80th Whitney Biennial Reflects “Precarious and Improvised Times”

Photographs by artist Pao Houa Her


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NEW YORK — The sidewalk in front of the Whitney Museum was teeming with visitors last Wednesday — the ticket queue reached almost all the way to the High Line as sunlight bounced from the Hudson River to the museum’s quadruple-height glass atrium walls. 

Inside the 80th Biennial was underway, after a year’s delay due to the pandemic. It’s been a hiatus of three years instead of two but that period of time “has expanded, contracted, suspended, and blurred—often in dizzying succession,” said co-curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards in their introduction to the show.

The show title, “Quiet As It’s Kept” — a colloquialism about keeping secrets and staying silent, and a reference to the works of writer Toni Morrison, jazz drummer Max Roach, and artist David Hammons — signaled a path to questions — what personal, social, political pieces have been hidden, and how can we find them, see them, in a new way? 

Breslin and Edwards said they began to plan the Biennial in late 2019, before COVID, before the murder of George Floyd and before the 2020 presidential election. 

“Although underlying conditions are not new, their overlap, their intensity, and their sheer ubiquity created a context in which past, present, and future folded into one another. We organized this Biennial to reflect these precarious and improvised times,” Breslin and Edwards wrote. 

The show is laid out on two floors that contrast dramatically, reflecting the polarity of society. The sixth floor is a maze of dark rooms with black walls, while the fifth floor is devoid of constructed walls and filled with natural light. 

As one steps off the elevator on the sixth floor, two monumental black and white cross-hatched paintings by Denyse Thomasos flank the entrance to the show. “Displaced Burial / Burial at Gorée” and “Jail” contain thousands of cross-hatch marks that “symbolized labor in the fields, the recording of time or scratching on a wall,” wrote Thomasos, who died in 2012. In these works, Thomasos said she depicted the deplorable, claustrophobic conditions of slave ships that confined Africans in tiny spaces. “I use abstraction to convey the intractable complexity of slavery and the psychological ramifications that racism, displacement, isolation and confinement continue to exert on people of color,” she wrote in “Ideas That Inform My Work and Practice.”

Once through the dark entrance, the labyrinth appears shadowy, with irregular corners and turns, leading to dimly lit galleries, some with scrim walls. Behind black curtains in small rooms, artists’ videos played, disembodied sounds leaking into surrounding dark spaces. 

“Three Songs” by Diné artist Raven Chacon

In a long open alcove, “Three Songs” a series of videos by Diné artist Raven Chacon, depicted three Indigenous women — each self-accompanied by a snare drum – singing haunting songs of resistance about the history of the Trail of Tears. The women co-composed the songs with Chacon about the history and future of the landscape, and performed at sites where a massacre of their tribe took place. 

Around a corner on a black wall were four photographs of East Los Angeles by artist Guadalupe Rosales, who said she captures “ghostly remnants” of the Whittier Boulevard neighborhood where she grew up by photographing at night. The work is also about honoring the lives of loved ones lost, including her cousin who was murdered there in 1996. 

“Winter Solstice/Hazards,” “smok’d,” “shortcut” and “A night to remember” by Guadalupe Rosales  

“There is an abstract quality of night that is potent with dreams and escape and journey that answers to my desire to not capture the literal events — many violent — of growing up in East L.A.,” she wrote. “Nights in East Los Angeles had its own reality. A surreality. Like a waking dream.”

Down a flight of stairs, in the light-filled fifth floor was “Wopila | Lineage,” a large-scale geometric work of Dyani White Hawk, who is Sičangu Lakota. To create the piece, she worked for over a year with 14 women who hand-loomed thousands of glass bugle beads into strips that were affixed to aluminum panels. The pattern draws on traditional porcupine quillwork that Indigenous women later recreated with beads acquired through trade relationships with non-Native people. 

“Woplia | Lineage” by Dyani White Hawk

“Using glass beads references the history of cross-cultural trade relationships that have influenced the evolution of art forms over generations. The work is uniquely Lakota, tied to a lineage of artwork that speaks to connections between land and life,” wrote White Hawk. 

She also said she sees her work in dialogue with that of “abstract painters such as Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock, who claimed Indigenous art as an influence.”

“I believe beauty is medicinal. I believe it has the ability to nurture. I believe it has the ability to fill our souls, our spirit. My work can’t help but be political, simply because of its nature and our national history,” she wrote. 

Near the terrace windows is Sable Elyse Smith’s “A Clockwork,” an large-scale black metal sculpture that looks like a Ferris wheel from a distance. Up close, however, the wheel clicks loudly, ominously, as it slowly rotates — rendering “the passage of time palpable, visceral, even painful.” Smith created the piece using furniture designed for prison visiting rooms that allow for easy surveillance of physical movements. She said she makes work that “complicates our understanding of prison and how we name, identify, and locate violence.” This piece is a “physical monument to our entanglement of violence and entertainment,” Smith wrote. 

“A Clockwork” by Sable Elyse Smith

On a far wall are portraits and still lifes of photographer Pao Houa Her, a Hmong artist who immigrated to St. Paul, Minn., when she was five. Her’s pieces document the culture of Hmong people in Laos and Hmong who came to the U.S. after the Vietnam War, often expressing a sense of displacement and longing. 

She said she draws from portraiture vernaculars – from French colonial portraiture to online dating profiles — often placing her subject in “romantic environments full of floral silk, opium-flower patterns, images of the Mekong River, and Southeast Asian mountainscapes.”

“After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw” by Pao Houa Her

In a series of large black and white prints, “After the Fall of Hmong Tebchaw,” Her explores the Hmong’s deep sense of loss of their homeland, including Hmong indigenous to Laos who aided U.S. forces in fighting the North Vietnamese and later fled to the U.S. The series also refers to “Hmong Tebchaw,” a fraudulent investment scheme that swindled more than 400 Hmong elders in the U.S. out of thousands of dollars when a con artist promised that a Hmong homeland would be established in a false Southeast Asian country. 

“My work attempts to break down the larger story of what it means to be a Hmong American into discrete moments in time. I see each small moment, each new portrait, as a poetic note in a broader, diffuse narrative.”

She said her photography explores how the Hmong community “makes and remakes our collective memory.” 

Repeat visitors to the show will find the show is not static — the artworks will change and walls will move, making this a show that could be visited a number of times until it closes on Sept. 5.

This Biennial’s 63 artists and collectives offered hours of videos to watch and varied spaces filled with small- and large-scale pieces — perhaps too many to absorb in one visit. 

Still, some visitors could be seen outside on the fifth-floor terrace overlooking the meatpacking district — having a chat, people-watching, making a call — readying themselves to plunge back in to the show.