Time Traveling at the Whitney
Disquieting visions of the past and future at the Biennial
By Louis Block, Nathlie Provosty, and Paul Jaskunas
To mark this spring’s marquee exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, we invited artists and writers to select entries in the 2017 Biennial they found especially deserving of close attention. This proved easier said than done, for the show includes many formidable works. We might well have lavished praise on the rich selection of paintings by Carrie Moyer, Shara Hughes, and Jo Baer, among others. Or we could have lingered over the oddly affecting sectional sofa sculptures by Kaari Upson, or the eerie, mind-teasing installation by Samara Golden (indeed, we did).
As it happens, though, all three contributors have chosen works that comment on contemporary conditions through depictions of the past or future. In search of imagery befitting the present, at least some artists are envisioning dystopian futures and mining the historical record. Dana Schutz, it could be said, is one such artist. The controversy over her rendering of Emmett Till has regrettably drawn attention away from the many other notable contributions to the Biennial, including her own Elevator, one of the more powerful paintings on display. Yet the discussion of the Till piece has served to remind us that our relationship to history remains a site of lively contention, a fruitful subject of critique.
A striking photograph by An-My Lê captures a split second on the set of Free State of Jones, a 2016 film about a Confederate army deserter. A man, blurred, rushes towards us through a trench lined with soldiers. Behind him, explosions—dirt clods and wood chips whizz through the gray air. In the foreground, technicians maneuver with booms, walkie-talkies, headsets, wires, and lighting rigs. This frozen image pulls apart at the knotted strands of history.
Lê has long sought out these moments of meditative recreation. In the late nineties she began documenting Vietnam War re-enactors in Virginia, capturing images that, if not for their serene and carefully considered compositions, bear a striking resemblance to the photojournalist efforts of decades before. In her photographs of the Vietnamese landscape, she presents her native country through a lens of war, tinted by images from popular culture, both fiction and documentary. Here is a hazy jungle—is this fog or smoke?
Now, she turns her lens to the Louisianan landscape. In this series presented at the Biennial, sugar cane fields burn in afternoon light, swamp water flows past trees, a monument to a Confederate general is simultaneously shrouded and framed by a transparent banner, dock workers shield their faces from view. One of the only overt references to Trump in the entire show, graffiti on a New Orleans building reads: “Fuck This Racist Asshole President.” The photograph is dated November 9th, 2016.
The past rushes towards us in these images. It is not an enemy—it is a condition. We are constantly strangers to our own landscape. Alien observers and time travelers. I am reminded of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, in which Kuwaiti oil fields exist only on “a planet in our solar system.” What is between history and the viewer? Semi-transparency: in production teams, thin fabric billowing in the wind, and dark smoke, obscuring sunlight emitted eight minutes ago. We are constantly rewriting and reframing past narratives. History is produced, composed, these photographs tell us.
Lê’s Film Set (“Free State of Jones”), Battle of Corinth, Bush, Louisiana, 2015 is the most difficult and important image in the series. It is a meditation on the co-dependence of violence and consumption. Violence occurs from every angle here: rifles pointed out of the frame at unseen enemies, debris raining down on the soldiers, the blurred yell of an actor running through the trench. But consider, also, the violence inflicted on the land: all of the craters and trenches dug out for the scene, the mulch shipped in only to be strewn about by carefully orchestrated explosives, the immense factories melting down rubber and producing the plastics to be used in the hundreds of props and equipment necessary for the production of a film, the freshly cut logs in the foreground, still leaking sap. Entropy accelerates in this picture.
Parallels abound in Lê’s photographs between the formative years of our country’s history and the current divisive political landscape. Nationalism and racism, and the resistance to those mindsets, inhabit the tense air around Southern monuments, migrant workers, and war re-enactors. What is even more poignant than the cyclical nature of our country’s history in these pictures is the somber realization that sometimes, when we return to these times of violence and prejudice, we are not seeking answers or warning signs—we are in search of escapism.
Why return to this violence? Why the immense labor and expense to replay horrors that still exist in our landscape near and far? False comfort: This isn’t us.
Awaiting a new metaphysics
Anicka Yi’s 3-D video The Flavor Genome weaves a masterful story about the bureaucratization of the senses within the search for a mysterious flower, oscillates between dead bodies and potent bacteria, trills convention. The images are physical. A cobalt blue puff of smoke floats out of the groin of a raw turkey carcass and drifts across the riverbank.
The scenes—natural, staged, macro, micro—seamlessly cut back and forth while a soothing female voice speaks continuously. The script is crisp and lucid. At one point the voice describes "the feeling of missing something you love, while knowing its return is unknowable, entirely left to fate." The observation pinpoints a sensation commonly ignored by most people, and therefore resonates. One could accuse the piece of being a documentary, but for the fact that there is too much abstraction and poetry.
While gliding down an Amazonian river, the camera in a sense looks for this mysterious flower, this “frizzy cloud the size of a large doily,” and muses about its potential use in luxury industries. But the subtext is the narration’s diagnosis of our futuristic impulses with their synthetic results (cross-breeding a lion and a tiger, for example, which would never happen in the wild). In our “cartoonish era” where screen culture dominates our ocular senses and manipulates our desires, Yi asks a political question: What is the new metaphysics?
Of ghosts and monuments
The scenario is familiar in our time: thousands of people departing a war-scarred homeland in precarious boats, drownings at sea, squalid island camps crowded with refugees awaiting resettlement.
