Artist Torkwase Dyson with her Whitney Biennial installation Liquid Shadows, Solid Dreams (A Monastic Playground) (2024).

How the Whitney Biennial Artists Are Tackling Today’s Most Resonant Issues

The 81st edition of the legendary contemporary survey shines a light on Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio, Isaac Julien, P. Staff, and Torkwase Dyson

Artist P. Staff is among the artists included in the 2024 Whitney Biennial. Photo: CHARLES CAESAR

In keeping with our age of CGI, VR, and ChatGPT, the 2024 Whitney Biennial is titled “Even Better Than the Real Thing.” Some 71 artists were selected for the show, on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, through August 11, marking the 81st edition of the legendary contemporary survey. The exhibit, the dominant vibe of which is thoughtful and considered, has been installed in a roomy, generous way over two floors of the Renzo Piano–designed building.

Los Angeles artist Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio has his own take on the titular theme: “The perception of something is more important than the quote, unquote objective reality,” says the artist, whose cast sculpture made from tree sap, White Dove, Let Us Fly, was derived from a specific type of Mexican pine and then embedded with documents, found objects, pieces of stone, clothes, and ceramics. “It has been made to change shape over time,” says Aparicio, who is of Salvadoran descent. White Dove sits by the museum’s sixth-floor windows so that the sap will melt and move in the sunlight, which also causes the translucent, variegated shades of brown to glow.

The sculpture touches on the Salvadoran genocide of the 1930s and later emigration. “It relates to cyclical histories, like the estrangement of children from their families, which has happened so often with Central American communities,” says Aparicio, who, at 34, is one of the younger artists in the mix.

An installation view of Isaac Julien’s Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die) (2022). Photo: ASHLEY REESE, COURTESY OF THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

This year’s event represents a wide age range, one that is also reflected in the Whitney curators themselves, with Meg Onli as the newcomer and her partner in the endeavor, Chrissie Iles, as the veteran organizing her third biennial, a record number. “We thought a lot about the dialogue cross-generationally,” says Iles.

Isaac Julien, the British-born, California-based artist and filmmaker, epitomizes the wisdom of experience. He has been acclaimed since his 1989 film, Looking for Langston, and was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2022. Julien’s biennial work, Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die), is a truly immersive, five-screen video installation that takes over a large room and creates a hypnotic effect. Originally commissioned by Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation for its hundredth anniversary and shown at the museum two years ago, the work was inspired by 1920s cultural critic and Harlem Renaissance figure Alain Locke and his connection to Albert C. Barnes, the foundation’s eccentric founder. “They were both Philadelphians, and both contributed to the same magazine,” says Julien. “The lightbulb went off for me.”

Locke and Barnes were contemporaries who both championed modernism and African art. Barnes, despite being best known now for his trove of Matisses and Cézannes, “was a patron of Black artists and he started the ball rolling there,” says Julien. “He was in dialogue with them.” In the artist’s mind, the synergy displayed between the two figures proves that “the mission for inclusion in museums has been a very long story.”

Artist P. Staff in front of their work À Travers le Mal (2023). Photo: CHARLES CAESAR

That’s certainly true for the biennial, which has centered on questions of identity and inclusion for decades. “Chrissie and I talk about the ‘dissonant chorus,’ ” says Onli. “What is the space for an individual to exist and also come together in a group?” She adds that there is significant trans representation in the show.

One trans artist, the British-born P. Staff, is reprising a work they showed at Kunsthalle Basel in Basel, Switzerland, last summer, retooled and titled Afferent Nerves. It has pride of place as the opening work for the sixth floor, setting a tone of “precarity,” says Onli. The installation immediately bathes visitors in a yellow light that Staff calls “sunlight gone wrong, toxic and irradiated.” Hanging above is an electrified net, similar to the type used to corral livestock, and you can hear a faint buzzing.

“My background is in performance and dance,” says Staff, who splits their time between London and Los Angeles. “Increasingly I got rid of the performers and made energy and light the active agents.” The artist says the piece “plays into an emotional tenor of this moment, a raw nerve feeling.” They add that it addresses “the suspended feeling between a dissociated state and hypervigilance. I think of that as related to being trans.”

Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio’s installation Paloma Blanca Deja Volar/White Dove Let Us Fly. Photo: courtesy of the artist and the whitney museum of american art

Another of the exhibit’s galvanizing installations is by Torkwase Dyson, who is based in New York’s Hudson Valley. Located outdoors on the fifth-floor terrace, the three-part Liquid Shadows, Solid Dreams (A Monastic Playground) takes over the space with its mammoth scale, reaching 25 feet tall.

What medium is it? Practically all of them. Three large black shapes set at dramatic angles are hung with paintings on board, and people are encouraged to touch and sit on the architectural portion of the piece. Up close, the surface reveals itself as cracked and rough in places. “I’ve chosen to tackle the collapse of architecture, sculpture, and painting,” Dyson says. “The audience shouldn’t feel there’s a space between those forms anymore.”

Torkwase Dyson. Photo: CHARLES CAESAR

Composed of graphite, the work has a dark appearance that makes it part of the artist’s theory of Black compositional thought, which looks at how various spaces are inhabited by Black people, as do her four other works in the show: three assemblages and a video located in a nearby corridor. Dyson says her terrace piece dovetails well with the biennial’s theme. “I took a solid, real thing,” she says, “but then I exploded and expanded it.”

A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2024 Summer Issue under the headline “Real Deal.” Subscribe to the magazine.

Cover: Artist Torkwase Dyson with her Whitney Biennial installation Liquid Shadows, Solid Dreams (A Monastic Playground) (2024).


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