The New Futurists
Text |Ross Simonini
Photograph |Sebastian Kim
The 2014 Whitney Biennial will be the last such romp for the exhibition in the museum’s current Marcel Breuer-designed building. But in so many ways, this year’s Biennial is more about looking forward than back. The work selected to represent the state of American art challenges how we see it, who can claim to be its creator, and sometimes if we can even locate it in a single space. Kevin Beasley is among six New York artists on the roster who are taking on the Biennial with a hometown advantage.
The 28-year-old, Virginia-born Kevin Beasley is an artist-in-residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem. One of the requirements of the year-long program is that he work in his assigned studio space for a minimum of 20 hours a week – a number far below his usual, self-imposed quota. Over the course of his residency, Beasley’s temporary space has become a tossed salad of rubber, resin, boxes of cassette tapes, and antique audio equipment, materials that correspond to the two fundamental threads of his recent work: sculpture and sound.
As a sculptor, Beasley tends to make artifacts of the culture that surrounds him. He ties old, shredded T-shirts into compact bundles; he smears tar; he pours liquid foam into makeshift molds, fashioned from shoes to arrive at elegant, vase-like forms. Beasley carries these collected pieces – a trash-can liner, for example – around for years until they’re worn from age and handling. For a short time, he forwent having a physical studio space and making sculpture, but his practice eventually returned to his accretion of art materials – including a cumbrous cotton-gin motor that he hauled from Alabama – all of which now fill a storage unit he rents in Connecticut. “It’s really hard for me to totally abandon something,” he says, “unless it’s completely spent. And by then it’s probably a sculpture.” Beasley is also a longtime musician – most often a drummer – and his sound art emerged from a quasi-sculptural interest in the physical materiality of analog tape and reel-to-reel players. Last year he performed in the MoMA’s atrium as a kind of DJ, remixing and screwing a cappella tracks by deceased rappers (including Guru, ODB, Eazy-E, Biggie Smalls) into a menacing sonic soup he titled I Want My Spot Back.
For the Biennial, Beasley plans to conflate his two practices, creating sculptures from concrete and fabric, each with a microphone buried within, so as to capture what he calls the object’s “internal architecture.” As of now, the idea is that, over a week, the objects will be scattered through the Whitney’s ground-floor gallery, and the microphones will remain live, continually amplifying the room’s vibrations through haunting delays and humming reverbs. “It’s supposed to just echo presence in that building,” Beasley explains, “so that when people are there, they’re listening to a filtered version of their own presence in the space.” Three times during this installation, the artist will step into the space and perform – literally inserting himself into the work, which makes sense for a man who is in a near-constant state of production. “Making art is like shaking something out of your system,” he says. “It’s like the flu. You have all these symptoms, and some go away and some come back. For me, making work is survival, and afterward, I feel good.”
Kevin Beasley 2014 Whitney Biennial events:
Thursday, April 17, 2014, 7-9PM
Friday, May 2, 2014 4:30 – 6:30PM
Pick up a copy of the March 2014 Interview magazine to read complete story.