“We’re artists that don’t really show,” said Sobel. And given the themes of their work, she said, “it’s a huge compromise to jump into an institutional setting.” But Lew and Locks’s prolonged engagement with the artists meant they were aware of the risk Sobel and Gollan might perceive in participating, despite the high-profile platform the biennial brings. “It’s the opportunity...to make a gesture at a large scale,” Sobel said.
So far, the specifics of their contribution to the biennial is being kept under wraps—they hadn’t even seen the freshly installed pieces when we spoke. But what Sobel and Gollan will reveal is that, working with several collaborators, including current Cooper students, they have created Reflections (2017), a site-specific piece composed of window vinyls in the vein of their work for “Nonstop Cooper.” The outward-facing work will play with notions of inside and outside institutional spaces.
Addressing the biennial’s past
These artists are not misty-eyed and uncritical when it comes to the opportunity to be exhibited at a prestigious museum. In interviews, several were circumspect about their participation—partly due to criticism that some past editions have received over their lack of diversity.
The prominent withdrawal of the Yams Collective from the 2014 biennial (which included just nine African Americans) over their concerns about a controversial work
on view in the exhibition, as well as their treatment by the museum, is a stark example. “It’s important we don’t ignore the history of these biennials,” said Stovall, “that we don’t pretend everything is perfect and wonderful.”
Artist Sky Hopinka, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, said it was “surreal” to be invited to participate in the 2017 show, but he remained thoughtful about the role his work plays in the exhibition’s context. The biennial will be his first major museum exhibition, and he described wanting to ensure his inclusion “isn’t just trying to tokenize my work in any way,” he said.
Along with a handful of dedicated screenings of his films during the run of the exhibition, the Whitney will exhibit Visions of an Island (2016). Shot in 2015 on St. Paul Island, which lies in the middle of the Bering Sea in Alaska, the 15-minute film is about Hopinka’s time “meandering” through the environment he found there. The result is a vision of St. Paul, which includes a Unangam Tunuu elder speaking of the landscape, an exploration of a language revitalization project, and undertones of the island’s Russian Orthodox faith.