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Whitney Biennial Goes Beyond Weird, Shoots for "Buck Wild"

Two people walk in a gallery in the Whitney Museum of American Art, in front of a large rotating ferris-wheel-like structure made of black tables.
Whitney museum members walk past "A Clockwork," by artist Sable Elyse Smith


This morning, the Whitney Museum in New York City opened an exhibition known as the Whitney Biennial. It happens every 2 years, and features the most cutting-edge pieces in contemporary American art. The biennial was supposed to happen in 2021, but it got postponed because of the pandemic. Now, the museum says that this year’s contemporary art survey is meant to express “our strange and precarious time.” More specifically, “It’s got to be buck wild.” Our reporter Lucy Grindon headed downtown to find out if they were successful.

LUCY GRINDON, BYLINE: Ten minutes before the museum opens, members are lined down the block. Can they be shocked? Janey Fire and her friend say….naaaaah.

JANEY FIRE: I can’t be shocked, we’re both artists, so, you know, we’ve lived this for 40 years, so nothing quite shocks us.

GRINDON: Another member, Chris Cronish, has a little surprise left in her.

CHRIS CRONISH: I feel I can be shocked, even though I am a New Yorker, it can still happen. If there was a live naked man, I would be shocked.

GRINDON: Inside the museum, we’ve got a ferris wheel made out of picnic tables, kneecaps rattling in plastic bottles, and a bloody severed arm with the Amazon logo tattooed on it. But, the arm is made of silicone so, technically not “buck wild.” And there are precisely zero live naked men.

One piece is a little more 4D. In a dark room, a video plays of Black Lives Matter protesters confronting police officers and running from exploding canisters of tear gas. At the end of the video, a helicopter descends on the protestors. Inside the room, big overhead fans turn on and the wind starts whipping. It feels like we’re under the helicopter. Robert Bachelor described it afterwards:

ROBERT BACHELOR: I wasn’t expecting a helicopter. I don’t know what the feeling. Surprise, I suppose.

GRINDON: “Surprise, I suppose,” is closer to “buck wild” but not quite there.

There’s actually a lot of video art, and some museum-goers are not too pleased about it.

DAVID ANDERSON: I think it’s more disappointed me 'cuz it’s all, it’s videos, and I think they could be finding a lot more interesting things.

GRINDON: That was Whitney member David Anderson. He’s right that there’s a lot of video art at the biennial.

Dee Drenning, an art student from St. Louis, is here on an art field trip. I asked her if she thinks art can still be wild. She said yes... Just not here.

DEE DRENNING: I went to the museum of sex last night and it was very wild and shocking and I absolutely loved it.

GRINDON: Drenning can’t even get into the Whitney, because she’s got two hula hoops with her. She’s also a dancer and takes them everywhere she goes. But the coat check doesn’t take sporting equipment.

DRENNING: You know, what really bothers me about the situation is that as an artist who's coming to an art museum, you're stifling my art! You literally have performance art, but I can't bring in hula hoops!

GRINDON: Even a museum wanting to be "buck wild" still makes everyone follow the rules.

Lucy Grindon, Columbia Radio News


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