How We Perform: Visiting the Whitney Biennial

How We Perform: Visiting the Whitney Biennial

This week’s class had us roaming the streets of Chelsea to see Pace Gallery, sent us up and down the High Line, and finally deposited us at the entrance to the Whitney Museum of American Art to experience one of the final days of the Whitney Biennial. 

Our first stop of the day was eventful, as we were able to meet with rising artist Loie Hollowell within her new exhibition at Pace Gallery. Hollowell, quite a veteran in her craft despite being one of Pace Gallery’s youngest artists, was open to questions and answered them in a genuine, wise way, with no subject seeming too taboo to probe. She walked us around her exhibit, the contents of which are based off of Hollowell’s body and her experience with pregnancy, both before and after. We discussed how she related color to emotion and physical experiences, and how she used texture to express her body and its functions. She even gave strong advice on how to navigate the experience of being a full-time artist, especially one who is exhibiting. 

Loie Hollowell, “Postpartum Plumb Line,” 2019, oil paint, acrylic medium, sawdust, and high density foam on linen mounted on panel, 72″ × 54″ × 3-1/2.”

Yet what I want to focus on in this writing is not Hollowell’s work, as amazing as it was to see in person. Rather, I want to discuss the experience that took up a greater part of the day. The Whitney Biennial is held every two years, and prides itself on putting a finger on the pulse of the modern artistic world. The two curators that are chosen for it search far and wide for artists that they feel display the zeitgeist of American culture, and America’s relationship with the world in which it resides. And I feel that the artists did just that. From bold statements regarding climate change such as Josh Kline’s continuously inundated picture frames to Kota Ezawa’s animation installation focusing on protest against racial injustice in America, the modern political climate was there, just as present as the voices of young artists commenting on it. 

But my experience at the Whitney Biennial was a bit less focused on the different forms of activism exhibited before me. Instead, what has impacted me from what I saw (granted, I was not able to see all the floors of the exhibit) was an aspect of performance. Throughout my time at the Whitney I acquired this strong feeling of being overwhelmed, but not in a negative sense. This overwhelming feeling was one of constant and fervid sense-stimulation, mainly through hearing and visuals (and in one particular instance, smell). Everything was happening at once, and there was no lull in action or silence to soothe it. It felt as though a show were being put on before me with the particular pieces I saw, and in some cases, there literally was! 

It began with a solo exhibition by Jason Moran (b. 1975), where we entered a dark entryway that fed into a low-lit room with instruments, stages, and branched off viewing areas. The collection of pigment-marked lengths of paper, meant to corporealize music that Moran plays, displayed outside of the entrance could never have prepared me for what waited on the inside. For though the markings in pigment were frantic, the noises and visuals inside the exhibit were even more so.

(Blurry) View from entrance of Moran’s solo exhibition, 2019.

Moran, an acclaimed man of several trades both artistically and musically, modeled his exhibit off the concept of ‘the set,’ so reads the text that trails up the wall before one enters Moran’s exhibit. The set, a crucial principle of jazz music, involves a group of musicians coming together and playing off one another to improvise music. Moran took this principle and implemented it in his exhibition so as to display his interdisciplinary nature in creating art. Such is visible in the variety of works displayed, including a small clock affixed to a large rock (a piece reminiscent to Duchamp’s readymades), installations, sculpture, and videos of performance art. Visuals alone can’t describe the exhibit however, as sound was just as vital to the experience. Upon entering the room, one would be bombarded by several instruments playing at once, from different locations and at different intervals. Moran practically composes a set consisting of himself, with video screens and speakers installed throughout the room displaying a number of his performances. The music is harmonious and chaotic all at once, and the melody of one performance riffs off the one floating near it. To witness Moran’s self-titled exhibit was incredible, as it was practically like having Moran put on an improvisational show for anyone who came to watch; his own artistic jam session. 

Another body of work with a performative nature that I witnessed was Alexander Calder’s (1898-1976) aptly-named “Calder’s Circus.” Calder’s Circus, also known as Cirque Calder, was one of Calder’s most treasured works, as it reflected a deep, lifelong fascination with the circus, so says the wall text that introduces the exhibit. It was quite renowned in Calder’s oeuvre before he moved into abstraction, and it is now absolutely one of my favorite works of art. 

Viewing area for “Calder’s Circus,” and Carlos Vilardebó, “Le Cirque de Calder,” (1961).

The exhibit which housed Calder’s Circus mimicked a small theater, with descending benches built into the wall for the audience to sit. A small selection of the figures, props, and accessories that made up Calder’s Circus (and by small, I mean to say there were about fifty pieces from a collection that comprised nearly a hundred parts) were positioned behind glass. They were arranged in the order in which they appeared in an accompanying film from Carlos Vilardebó, that played on a screen mounted over the glass cases. The only source of light within this impromptu theater was the film playing above us and the lighting from within the glass cases. Within a matter of seconds, the viewer is yanked from the white light of a museum gallery and brought into the hushed tent of a most anticipated spectacle.

The figures that guide the spectacle are a breathtaking show of craftsmanship. Made out of a collection of materials such as wire, cork, wood, string, assorted metals, and fabric, Calder’s little circus performers, though made of simple, readily available materials, are stunningly intricate and unmistakable. There is no mistaking the gigantic furry lion sewn of yellow cloth, nor is there any confusion regarding the purpose of the ringleader figure, whose wide-brimmed hat and lengthy wire arms designate him as the star emcee. All of the figures and props in Calder’s Circus are kinetic, their movement facilitated through a system of puppeteer wires and mechanical components. Unlike other works by Calder where kinetic energy is prompted by activation from the natural world, Calder is the sole activator. It is the artist who hurriedly puts all parts of his work into motion and narrates it simultaneously. To watch Calder stage this grand performance on a not so grand scale is not unlike watching a child surrounded by a multitude of toys and only the limits of their imagination.

“Exotic Dancer,” detail from “Calder’s Circus,”  1926–31, Wire, cloth, metal, rhinestones, beads, wood, and string, 12 3/4″ × 6 × 4″.

And the feeling of youth extends beyond the artist. What amazed me as I watched the exhibit unfold was the reaction of the audience around me. Adults of all ages gathered around me became enchanted children, who gasped, giggled, and laughed with glee as Calder sent mechanical horses galloping around a ring and a wire-frame cowboy mounted a cork-bodied steed. When a pair of acrobats, who Calder announces are husband and wife, successfully leap from one trapeze to another, the audience actually cheers. And I felt every bit as jubilant. Seeing Calder activate his mechanical, bric-a-brac cirque gave me as much delight as I imagine seeing the actual circus did for Calder himself. And though the pieces behind the glass were stationary, I could envision them moving in front of me, guided by Calder’s direction. 

There were several other works that I saw at the Biennial that invoked a performance element, like Martine Syms’ “People Who Aren’t Friends or Lovers or Exes,” (2019) where the artist gives a digitally conveyed soliloquy about the psychology of defense mechanisms in black culture. There was also Nicole Eisenman’s “Procession” (2019) which sees an outrageous collection of mopey, melting, and garbage toting statues processing around a stage, with the New York skyline as a backdrop. One of the statues even blows steam from its rear end after a set passage of time. Museum goers were encouraged by a sign to step onto the stage and walk among the lethargic statues. Though I may not have been able to engage in the activism that the Biennial was focused so heavily on, I did thoroughly enjoy myself. I was able to view art that reciprocated my interaction, and that reminded me that performance is just as much a medium as any within contemporary art.

Detail of Nicole Eisenman’s “Procession,” 2019.


All photos courtesy of Kirstin Waldmann © 2019

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