Last week, the ongoing controversy surrounding Warren B. Kanders, the vice chair of the Whitney Museum in New York who is the owner of a company that manufactures tear-gas canisters and other defense products, entered a new phase, as eight of the 75 artists in the Whitney Biennial requested the removal of their work from the show. Four of those artists—Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin—published a letter about their choice to take their pieces out of the exhibition in Artforum, writing, “We found ourselves in a difficult position: withdraw in protest or stay and abide a conflicted conscience. We decided to participate.”
Eddie Arroyo, Christine Sun Kim, Agustina Woodgate, and the collective Forensic Architecture soon followed suit with similar announcements. Responding to the first wave of pullouts, the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, said in a statement, “While the Whitney is saddened by this decision, we will of course comply with the artists’ request.” (The show runs through September 22.)
The withdrawals, in the wake of the publication of an essay in Artforum by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett that called for a total boycott of the show, have been the subject of fervent debate, and all eyes have been on the remaining participants, to see if others would join the exodus. Some among them have made a case for the importance of remaining in the exhibition.
Laura Ortman, a Brooklyn-based artist of White Mountain Apache descent who has a video in the show, told ARTnews that she would not pull her work from the show because Kanders should go, not her work. “Kanders must have the insight and conscience to kick himself out of the Whitney,” she said in an email, adding, “I want the world to see and keep seeing the My Soul Remainer video that was made by all-indigenous people of North America. I want them to see it and keep on seeing it.” (In the piece, Ortman plays the violin outdoors near a river and in a forest, while the Diné ballet dancer Jock Soto performs.)
For Forensic Architecture, there was hardly a choice but to withdraw. The London-based research group currently has on view Triple-Chaser (2019), a video produced with Praxis Films that looks at Kanders, his business dealings, and his philanthropy. As it progresses, the film analyzes Kanders’s ownership of the defense manufacturing company Safariland, which has produced tear-gas canisters that have been thrown at protestors in Gaza, Turkey, and San Juan, and at asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border. A representative for Forensic Architecture told ARTnews that, earlier this month, the group uncovered what it believes is evidence that the Israeli Defense Forces are firing MatchKing bullets—a form of ammunition produced by Sierra Bullets, a company partly owned by Kanders—at Palestinians in Gaza. (Kanders has previously said in a statement that he is “not the problem.”)
In a phone conversation, Bob Trafford, a researcher at Forensic Architecture, said, “We are acting out of solidarity with the Palestinians who are suffering the risk of, or the reality of, extreme physical violence because of high-velocity ammunition, which we now understand is putting money in the pockets of Warren Kanders.”
Questions remain about how the Whitney will actually go about removing the works. As of Monday afternoon, the works were still on view at the museum. The museum’s website and the wall text in its galleries made no mention of the artists’ requests for withdrawal. Asked about the timeline for removing the works, a Whitney spokesperson said on Monday that the details are “still being worked out.” According to Trafford, the Whitney has asked for a few days to come up with a schedule for the works’ removal; Galanin told ARTnews that the Whitney is in talks about logistics with the artists who requested to withdraw their pieces.
The debate surrounding the removals has extended far beyond the museum’s galleries. Thirza Cuthand, a Toronto-based experimental filmmaker of Plains Cree and Scots descent, said she will still participate in a Sky Hopinka–organized film program due to screen as part of the biennial in September. Cuthand said in an email, “I am disappointed that the board of the Whitney has chosen to protect Kanders instead of the biennial artists who have been pressured since November to withdraw our work.”
Choreographer and artist Brendan Fernandes said he is also staying in the biennial, and he hopes that his piece The Master and Form (2019), a sculptural installation that is enacted by a troupe of ballet dancers on some days, will spark dialogue. “Working with collaborators, performers, and institutions, I have a responsibility to approach the questions raised by these artists in dialogue with the others involved in my work,” Fernandes said in a statement sent to ARTnews. “My hope is that the actions taken will result in deeper conversation and more direct action on the part of art institutions to address their complicated relationship with industries of oppression.”
Marcus Fischer is showing a sound work in a stairway named for Kanders and his wife Allison that acts as an aural metaphor for oppressed communities rising up. Titled Ascent/Dissent (2019), the piece responds to a Felix Gonzalez-Torres sculpture resembling a string of lightbulbs that hangs down through the center of the structure. Fischer will keep the work on view.
“I opted to stay, and instead created a work that honored the intent and memory of Mr. Gonzalez-Torres, and also stood in protest of Kanders and his place in that building,” Fischer said in an email. “For that to go silent would not be true to the intent of my piece, and for that reason it will also remain in place.”
The artist also plans to keep on display his sound sculpture Untitled (Words of Concern), 2017, for which various people recorded their fears for the Trump administration before the president’s inauguration, and he will still hold performances at the museum in August. Of the Trump piece, Fischer wrote, “I feel like that piece was given a second life by being included in the biennial, and the words and sentiment behind them strike me perhaps even harder now than they did in January of 2017, when we had no idea how bad things could get in this country. It is for that reason that I wish for it to remain in place. We have so much more work to do.”