Whitney Biennial 2017

I just realized I’ve kept going to the Whitney Biennial for years to continue this inner monologue. No big deal. How about you?

The red glass pieces on the outdoor terrace. I liked them.

The red glass pieces on the outdoor terrace. I liked them.

The Whitney Biennial feels like a show I have to see. I first saw it in 2006. That year, the gallery walls were literally broken, with exposed edges. There was a piece made of what looked like solidified black lava or tar, and that looked too big to be true. And scary but beautiful jewel-encrusted animal figures. Except they were also taxidermied werewolves and made you terrified to look too long. There was a video piece that made me upset, but not because of its format or the ideas.

I was studying design at university back then, but we also had to take classes with ART in the title, and that made us have big abstract thoughts. We called them concepts, though. Earlier that semester, I wrote a grant application to make an abstract video piece. (If you’re good at grant applications, I have so much respect for you. I mean, wow.) The idea I had in mind felt so close and so right - exactly what a real artist had in the Biennial - that I felt I somehow just missed my chance. I expressed righteous indignation to a couple of classmates who’d listen, but I didn’t yet have a blog, so this had to wait till now. Thank you for listening, friend.

Also, I didn’t get the grant that year, but perhaps that’s for the better. I don’t think I would’ve liked making a video piece.

The biennial in 2008 felt big and interesting, too. But I don’t remember specifics. Strange how that works. That’s why you always buy a postcard: you can later claim it was your favorite piece from the show.

The next time I went and found the biennial boring, not brave and not beautiful for some reason. Everything was big, but big in the wrong way, kind of empty. I also don’t remember which year that was, but by process of elimination it must’ve been 2010.

2012 had things I really liked. Also, I went to see the show by myself, and after long walks in the city. These walks before and after help appreciate beautiful things, and have big thoughts around them. The works I liked were paintings: not too big, not too shiny. They were colorful and graphic. The things I disliked were very big and not colorful at all, and I felt somehow their authors imagined too much about themselves. Ironically, now I like the smaller things and no longer the big room-filling things. A sign of the times? Maybe, after the 2008 financial crisis art needed to earn its right to be big and pompous all over again.

The one consistent thing through these years for me was - whether I went or not, the Whitney Biennial felt like a show I had to consider. Not necessarily a show to see in person, or to like… It’s an event I know exists every time it happens. I don’t necessarily have a point of view about each work in the show, in the sense that I’m not prepared to defend it with a well researched essay. But I have made going (or not-going) to the Biennial a part of what I do.

Detail of the giant stained glass window piece. I sat next to it for probably half an hour. It's pretty amazing, but also, has comfy couches nearby.

Detail of the giant stained glass window piece. I sat next to it for probably half an hour. It's pretty amazing, but also, has comfy couches nearby.

This year, the entire show felt strong and political and opinionated. In 2016 (when the show was planned and put together) and 2017 (when it opened) you couldn’t possibly make any sizable show not-political. I still need to read and think before I really get the depth of some of the pieces, and won’t talk about the more difficult ones. I enjoyed several abstract works, that didn’t seem to have a specific call to arms in them - as a counterpoint.

The 2017 show gave me a lot of space to think. (…weird how it’s not an even year this time. Probably because it’s the first one in the new building.) I managed to avoid the two things people reported as most unpleasant & traumatic: the smell of decomposing meat from Pope L.’s installation Claim must’ve dissipated by the time I walked by. And I gave myself the excuse “it’s a long line!” not to watch Jordan Wolfson’s violent virtual reality piece that left many viewers traumatized.

There’s no right or wrong way to go to an art exhibition. You set the agenda, and you decide when you’re done. I’ll be reading people’s reviews, and looking at Instagram photos for a while after this to extend my experience. Big art shows consistently give me room to think, and I think that makes me better as a designer and as a human.

What do you think? Did you go? How was it for you?

Maria Matveeva