Written by Valentina Gioia Levy
The longest-running survey of American Art came back with a show that brings together more or less established artists from different generations in a show that doesn’t fail to spark debates and produce some disappointments.
Featured for the first time in the Whitney’s stunning new building in the Meatpacking District, the current edition of the Whitney Biennial mirrors the unnerving image of today’s America. As announced by curators Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, the show consists of 63 individual and collective works which are located on the fifth and sixth floors of the museum. A substantial part of these works addresses questions and concerns related to present society in the United States and focuses on diverse hot topics including economic and social tensions, gender and racial inequalities and violence. In her introductory essay to the Whitney Biennal 2017 Exhibition Catalogue, “Being with Other People”, curator Mia Locks wrote, and that “these are turbulent times (…) You can feel it in the air we breath, social tension so thick it coats the throat.”
Anxiety is a recurrent word in Locks commentary and, to be honest, as a European citizen who was visiting U.S. for the first time after President Trump’s election, anxiety was the first feeling I experienced upon my arrival at Newark airport. Never in my previous visits to U.S. – and actually never in my previous travels anywhere – was I questioned for so long by a CBP officer. Questions included my job, my private life, my friends and people that I was supposed to meet and, of course, my personal belongings and any kind of items which I was carrying with me. To be welcomed by an anxious interrogation is certainly not pleasant in any circumstances and especially after a long trip when all you want is just a hot shower and a comfortable bed: traveling abroad can be particularly stressful in times like these marked by bans and restrictions on immigration policy. Although for years I’ve been going back and forth from Europe to Asia, to Africa, I’ve never been subjected to such an inquisition before. This brought me to think about the fact that in ‘western countries’ people are not so free as they believe, after all, and actually, in our capitalist societies even the concept of freedom itself is somehow ambivalent and questionable.
That is what I was thinking while looking at the performance Liberty (Liberté) by the artist Puppies Puppies. A performer wearing the Statue of Liberty costume stood for several hours on the eighth floor outdoor terrace of the Whitney Museum holding up an unlit torch. Apparently there is no difference between what Puppies Puppies defined as “drag performance” and the popular street gig in which actors dressed the same way trying to sell photo opportunities to tourists. The Statue of Liberty, or Liberty Enlightening the World, is certainly the most popular American monument in the world as it is considered the symbol of U.S.’s values and beliefs worldwide. Nevertheless, since its inauguration, its symbolism and its cultural and political significance have been questioned a number of times. In November 1886, the Afro-American newspaper Cleveland Gazette wrote, “the idea of the ‘liberty’ of this country ‘enlightening the world,’ or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme.” This very critical assertion referred to the question of black Americans at the end of XIX century, but maybe this statement is not untimely if we consider the racial discrimination that is still perpetrated inside the country, andPresidentt Trump’s stances on immigration, women’s issues, and human rights in general, not to mention U.S.’s foreign policy which, since the times of the Vietnam war, has produced an incalculable number of victims in the name of freedom. Puppies Puppies’s Liberty (Liberté) is a duchampian détournement that the artist defined as “a genderless artist imitating a performance already in drag.” The work is the parody of a parody, and according to the curator Christopher Y. Lew in “You Better Work (All Together Now)” in the Whitney Biennial 2017 Exhibition Catalogue is also “a claim for freedom starting from a kitsch level.” That being said, in this context, “Liberty (Liberté)” seems to me like a situationist prank that silently echoes the Cleveland Gazette’s words.
Although freedom is one of the fundamental and unalienable values in western society since the time of French revolution, many intellectuals have explored its dark side as well as its ambiguities. One of the most intriguing positions on the subject is probably that of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. In the second half of XIX century, Kierkegaard claimed that anxiety may be compared to dizziness, and more than that, he stated that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. In fact, according to the Danish philosopher, when people look down the infinite possibilities which total freedom can offer them, their spirit became dizzy like the eyes that look down the yawning abyss. Kierkegaard also explained in The Concept of Anxiety:
The actuality of the spirit constantly shows itself as a form that tempts its possibility but disappears as soon as it seeks to grasp for it, and it is a nothing that can only bring anxiety. As a result of his reasoning, the Danish philosopher deduced that ultimately freedom succumbs to dizziness.
