How Curators Chose Art For This Year’s Whitney Bienniale

The 2024 Whitney Biennial opened to the public on Wednesday. The art show, which happens every two years, is the longest-running survey of American art in the US.

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

WNYC’s David Furst talked to the curators of the Biennial, Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli, on a recent episode of “All of It.” An edited version of their conversation is below.

David Furst: Tell us about the title of the show, “Even Better Than The Real Thing.”

Meg Onli: Over the past couple of years, we’ve been seeing political rhetoric that’s really questioning ideas of the real when it comes to gender, particularly around transgenderness and the gender-affirming laws that are being restricted. We wanted to think about that as a political backdrop, as well as the increase of artificial intelligence, and questioning these ideas of real truth as well as history.

Curating the Whitney is no small feat, right?

Onli: It’s not.

The show is a survey of American art and media over the last two years. Do you feel that you need to curate a show that really captures something about the art of that time?

Onli: I think what we really wanted to do was be in response to what artists were talking about. What are artists reading? What are artists thinking about? The real process of the show began with Chrissie and I on a listening tour for the first two months, talking with artists, getting a sense of what they’re interested in. A lot of that brought us back to ideas of the body. We’re really surprised to return to ideas of the body within all of its complexities.

Installation view of Whitney Biennial 2024: Even Better than the Real Thing (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 20–August 11, 2024). Kiyan Williams, Statue of Freedom (Marsha P. Johnson), 2024.

Photograph by Audrey Wang

What artists did you feel that you had to have in this show?

Onli: I think part of it is we really wanted to have a space that allowed artists to have breadth within the installation. There’s about 20 fewer artists within the actual physical aspect of the show. Then you have around 25 that are in a film program. For us, we were thinking about once we went to install, who those anchoring artists might be, or what those anchoring conversations might be.

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

Let’s talk about the first piece that 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 into a video installation, called “Pollinator.” Tell us about this piece and the artist who created it.

Onli: Yes. That is a work by the filmmaker and artist, Tourmaline. When we were thinking about this exhibition, we wanted really strong pieces that grab people directly off the elevator.

If you’ve been in the Whitney before, you realize you’re riding the elevator all the way up to the eighth floor. What pulls you out, Tourmaline’s piece “Pollinator,” is thinking about alternative forms of reproduction, ways of passing on legacies.

It’s a beautiful film that’s intermixed with her in the Brooklyn gardens wearing a gorgeous floral headdress, and it’s interspliced with archival images and archival footage of Marsha P. Johnson, the incredibly important activist, as images of Tourmaline’s father from her youth.

We’re also here with curator Chrissie Iles. I want to ask you, Chrissie, when you began this process of planning this Biennial, what were your conversations like?

Chrissie Iles: As a curator, you’re very much like an antenna, you’re tuning in to the waves of social, political, cultural developments around us in the world and also how they connect to what artists are thinking about and working on. Meg and I didn’t go into our research for the exhibition with any particular themes in mind. We just wanted to listen to artists.

Then, as we traveled around the country, and also to major international group shows by fellow curators all over the world, we started to see a number of themes emerging that occur throughout the exhibition in very intertwining ways.

What were you hearing from artists?

Iles: There’s a lot of psychological issues that the artists were telling us about. There was a lot of interest in psychoanalysis, the psychological implications of architectural space and systems of power. You can see that throughout the exhibition – also the site of the body, the idea of a site meaning, what our body’s relationship is to each other, to architecture, to our own interior structures.

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

We had a couple of artists who we were in dialogue with almost as interlocutors throughout the process. One of those was the choreographer Ligia Lewis, whose work is in the exhibition.

She said, “What you’re describing sounds to me like a dissonant chorus.” We were very struck by that, and we wanted to make a show where the audience feels like they’re in the middle of that dissonant chorus listening to all the different voices and having this experience that’s not gazing at something but listening to and experiencing and feeling it with your own body.

Installation view of Whitney Biennial 2024: Even Better than the Real Thing (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 20–August 11, 2024). Holly Herndon & Mat Dryhurst, xhairymutantx Embedding Study 1, 2024.

Photograph by Audrey Wang

Artificial intelligence has a bigger role in contemporary art than it did a few years ago. Even now at the Whitney, there’s an AI-centered exhibition. How were you thinking about incorporating AI into this show as you prepared?

Onli: I think some of it is AI is one of the cultural backdrops that we’re responding to. We’re also responding to the limitations, let’s say of legislation around gender-affirming care, of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. There’s Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon’s project, which is called xhairymutantx.

With Mat and Holly’s project, they’re trying to complicate what it means to be a person in the world, particularly online. Holly Herndon is quite well-known as a musician. When you Google her, she’s been reduced to her interesting artistic red hair cut, her blue eyes. They’re working with an algorithm that’s able to distort and think about what Holly Herndon could be, based off of training data.

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

Chrissy, there are 71 artists showing work in this show from a wide variety of backgrounds and practices. How do you go about selecting and finding these artists, many of whom may be less known?

Iles: We both teach, so we’re both very pedagogically inclined and thinking about and listening to young artists even while they’re at art school. We’re not transactional curators. We’re curators who really want to be part of a community and a long-term way of having a discussion with artists that can sometimes go on for a decade or more and always begin somewhere. It was very challenging for us to do this in such a short space of time. What we were doing was really intuitively thinking about talking with each other about and responding to what we heard artists telling us, what we heard also coming out of the pandemic as people were moving back out into the world.

Meg, what kind of thoughts do you hope viewers leave this Biennial with when it comes to reflecting on what it means to be living in America in 2024?

Onli: We are obviously within hyperpolarized times. We’re at a time in which we feel even further away from each other or isolated through our own media landscapes.

What does it mean to come together within a moment when maybe we don’t necessarily agree with each other, but we’re all within the same place? That’s one of the thoughts we’ve had around this idea of a dissonant course, is having different artists stand on their own in some way.

I’d say Chrissie and I have been incredibly generous with space, so it feels a lot like solo presentations from artists. These are not just one or two canvases being hung. You’re seeing a real dive into an artist practice for some of these artists. For instance, Suzanne Jackson, I think has off the top of my head, I think six works within the space.

We really want people to be embodied. Obviously, we spend so much of our time now on screens, on our phones to come into the museum space and really engage with these forms, this materiality. I would argue the expansiveness of oneself. What are ways that we understand maybe different forms of representation that exist beyond the conversation of figuration?

The Whitney Biennial is on view through Aug. 11.

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