Withney Biennial: America’s Condition

Withney Biennial: America’s Condition


Installation view of Rafa Esparza, Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field, 2017. Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 17-June 11, 2017. Photograph by Matthew Carasella


Initiated in 1932 the Whitney Biennial  “not only reflects but foreshadows the uncertain, bitter, and divided state” of a nation struggling to cope with change. According to curator Christopher Y. Lew., the biennial is thus a barometer measuring and indicating the state of mind of a population facing political deception. 63 artists present pieces mirroring the current feelings and thoughts of a population submerged in an identity crisis where race, immigration and gender are the nexus uniting the whole.

It is impossible not to notice the preponderance of oil painting and form in the biennial. For instance Celeste Dupuy-Spencer canvas Fall with me for a million days portraitures a young man immersed in his laptop, seemingly listening to music gives a snapshot of the American and by extension of the global youth.



Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Fall with Me for a Million Days (My Sweet Waterfall), 2016.
Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.9 cm).
Private collection; courtesy the artist and Mier Gallery, Los Angeles


Another example of the amplitude of oil painting is the work made by Aliza Nisenbaum, La Talaverita in which a couple reads The New York Times in what seems to be a living room, surrounded by a Mexican decoration. It seems that the biennial has put an end to a long quarrel between abstract painting – associated with abstract expressionism – and form – associated with rather European painters such as Francis Bacon.



Aliza Nisenbaum, La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times, 2016.
Oil on linen, 68 x 88 in. (172.7 x 223.5 cm).
Collection of the artist; courtesy T293 Gallery, Rome and Mary Mary, Glasgow

The selection of artists and artworks alike, done before the election, shows a positive feeling.

Video’s presence reinforces its importance and its role as a political predilected vehicle. Eric Baudelaire oeuvre titled Also known as Jihad uses landscape theory to portray the fate of a young Islamic State recruit. Puerto Rican artist Beatriz Santiago Munoz filmed in Haiti the disrupting consequences of colonialism and its ecosystem. Giving another perspective of the possibilities of video, Mary Helena Clark videos experiment with sound and image taking the audience to new image horizons, creating unusual ecosystems.

The selection of artists and artworks alike, done before the election, shows a positive feeling. Some of the presented works like the installation created by Rafa Esparza, a rotonde made with “adobe” emphasise on the artist’s origins. His construction not only highlights his family background but challenges the white cube space narratives.

Despite the scandals and recent protests, the biennial succeeds at giving the spectators a wide and very complete panorama of the American condition.


Anicka Yi, still from The Flavor Genome, 2016. 3D high-definition video, color, sound; 22 min.
Collection of the artist; courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York



Chiharu Shiota: Life’s Requiem

Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota immerses her audiences in her installations employing only two colours, red and black, she examines the life and death circle.

Vija Celmins, Entropic Void

Paintings then, appear less cold despite the monochromatic palette, the eager spectator can recognize Celmins’s precise expression and expansive compositions.

"It waves you to a more removed ground"

Anish Kapoor once famously said that for there to be new objects, there had to be new space. The artist’s work reveals the truth in his paradoxical conversation between the void and the perceptible.

Montreal Biennale, Communicating Vessels

Montreal Biennale Moyra Davey,

Moyra Davey, Hemlock Forest (production still), 2016

The Great Balcony, a poetic, symbolic and metaphorical title for the Montreal Biennale, aims not at conveying specific data or of informing its public, but rather at creating an impression on its audience.  An impression that will shake and provoke a friction stimulating the viewers’ curiosity. Accepting every medium’s incapacity to exhaustively transmit “reality” or “messages”, the Montreal Biennale prefers to create experiences and to present works of art that stimulate the spectator’s mind and provoke multiple emotions. In order for this to happen, friction is at the centre of the Biennale dialectic, opposite concepts meet and dialogue between one another: empowerment and weakness, fiction and reality, politics and indifference… friction is there to give shape to a particular environment; a microcosm run by inner and very specific laws is created at the Biennale. Friction, the spark that constantly ignites, is the condition to keep things circulating and to spare us from boredom, which according to Pirotte is the most dangerous of all illnesses.

Two anachronic objects embody this “friction” principle: the first, a portrait by Lucas Cranach that is believed to represent the biblical myth of Judith and Holopherne; the second, a gas station designed by the German architect Mies Van der Rohe. The first explores the human condition and desire’s role in our relationships with others, whereas the second relocates materiality and usefulness – a philosophical “programmation” on its own – at the core of artistic concerns. Two major forces in art history reunite in the same space creating connections and bridges between various temporalities: the portrait temporality, the gas station temporality and ours. Thus a cacophony of outspoken cries and whispers from all over the world are displayed, not representing geographical art scenes but bearing witness instead to individual ways of expression across the globe.

At the very beginning of the project, the concept of hedonism was to be explored by artists. As the Biennale evolved, hedonism and its by-products were soon replaced by less optimistic narratives that denounced all the misfortunes and injustices that take place daily in our society. It seems that pleasure and the delights of life haven’t become a fundamental value, as Mr. Pirotte accurately noted hedonism is perhaps too big of a question to be approached and pondered upon at a Biennale. The aesthetics of pain and suffering are examined by a number of artists at the exhibition, seemingly revealing the state of mind of our world. A number of contemporary philosophers agree that our society is constructed under false pretenses, that we live in a constant illusion where the material, capitalist world governs all of our relationships with the outer world and the so called “information economy” distracts and misleads our attention. Moreover, media misinforms and prioritizes certain information.  This creates a void between information and what is actually transmitted, for instance, some news are relegated to oblivion and others given too much importance. Who determines that a life is worth grieving for and that others are not? Whoever controls media and our perception, controls the world. The Biennale intends to explore our new condition as displaced people and to highlight the alarming number of people who are “displaced” against their will.

Biennale Montreal - Haegue Yang Sonic Sphere

H©– Horizontally-striped Brass and Nickel, 2015 Steel stand, metal grid, powder coating,
casters, nickel plated bells, brass plated bells, metal rings 99 x 83 x 83 cm.
Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York – Photograph: Elisabeth Bernstein

In addition to politics and the aesthetics of resistance, the objects “regime” in the art ecosystem is part of the Biennial rhetoric. During the 20th century, objects took an important part in the multiple avant-garde movements. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, amongst others, introduced objects into their works. By doing so they regressed the usage of the capitalist value and transferred them to a work of art feature. The friction between art and capitalism was enhanced and triggered by these “simple” actions. These bygone objects, conceived in the 20th century, have proven to be more difficult to deflect than before. Mr. Pirotte tried to encourage the artists to rethink the relationship we have with objects: the Canadian artist Celia Perrin Sidarous proposes a new photographic installation where she meditates about the connections between sculptural and architectural forms.

The Great Balcony is a Biennale revealing the intricate human psyche that incites spectators and artists alike to revisit history in order to create communicating vessels allowing us to fortunately learn something from the past and to unsettle us.

Read about Biennales

– Busan Biennale: The Golden Age of Socio-scientific Biennials