Though these ideas are dated, it seems to me that Kierkegaard’s ideas are still relevant given the snapshot of the current edition of Whitney Biennial. Samara Golden’s work, “Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes” is a site specific installation which consists of a stratified structure reproducing a series of rooms decorated with handmade sculptures of pieces of furniture. Golden’s disorienting installation appears to deal with dizziness, as well as with angst and existential loneliness. All the rooms are inhabited, whereas the human presence has been evoked by recently abandoned objects. By using mirrors on the ceiling and floor, the juxtaposed rooms are designed to repeat themselves above and below you infinitely. When you look down from the balustrade, at first sight, you can barely distinguish the first ranks of rooms. Your gaze is attracted by the infinity when, in fact, you are just trapped in an illusionist’s game. That could be a perfect metaphor for freedom in capitalism.
Quoted in Edward Nokav’s book The Corporation: A Theological Inquiry, British historian and priest Edward R. Norman writes in The Denigration of Capitalism, “The morality of capitalism has first to do with the morality of choice, with the individual’s freedom to select, either as producer or consumer, from among alternative sources of economic enterprise.” The possibility of choice is at the core of all liberal economic and social theories. Speaking of the morality of capitalism, Norman stated that capitalism itself is beyond morality, thus morality is related to the choices made by people. Regardless, almost all the opportunities that people have at their disposal are part of the mechanisms of exploitation that is put into being and managed by the corporations and the ruling classes. So finally, people have an illusion of choice, while actually, almost every move they make has already been calculated and forecasted. The paradoxes of capitalist society are at the core of the work on view by Occupy Museums. Initiated by artist Noah Fischer in the first month of Occupy Wall Street, the group has included many accounts of people sharing the same concerns about representation and power in the art system. How does economic reality affect people’s lives and eventually art? Occupy Museums attempts to reply this question with the project Debtfair. The collective called on a number of artists in debt to share their experiences and feelings. All these experiences became part of a multi-media installation that reveals not only the struggle of participating artists for realizing their works but also the names of the major financial institutions and corporations that profit from art market debt. In Debtfair’s manifesto, Occupy Museum writes:
Debt is the key to seeing American art today. (…) The average American artist today is a debtor; financializing their vision, unable to see beyond cresting loan payments, artists are pressured to adopt their aesthetic – and the politics – most pleasing to the market. They have become conditioned to wade even deeper into financial risk in exchange for aspirations of success in the art market.
Profit, exploitation, freedom and racial concerns have been at the core of the case raised around American artist Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket that generated protests and even a petition aimed at the removal of the work from the exhibition and its destruction. Schutz’s practice has for years focused on societal violence and often investigates how unease, pain, and violence get reflected on the human body. Open Casket refers to an atrocious racial crime, the brutal assassination of a young African-American, Emmett Till. As a mother herself, Schutz was particularly touched by Till’s mother’s decision to let the casket open so that everyone could see the brutality of the murder. Because of her painting that abstractly depicts that open casket, and also because she is a white woman, the artist was accused of racial insensitivity and appropriation and exploitation of black suffering. In response to the debate sparked by her work, the museum organized an event led by the Racial Imaginary Institute in which all participants were invited to share perspectives on race, ethics of representation, and limits of empathy. A lot of comments have been made about this debate, supporting on one side the claim of illicit appropriation and insensitive exploitation of the African-American imaginary and, on the other side, the right of any artist (no matter what the color of his/her skin is) to freely express himself/herself no matter how sensitive the subjects highlighted in their works are.
The polemic around Schutz’s painting revolves around a very sad aspect of America’s fragmented society. In Europe, nobody would doubt the fact that the Holocaust is part of the history of the entire humanity and, as such, it is not only part of Jews’ history or the many others who were persecuted under National Socialism. The Holocaust is part of everyone’s history and intellectuals, scholars, writers, film directors, and any-medium artists from any religion have always been encouraged to create works and events and debates around the most horrific page of European history. Roberto Benigni’s movie La Vita è Bella would never be defined as a “illicit exploitation.” As Robert E. Denton and Benjamin Voth claimed in their recent book Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy: The End of the Social Contract, it seems that U.S. totally failed in the construction of a new unitary national identity and sensitiveness encompassing religious, ethnic, and racial diversities and including all groups like a part of a whole.
