Moving Images at the Whitney Biennial

Diane Severin Nguyen’s In Her Time (Iris’s Version) (2023-24)

“With a biennial, you only get clobbered every other year,” remarked John I. Baur, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art back in 1972. That was the year that Baur and his team turned what had been an annual exhibition launched in 1932 into the Whitney Biennial. Art critics haven’t exactly been clobbering the eighty-first edition since it opened a couple of weeks ago, but their appreciation definitely has its limits. In the New York Times, Jason Farago finds the show “resolutely low-risk, visually polite, and never letting the wrong image get in the way of the right position,” while Travis Diehl calls it “careful. It’s quiet, often delicate . . . The world outside is combative and chaotic—if art is your refuge, this biennial is for you.”

“Every work gets ample room to do whatever it purports to be doing,” writes Vulture’s Jerry Saltz, “but as a result, there’s little optical pop or psychological nerve, as if a maximum of effort had been deployed for minimum effect. Nearly half of the seventy-one artists live or were born outside the U.S., yet all this diversity has somehow produced an underlying aesthetic that is familiar, predictable, and very safe.” And in the New Yorker, Jackson Arn suggests that while this year’s show “makes a well-publicized push for geographic diversity,” its “most important lesson might be that twenty-first-century art can come from anywhere and still speak in the same jet-lagged monotone. More than a quarter of the artists on display, by the way, went to one of three schools.”

Curated by Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli with Min Sun Jeon and Beatriz Cifuentes, Even Better Than the Real Thing focuses “on AI as if it were a new concern that artists such as Shu Lea Cheang and Lynn Hershman Leeson have not been reckoning with in their work for decades,” writes Max Levin at Screen Slate. “The best works here, for me,” writes the NYT’s Martha Schwendener, “are film and video, followed by sculpture and trailed significantly by painting.”

For Schwendener, Isaac Julien’s Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die) (2022), a five-channel video installation situated among sculptures by Richmond Barthé and Matthew Angelo Harrison, is “a highlight of the show. It remakes the dialogue between the Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke and the collector-philanthropist Albert C. Barnes, and there is an absorbing discussion of how Europeans and Americans viewed African sculpture—and the responses of Black versus white artists and collectors to such objects.” Levin agrees that Julien’s work is “a tour-de-force” and notes that “lineages of objects and people fuse not in declarative sound bites, but in full-bodied compositions that one can curiously meander around as they play out.”

“For me,” writes Natalie Haddad at Hyperallergic, “an immediate standout was Sharon Hayes’s two-channel video Ricerche: four (2024).” Hayes “establishes an almost familial tone as her interview subjects sit in a group and converse (a configuration echoed by the mismatched chairs set up around the monitors), yet the subject matter is anything but casual. A diverse group of queer and genderqueer people offer intimate observations on their fears, frustrations, and the disparity between the ideals and realities of life as an LGBTQ+ person—the discrimination that comes from without and within. Hayes avoids didacticism by making a space for individual stories.” Arn is reminded of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Love Meetings (1964) and notes that a “relaxed, front-porch sort of charm holds the piece together, but at some point you realize that you’re facing maybe half a millennium’s worth of combined experience with love.”

Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s Too Bright to See (Part I) (2022) “pays tribute to the overlooked Martinican theorist Suzanne Roussi Césaire,” writes Jenny Wu in ArtReview. “Long takes shot in Miami, in which an actress portraying the thinker stands solemnly among palm trees, reading occasionally from her essays, conjure Roussi Césaire’s Martinique no more than the landscape of her time did: ‘This beautiful, lush island,’ a line from the film reveals, ‘camouflages the colonial reality.’ As a corrective to archival biases favoring those in power, viewers are urged to seek out the narratives of women and colonial subjects buried beneath the visual harmonies of natural vistas.” At e-flux, Ben Eastham suggests that by “filtering its investigation into memory through Césaire’s own romantic and Surrealist aesthetic, the work proposes a much more radical model for the measure of an individual’s influence than the prominence of their name in the historical record.”

Diane Severin Nguyen’s In Her Time (Iris’s Version) (2023-24) “proposes a vibrant case study of digital-political bafflement and the hazards of projecting the present onto the past,” writes the NYT’s Farago. Shot for the most part at Hengdian World Studios—which is, as Valentina Di Liscia points out at Hyperallergic, “the massive film studio whose productions have been criticized for sanitizing China’s history”—this “profound, sometimes darkly comic work,” writes Farago, “centers on a young actress struggling with her role in a (fictional) movie about the Nanjing Massacre, one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century; Nguyen also intercuts behind-the-scenes phone footage of the actress-playing-the-actress, until history, cinema, propaganda, and selfie opportunities are just a hall of mirrors. She understands that to work through past crimes and present inequities takes much more than sloganeering, and that our speculative visions of resistance and renewal might serve the dominant order quite fine.”

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