

The show is a survey of American art and media over the past two years. Do you feel you have to put on a show that really captures something about the art of that time?

Only: I think what we really wanted to do was respond to what the artists were talking about. What do artists read? What are artists thinking about? The actual process of the show started with Chrissy and I on a listening tour for the first two months, talking to artists, understanding what they were interested in. Much of this brought us back to ideas about the body. We are really surprised to return to ideas about the body in all its complexity.

Which artists did you feel like you should be on this show?

Only: I think part of it is that we really wanted to have a space that allowed the artists to have latitude in the installation. There are about 20 less artists in the actual physical aspect of the show. Then you have about 25 that are in a film program. As for us, we were thinking about after we went to install who those anchor artists might be or what those anchor conversations might be.

We really shaped this around an intergenerational show. We have about five or six matriarchs on the show who are in their 70s and 80s. They retain some aspects of the conversation, from artists Mary Kelly, Suzanne Jackson, Harmony Hammond, Takako Yamaguchi. We also have the amazing Mary Lovelace O’Neill, Pippa Garner, as well as Mavis Pusey, who sadly passed away in 2019.

Let’s talk about the first piece you see when you get off the elevator on the sixth floor. It’s a wall with a black and white flower printed on it that leads straight to a video installation called “Pollinator.” Tell us about this piece and the artist who created it.

Only: yes This is the work of the director and artist Tourmaline. When we were thinking about this exhibition, we wanted really strong works that would grab people directly from the elevator.

If you’ve been to the Whitney before, you know that you ride the elevator all the way up to the eighth floor. What draws you out, Tourmaline’s piece “Pollinator,” is thinking about alternative forms of reproduction, ways of passing on the legacy.

It’s a beautiful film that’s interspersed with her in Brooklyn Gardens wearing a gorgeous floral hairdo, and interspersed with archival images and archival footage of Marcia P. Johnson, the incredibly important activist, like images of Tourmaline’s father from her youth.

We’re also here with curator Chrissy Eales. I want to ask you, Chrissy, when you started this process of planning this biennial, what were your conversations like?

Chrissy Eales: As a curator you are very much like an antenna, tuning in to the waves of social, political and cultural developments around us in the world and also how they relate to what artists are thinking about and working on. Meg and I did not begin our research for the exhibition with specific themes. We just wanted to listen to artists.

Then, as we traveled around the country and also to major international group shows of fellow curators from around the world, we began to see a number of themes emerge that appeared throughout the exhibition in very intertwined ways.

What did you hear from artists?

Ills: There are many psychological issues that the artists told us about. There was a great interest in psychoanalysis, the psychological implications of architectural space and systems of power. You can see that throughout the exhibition – also the place of the body, the idea of ​​the meaning of place, how our bodies relate to each other, to architecture, to our own internal structures.

What is psyche? What does it mean? In one example, the guts of artist Jes Fan, you can only see the sculpture by peering through holes in the wall. You can then see the artist’s gut sculpture. The gallery wall becomes almost like the skin or exterior of the body and we peer into it in a hidden space. It is also a symbolic space. We talk about the gut that holds our emotions or is our second brain.

We had several artists with whom we communicated almost like conversationalists throughout the process. One of them is the choreographer Lygia Lewis, whose work is in the exhibition.

She said, ‘What you’re describing sounds like a dissonant chorus to me.’ which is not staring at something, but listening and experiencing and feeling it with your own body.

Artificial intelligence has a bigger role in contemporary art than it did a few years ago. Even now there is an exhibit at the Whitney focused on AI. How did you think about incorporating AI into this show while you were preparing?

Only: I think in part AI is one of the cultural environments we’re responding to. We also meet the limitations of, say, legislation on gender-affirming care, the overturning of Roe v. Wade. There is a project by Matt Dryhurst and Holly Herndon called xhairymutantx.

With Matt and Holly’s project, they’re trying to complicate what it means to be human in the world, especially online. Holly Herndon is quite famous as a musician. When you google her, she is reduced to her interesting artistic red hair, her blue eyes. They work with an algorithm that is able to contort and imagine what Holly Herndon could be based on training data.

I researched this project myself, which you can find on our Artport website, which is the digital component of the Whitney Museum, and kudos to Christiane Paul for all her work on this project with us, as well as overseeing the digital wing. It’s thinking about ideas about who has the power to name and say who you are, who has representation of what we look like anymore. I think we all understand that there are images online that we wish weren’t online, that we have no control over because we chose to.

Chrissy, there are 71 artists showing work in this show from a wide variety of mediums and practices. How do you select and find these artists, many of whom may be lesser known?

Ills: We both teach, so we are both very pedagogically minded and think and listen to young artists even while they are in art school. We are not transaction curators. We are curators who really want to be part of a community and a long-term way of having a discussion with artists that can sometimes last a decade or more and always starts somewhere. It was a big challenge for us to do this in such a short time. What we were doing was really intuitive thinking talking to each other and responding to what we heard artists telling us, what we heard coming out of the pandemic as people were coming back out into the world.

Meg, what thoughts do you hope viewers leave this biennial with when it comes to reflecting on what it means to live in America in 2024?

Only: We are clearly in hyper-polarized times. We are in a time where we feel even more distant from each other or isolated by our own media landscapes.

What does it mean to come together at a time when we may not necessarily agree with each other, but we are all in the same place? That’s one of the thoughts we’ve had around this idea of ​​a dissonant course is that the different artists stand alone in a way.

I would say that Chrissy and I have been incredibly generous with the space, so it feels very much like solo artist presentations. It’s not just one or two sails being hung. You see a real dive into artistic practice for some of these artists. For example, Suzanne Jackson, I think it’s on my head, I think six works in the space.

We really want people to be embodied. We obviously spend so much time on screens, on phones, to enter the museum space and really engage with these forms, this materiality. I would argue for the expansiveness of the self. What are the ways in which we understand perhaps different forms of representation that exist beyond talk of figuration?

The Whitney Biennial is on view through August 11.

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