If you’ve been out of loop on the American contemporary art scene, the Whitney Biennial is here to catch you up. This year’s show opened Friday, and features 63 different artists and many new works that have never been shown before. Some artists are responding to the most pressing issues of our time, while others are tackling mammoth projects on a tight deadline. Photographer An-My Lê and artist Raúl de Nieves represent the range of this year’s contributors.
A Photograph That’s “Anonymous But Important”
During the Vietnam War, in the tense days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, An-My Lê and her family were evacuated in an American C-130. “The American military saved my life,” she says. “The U.S. saved my life.”
Since then, war has become a preoccupation for Lê. She spent years photographing the military — its uneasy soldiers, its training camps — and went back to Vietnam to shoot landscapes and portraits. More recently, Lê traveled to Louisiana to take pictures of Vietnamese fishermen there. But her focus changed after the 2016 election.
In her Brooklyn, New York, studio, Lê points to a large photograph that she’s submitted to the Whitney Biennial. It shows three men gardening in a small plot of land next to the water. She was told that they’re Mexicans who work for the Vietnamese fishermen outside New Orleans. All three are wearing sweatshirts with hoods that hide their faces. She took the photo a day or two after the election. As an immigrant herself, the scene grabbed her.
“I knew that there was something with the fact that they were somehow shrouded even though it wasn’t that cold,” she says. “There was something anonymous but important about the way they were working.”
She says that after the election, the image felt symbolic “because of, I think, Trump’s rhetoric about undocumented workers, about illegal immigrants.”
Lê is drawn to subjects that are personal, but according to Gilles Peress, a photographer and colleague of Lê’s, the stories her pictures tell have a much wider frame. “She doesn’t stay locked into the personal experience,” he says. “She’s able to shift from the Vietnamese community, which could be predictable from an autobiographical point of view, and turn the camera around and shoot this picture of the Mexican workers working on that garden.”
Lê says that when she was younger, she would have identified with these men and their anonymity. “Once I became an artist, I felt I had a voice, so I’m not so anonymous. But I used to feel that way, and I think many Vietnamese feel that way. And I think we’re taught to not stand out.”
Clearly Lê hasn’t followed that advice.
Fear And A Deadline
Artist Raúl de Nieves made one of the largest pieces of art at this year’s Whitney Biennial: a huge, mock stained-glass window that he created in just four months.
De Nieves makes everything by hand, from beaded sculptures to paper and glue costumes. Growing up in Michoacán, Mexico, his mom taught him and his siblings how to crochet, and they learned how to sew in school so they could make their own clothing. Today, de Nieves makes art out of junk like tiny, plastic beads or scraps of fabric. It’s tedious, time-consuming work, so he was really nervous when he met with Whitney curators to talk about what he might do for the Biennial.
“We’re walking through the museum and then we get to a point where we’re staring through 17-foot-tall windows,” he recalls. “And they’re like, ‘We thought you could maybe work with this.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ “
De Nieves had never worked on something that big — as in billboard big. At first, he considered using machines to help him finish the project, but Whitney Biennial Curator Chris Lew nixed the idea. “That felt a little bit outside of the way that he works,” Lew says.
So for four months, de Nieves worked by hand and non-stop.
The resulting window fills the room. There’s a dragon, figures dancing, green flies and white doves. It looks like cathedral-worthy stained glass, but there isn’t actually any glass in it. In typical de Nieves fashion, it’s made entirely from everyday material: tape, paper, glue, beads and more.
Chris Lew is thrilled with the result, especially since you can see the colors from outside the building. “It kind of announces itself before you even arrive,” he says.
And the artist is even more excited: “When we put up the last panels … I was like, ‘Aaaaaaah!’ … I am just so happy that the challenge was there and that I said yes.”
Nothing motivates like fear and a deadline.