Images courtesy of the artist
“I’m still kind of in shock,” Fischer says of his first-ever involvement in the long-running contemporary art exhibition—this year marks the 79th edition—which opens Friday, May 17 and runs through September 22. “My wife equated it to the Super Bowl of the American art world. It’s a huge honor.”
Over the last year, the show’s curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley scoured studios to find the most important works of contemporary painting, sculpture, installation, film and video, photography, performance, and sound. Fischer says it was fortuitous that one of the curators happened to contact him while he was showing works at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) last summer. “She got to come check it out and we chatted, which led to a string of Skype calls,” he says. And eventually, his invitation.
The first of the two works Fischer will unveil at the Biennial is “Untitled (Words Of Concern),” a powerful piece that transpired during his 2017 residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation on Florida’s Captiva Island. On the eve of then President-Elect Trump’s inauguration, he built a sound booth in his studio and offered fellow artists and staff a chance to voice their concerns regarding the incoming administration. Words like “racism,” “homophobia,” “corruption,” and “sexism” unfold in a rhythmic procession over the course of the three-minute loop. “When people used the same phrases, I layered them so it became a chorus of voices,” Fischer says. “It’s a way to give all of those words power.” The presentation is minimal: a vintage tape recorder rests on the ground, and tape cycles from floor-to-ceiling in a loop that runs through a suspended reel.
His second work is a commissioned sound installation called “Ascent/Dissent” that will share space in the Whitney’s main stairwell with Félix González-Torres’ “Untitled (America)” light installation. “It’s ten channels of audio split by floor, so each floor from the sub basement up has its own sound,” Fischer says. “Below ground is earthier and as you go higher, the sounds are more ethereal. Depending on how people travel up the stairs or how far they go, their experience is going to change.”
After a lot of late nights, Fischer is ready for his Whitney debut, but he says he’s already working on what’s coming next. This August, he will return to the Whitney to do an immersive, multi-channel sound performance, modifying that into versions for the blind and for young people. Those modified programs will involve a variety of materials to aid in visualizing sound. “You can see how sound is a physical force and creates patterns in space based on frequency and amplitude.”
See Fischer’s work, as well as work from more than 70 other artists at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, May 17–September 22; whitney.org.