We’re not speaking of Greece 2015, but of Pulau Bidong, a tiny Malaysian island in the South China Sea. It became the site of an infamous camp for “boat people” fleeing the communist regime after the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975. By the end of that decade it had become the most densely populated locale on earth, with as many as 40,000 people inhabiting a jungle-draped isle no larger than a square kilometer.
Bidong is the setting of The Island, a forty-minute video fantasy by Tuan Andrew Nguyen. The artist lived there briefly as a two-year-old before his family settled in the United States, where he was raised. Rather than tell his family’s history, however, his contribution to the Biennial envisions a future in which the forlorn island is haunted by one last refugee who hid in the jungle during the 1991 evacuation of the camp. He makes the exile his home, feeding off insects and tending to the monuments that have been left behind.
His tale is intertwined with clips from television news coverage from the Bidong of the late 1970s. We see “boat people” arriving on the island, building huts, digging wells, and worshipping in makeshift chapels. They are in the grip of a crisis, living in hideous conditions, yet said to be grateful, even happy, for they are still alive. Others are not so fortunate; we hear of the Malaysian coast guard turning newcomers away, forcing them to attempt a retreat through treacherous seas.
These clips are the stuff of history, but Nguyen’s fiction collapses past into future. These are end times; eschatological conditions prevail. Our refugee tells us, “Now the past and the future are dystopias that give each other solace.” Early in the video, he is joined on the island by a woman scientist who has witnessed a nuclear holocaust so beautiful to the eye, she says, it was like “heaven and hell made amends.” She says they are the only humans left on earth.
As you watch this story unfold, you notice its affectedness. The woman washes up on the shore wearing lipstick and rags, beautiful and camera-ready. There are voice-overs, stilted bits of dialogue, studiously choreographed movements. Yet despite the artificiality, or perhaps because of it, a sincere melancholy pervades the experience. The last woman on earth insists they must get off the island and resettle elsewhere to repopulate and renew civilization. But her companion, a man immune to aging, would prefer to remain as a kind of living ghost. He is a man of myth, indigenous to the state of exile.
In this way, Nguyen’s piece expresses a heartfelt desire to belong to that which has been wrecked by time. The Island offers a gently haunted zone where humanity might redeem its dystopias by resisting history’s march forward. “We exist,” says the last man on earth, “in the traces we leave behind.”
Here it is: Open Casket, the notorious painting. People gather around it, taking pictures with smartphones; there is whispering and conferring, a hushed excitement to be in the presence of controversy, to be participating by registering an opinion on the one question everyone seems to be asking about this sprawling exhibit: should a white person paint a black victim of white violence? Should a white artist paint the boy named Emmett Till?
These are meaty, yes-no questions, to be sure, but after a time, perhaps, you stop trying to form an opinion. You begin to look. You see that what’s displayed is not an open casket at all; it is not the body of the boy from the photograph. What’s here is paint—vigorous swoops of paint, a mound of it in the region of the mouth, a gash in the mound, and smudges of brown where other facial features are not. This head swells with paint; it repels attempts to discern a likeness. Below the storm of color spreads a white field—the shirt, with its five buttons; quick gray dashes signify the collar. On either side, black shapes mark the suit, and a boxy whorl of red implies a flower. Along the top of the image, rolling orbs of white suggest the casket’s silky lining. Your eye returns to the head and travels once more over the whole of the canvas.
There is something playful here, isn’t there? You see the play in the buttons and the flower, in the energetic brushstrokes, the cartoonish simplicity of the mimesis that governs the whole. You know, too, that this canvas is about Emmett Till, it speaks the boy’s name aloud in this gallery for all to hear. A great distance separates this painting on the wall and the historical reality of that boy—his body, his suffering, his individual death. This is a problem—is problematic. At least, many people seem to think so, for how can any artist play with the death of this fourteen-year-old black boy of such historic importance?
With paint is how, for paint is her medium, and here is the work. Its distance from the gruesome history that it means to represent, counter-intuitively, is causing you to acknowledge, or to feel, all that is not pictured here, at what remains hidden and unseen, at what perhaps remained unseen even by all who looked upon the open casket photographs; for only the boy named Emmett Till will ever die Emmett Till’s death.
A mystery resides in every body; it is the mystery that troubles the eye, that causes you to look, though you want to look away.
To put it another way: This weltering field of paint is a fact; Till’s death is a fact. These facts are estranged from one another, and from you, the viewer, yet they exist simultaneously on the surface of this abstraction. They create friction that cannot be reconciled, that implicates you in the painting’s fresh brutality.
Your opinion is irrelevant here. Your ethical judgements can wait. What matters is the violence making itself felt through the object before you. Is that violence particular to Till? No, not really. It is particular to this rendering. From there, perhaps, you could conclude that the artist is “calling attention to” the generalized racial violence pervading American history. But this interpretive move feels a touch contrived. What gets you now, in the moment, is the grotesque travesty of paint.
The 2017 Whitney Biennial is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through June 11, 2017.
Publication Date: May 17
Louis Block is a painter and writer living in Baltimore, Maryland.
Nathlie Provosty is an artist working in New York, with a forthcoming exhibition opening May 20, 2017 at A Palazzo Gallery in Italy.
Paul Jaskunas is the author of Hidden, a novel, and a professor of literature and creative writing at the Maryland Institute College of Art.