Curator Meg Onli On How This Year’s Whitney Biennial Came Together

"We were interested in questions of “the real” as it related to three major shifts over the past year: the proliferation of artificial intelligence... the historic changes to our body autonomy as seen in the overturning of Roe v. Wade... the legislation that has restricted gender-affirming care."

Two women sit for a photo - one blonde and seated wearing black and one standing wearing a striped button down
Whitney Biennial curators Meg Onli and Chrissie Iles. Photograph by Bryan Derballa

This year’s Whitney Biennial is controversial but, frankly, I’m getting a little tired of typing those words every two years. The 2024 Whitney Biennial, “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” offers many hot takes and just as many cool aesthetics, plus a film in which Danny Huston plays Albert C. Barnes. So, what are people complaining about exactly?

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The Biennial, which runs through August 11, was curated by Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli, and Observer recently caught up with Onli to ask a few questions about how it all came together.

How do you think your Whitney Biennial distinguishes itself from others and, for the sake of the easiest comparison, from the last one in 2022?

I see every Whitney Biennial as being shaped by the cultural and political landscape(s) of the moment when the show is organized. This is a rather small window of about eleven months when the show comes together, and the Biennial is organized in a way unlike many exhibitions. For an easy and quick comparison, I see 2022’s Quiet as It’s Kept” being shaped by the unpredicted occurrence of the COVID-19 Pandemic while also speaking to conversations in contemporary art around abstraction.

For us, we were very much interested in what comes after the event of something like a pandemic and we turned to artists who repeatedly relayed their interest in returning to ideas of precarity within the built and natural environment as well as an interest in the body. From a formal place, the 2022 Whitney Biennial really enacted a sense of abstraction through its installation. For us, we wanted to install an exhibition that had large rooms that could accommodate installations while also placing artists in direct dialogue with each other.

Please give me a sense of how you selected your artists. How many studio visits did you do? What’s the farthest you traveled? Was it fun?

We began working on the Biennial with Chrissie meeting me in Los Angeles. It was in September and LA was having a heatwave. About half the artists had to reschedule visits because it was so hot. There was a brush fire in the hills of La Tuna Canyon Road, which wasn’t very far from a couple of studios we were going to. It was a pretty dramatic backdrop and set some of the tone for the show, but I also think being in Los Angeles we were in conversation early with some of the artists that helped us shape some ideas of the show particularly ideas of material agency, a renewed interest in psychoanalysis, and the instability of the world.

We ended up spending a lot of that trip indoors and just brainstorming an extensive list of artists that we wanted to meet with. This list would end up guiding us through a lot of our initial visits. Ultimately, we did about 200 studio visits and traveled as far as Venice to attend Loophole of Retreat. What was most important to us was spending time with artists. We averaged about 3 hours per studio visit with some of our longest visits lasting twelve hours. Both Chrissie and I enjoy being in conversation with artists, and these led us to a lot of our beginning thoughts about the show.

The press release says the show “represents evolving notions of American art.” How did you define “American” going into this process?

This is a question the Whitney is constantly grappling with. In the museum, we often discuss work informed by time spent within the states, for instance, having lived in the U.S. or attended school here as just two. I think we are often challenging ourselves to question concepts of borders, boundaries, and territories. This has been influenced by conversations with indigenous curators, artists, and scholars. Within the film program, we also have artists who are not only grappling with these ideas but are also thinking about America itself as a subject and an influence beyond its geographic location.

An art installation of a large diagonally oriented rectangle
Installation view of ‘Even Better than the Real Thing’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Charisse Pearlina Weston, ‘un- (anterior ellipse{s} as mangled container; or where edges meet to wedge and {un}moor),’ 2024. Photograph by Nora Gomez-Strauss

This year features just forty-four artists and collectives, a relatively smaller Whitney Biennial. Why did you choose to keep it limited?

The entire exhibition features seventy-one artists and collectives, reflecting a robust film and performance program curated in collaboration with outside curators. However, the galleries themselves have forty-four artists.

Early into working on the Biennial, we had discussed providing artists more room in the galleries. We were interested in featuring large installations and wanted each artist to have a generous space that placed them in dialogue with the artists installed around them while creating immersive environments. During our studio visits, we noticed that many of the artists we were meeting with were also producing work at vast scales. For instance, during an early meeting with Mary Kelly, she mentioned her work would be close to thirty feet long.

Having fewer artists also provided more resources to each artist. For the first time, artists received $2,000 in honorarium. We were able to support more new works created for the show, and with a smaller amount in the galleries, it also allotted more time that we could spend with each artist.

The wall text at the entry says your title “Even Better Than the Real Thing” refers in part to the growth of artificial intelligence. Speaking broadly, what role does technology play in the professional lives of the artists you selected?

Within this Biennial we were interested in questions of “the real” as it related to three major shifts over the past year: the proliferation of artificial intelligence that has altered what we understand as truth and history; and the historic changes to our body autonomy as seen in the overturning of Roe v. Wade and transphobic legislation that has restricted gender-affirming care. When considering the artists within this show, most of them would not have been considered “real” and instead subhuman within the history of America. That notion perpetuates until this day.

SEE ALSO: Miriam Simun On Technology in Art and Science as a Medium

As for technology in the show, there are works that directly engage with A.I., such as Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst’s xharymutantx, which uses A.I. images to alter the images of Herndon and how she is imaged online. Other artists explore technology through process, material, metaphor or in more subtle ways, such as A.I.-assisted technologies found in the works of Nikita Gale, Jes Fan, Clarissa Tossen, Kite, Chanel Tyson and Ho Tzu Nyen.

The art world received a massive infusion of politics in 2017. What are your thoughts on their continued presence in art, and what were your attitudes about politics in curating this show?

The art world has always been infused with politics. I think the word “politic” can often signal a notion of “progressive politics” when in fact the art world is composed of competing politics. I see 2017 and the summer of 2020 as being part of a continuum. There has been a long history of artists and art workers advocating for museums and galleries to reflect the diverse world we live in. Susan E. Cahan’s wonderful book, Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power, examines changes in museums in the 60s and 70s.

Something that drove our curating was thinking about what artists of marginalized identities are expected to create. We noticed so many artists grappling with the complexity of identity and a real interest in questioning what it means to be seen and interpreted by those outside one’s community. This exhibition has works dealing with a lot of complex issues including genocide, climate disaster, property rights, land theft, and abortion access to name a few. Many of the artists are dealing with these in more abstract formal ways than something bombastic or representative.

What are you hoping visitors come away with from the show?

I hope that viewers come away from the show with a renewed interest in close looking. This exhibition speaks to the complexity of the self and the world around us. It is not an exhibition that is a quick read. Many of the artists have formal approaches that may complicate the ideas of the body and speak to a multidimensional and changing self. I would love for audiences to walk away thinking about how identity can be complicated.

Curator Meg Onli On How This Year’s Whitney Biennial Came Together