BY Simon Wu in Reviews | 18 AUG 20 | Reviews

American Artist Boards Up The Whitney

The artist’s online project enacts a daily fantasy of revenge – or reparation – for the Western history of institutional racism and colonialism

BY Simon Wu in Reviews | 18 AUG 20

Every day, at sunrise and sunset, all of the artworks pictured on the website of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art are replaced with images of plywood. The symbolically boarded-up museum collection resembles not only some nearby Manhattan streets but a number of cities across the US following this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The boards are a gesture of fear, ostensibly installed to protect private property from looters. But Looted (2020), by American Artist, alludes to the history of Western museums as an arm of colonial domination and, by questioning the way such institutions have stolen artefacts in the past, prompts us to consider what they might also be stealing in the present.

American Artist
American Artist, Looted, 2020, for the ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ series on artport, screenshot. Courtesy: the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

For centuries, Black and Indigenous communities have been violently dispossessed of their land and cultural heritage. While the Whitney does not own works that have been looted from colonized peoples, like all Western museums it is built upon a framework of European and Anglo-American cultural hegemony. If looting is a rejection of the capitalist system founded on the enslavement of Black life, then perhaps this work can be seen as a fantasy not of theft, but of reparation.

Even though the plywood replaces all images on the website indiscriminately, I spent most of my time considering Looted – visible for only 30 seconds, twice a day – in the context of the Whitney Biennial. Seeing the titles of obscured works by diverse artists from past editions of the marquee exhibition, I understood Looted as a refusal of the hollow theatrics of inclusion that often characterize such biennials, without leading to structural change. In addition to ‘boarding up’ these images, Artist has also stripped away some of their usual context, changing the normally white website background to black and removing much of the text. This blackout of curatorial and institutional frameworks points to the need to make space for new ones. As museums clamour to feature Black artists in the wake of the protests, we should be wary of their attempts to exploit BIPOC labour and culture to fix their own structural problems.

American Artist
American Artist, Looted, 2020, for the ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ series on artport, screenshot. Courtesy: the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Looted doesnt escape this bind. Although the time constraints aren’t specific to this project – the Whitney’s ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ commissions are all equally brief – they feel particularly stifling here. Part of the work’s force comes from the shock of witnessing the museum’s worst fear realized. But, for the duration, a glaring message in the left-hand corner of the webpage assures the viewer that this is all only temporary, neutering the productive jolt to white comfort that Looted might have delivered otherwise, and evidencing the short leash that minoritarian thought often gets in majoritarian institutions.

American Artist
American Artist, Blue Life Seminar, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

One of the most intriguing aspects of Artists practice, however, is the way in which it embodies such conflicted positions. Most recently, in his 2019 exhibition at Koenig & Clinton, New York, he juxtaposed symbols and slogans from the dubious, pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement with the post-racial utopianism of Dr. Manhattan, the blue-skinned antihero from DC comics’ The Watchmen (1987). In Blue Life Seminar (2019), a digitally animated figure delivers a monologue drawn from Dr. Manhattan and the manifesto of Christopher Dorner, a Black Los Angeles Police Department officer who, frustrated by the racial injustices within his department, shot and killed several of his colleagues in 2013. Here, as in Looted, Artist flips the script on the self-appointed ‘heroes’ of white Western culture and presents us with the ideological manoeuvres we’ll have to process together in order to confront our history.

Main image: American Artist, Looted, 2020, for the ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ series on artport, screenshot. Courtesy: the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Simon Wu is an artist based in New York. He is the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute and a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.