At the same time, something else puzzled me. While Schutz’s painting remained at the center of debates and polemics for weeks, Jon Kessler’s multi-media installation, Exodus, didn’t generate any kind of reaction. Kessler’s work is a mechanical sculpture which includes smartphones with selfie-sticks, video components and a series of eBay-sourced figurines which are depicted marching their belongings. As he explained in the exhibition’s audio-guide, Kessler started to think about this work and collect figurines at the beginning of Syrian refugee crisis. On that occasion he said to himself: “this is gonna make any of the refugee crisis we have witnessed during the last three years look like nothing”. In his work, Kessler has not even tried to express any kind of solidarity or empathetic feelings towards these people. The refugees are in fact toys and funny figurines disposed in circle, surrounding a TV screen and encircled by an I-phone, like protagonists of a burlesque parade. Exodus has been defined by Lizzie Crocker in her report for The Daily Beast “a witty commentary on refugees”. For decades, American foreign policy has been one of the most relevant causes of political instability in the Middle-East. Supporting rebels in the name of freedom, America and NATO countries contributed to the strengthening of extremist groups that put into being a strategy of terror inside and outside the Middle-East. A couple of months ago president Trump decided to halt the Syrian refugee program and included Syria in his “Muslims ban”. Now he ordered a missile strike against president Assad and declared that America is ready to attack Syria again, for “humanitarian purposes”. So basically thanks to American humanitarianism, very soon, Syrian people will be slaughtered not only in the regions under the control of the rebels but also in the rest of the country. Right in the middle of it all, an American artist ridicules and eventually “exploits” the tragedy of the Syrian population, and nobody seems to be bothered by that. In this case, nobody is speaking up about insensitivity, appropriation, and exploitation of refugees’ suffering.
Moreover, beyond Exodus, very few works refer to international issues and/or investigate U.S. relations with the rest of the world. The impression the biennial makes of its country is a self-referential America whose society appears to be affected by some kind of dissociative identity disorder. More than multi-cultural, in fact, based on this show – but also based on what I saw, heard and experienced during my last residence there – I would define American society today as schizophrenic. Lack of cohesion, fragmentation, conflicts between groups. I have a distinct feeling that America has a dramatic need to reconcile its multiple personalities.
The work of Rafa Esparza could be seen as an attempt of getting away from this dissociative state. His installation is, in fact, conceived to generate a metaphorical reconciliation between past and present, nature and artifice, ego-centered and eco-centered society, individuality and collectivity. Esparza creates an environment which consists of a big rotunda circumscribed by a brick wall and floor. When I walked through the installation, I immediately felt I was in front of something totally overturning the ideology beyond Trump’s wall along US-Mexico border. Esparza’s wall is a tool of inclusion instead of exclusion. The installation is like a cocoon, a place that immediately creates a sense of belonging and silently narrates histories of family, friendships, and communities. At the opposite of the white cube and the so called non-space, Esparza’s environment could be defined as an anthropological space. As theorized by French existentialist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an anthropological space is irreducible to physicality and transcends its structural dimensions to encompass human activity as constitutive of the identity of the space itself. There are many layers of meanings in Esparza’s work that deal with private mythology, identity, journey, history, sense of belonging and sharing, participation and cooperation. The artist told us about his work:
This installation is composed by roughly 3 thousand bricks that we made in Los Angeles from local land and local construction sites. They are made long side the river. I started to work on it 4 years ago with the idea of engaging the river as a source, as a natural resource, imagining how the river may have been used by the local, indigenous people, before it was channelized. Every time I have made bricks, it has been in that site with the same intention of engaging the river as a resource. The bricks were made through this process taught me by my father. He used to make that in Mexico as a teenager before he came up to the States. So the bricks carry in same way the history of that memory from Mexico to Los Angeles and here. The transporting of all of this land from west to east taps into a bigger history of colonization and west world expansion I feel like it gets collapse momentarily.
Esparza also invited five artists to explore the space and bring up their works: Dorian Ulises Lopez Macias, Eamon Ore-Giron, Gala Porras-Kim, Joe Jimenez, Beatriz Cortez. Each and everyone of them contributed to the construction of this shared environment, bridging the connection between physical space and body, present and past, individual memories and collective memories. Esparza’s work appears to offer a symbolic way out from radical individualism and narcissistic culture that dominates American narratives today.