This past weekend, in advance of the first official previews before a public opening on Friday, I took an elevator to the sixth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art to lay eyes on the first Whitney Biennial to take over the institution’s new downtown home. It was quiet. Biennial co-curator Christopher Lew was talking with a few critics who got early access, and Jordan Wolfson was walking his dog, Midnight, beside the grid of virtual-reality rigs that will allow people to experience Real Violence (2017), a punishing exploration of lifelike destruction. After the carnage was a calming plot of trees, in the form of a new installation by Asad Raza that takes over a window-lined gallery at the end of the floor. Titled Root sequence. Mother tongue (2017), the work is a mini forest of arboreal plantings in soil-filled wooden boxes, with what appeared to be random knickknacks strewn around.
The corner was abuzz with young men and women extemporizing on the plants or just having a chat—as they will when visitors fill in the space with expectant stares. Raza was wearing a untucked button-down shirt and fixing his glasses as he took in the scene.
“The fact that they’re here and there’s someone to interact with gives the museum a different character,” the artist said of caretakers charged with tending and talking about his artwork. “It’s not a place where people are quietly walking around with guards—it’s a place where there’s something going on.”
The caretakers were recruited when the Whitney issued an open call for participants to, as the museum put it, “engage in several tasks inside the museum, including interacting directly with visitors and taking care of living plants that are part of the installation.” From the respondents, Raza picked a crew of individuals who could both dutifully keep trees alive (with Miracle-Gro and buckets of water among their tools) and engage with people walking through the exhibit. They can also read from literature of their choosing, answer questions about the plants, or just talk to people while hanging out. On Sunday, one was reading from an old diary she had brought along while others waxed eloquently on the trees in delighted tones.
Raza said he was looking for a particular kind of person when sifting through the applications. “For me, it was about people who are capable of understanding an idea and find it stimulating,” the artist said, “but aren’t going to talk your ear off because they’re blowhards. They are people who have soft qualities.”
The trees had been placed in the museum two weeks earlier, and some had already began to sprout buds on their skinny stalks in pinks, blues, and greens. As the exhibition goes on, they will burst into full swaths of color. (Extra hues also come from above via UV lights installed to act as agents for photosynthesis.)
One of the caretakers was away for a few days, Raza said, and upon seeing the trees again exclaimed, ” ‘Oh my god, the redbud changed so much!’ This is a guy who didn’t know what a redbud was before this month.”
Other trees included a yellowwood, which doesn’t flower for the first eight to ten years of its existence; an eastern redwood, one of the first trees to flower in spring; and a birch of the kind used to make birch beer. One of the trees, a weeping persimmon, alludes to an old story from Thailand about a guy, a tiger, and a piece of fruit, Raza said.
There are also the objects placed among the trees: knickknacks carefully selected by the caretakers as totems from their past. Among them: an action figure, a copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a childhood scarf from Korea, and the aforementioned diary tied up with a pink scrunchie.
“The objects have different qualities,” Raza said. “All of these things are very individuated.”
On weekends, the installation will be programmed with events like lectures, rock performances, dance routines, and a talk with Dan Graham. The multi-disciplinary expansion of Root sequence. Mother tongue resonates with Raza’s context-hopping history, in which he has spent years oscillating between producing large-scale museum shows for Tino Sehgal, co-writing books with Hans Ulrich Obrist, creating dramaturgy for a Philippe Parreno work at the Park Avenue Armory, or staging ambitious shows in his tiny apartment in SoHo with work stuffed into every nook of the space (in 2015’s “The Home Show,” a piece by Adriàn Villar Rojas was in the freezer).
I asked Raza what it is like to be in the Whitney Biennial.
“I feel that what you do represents the country,” Raza said. “At that level I feel kind of proud, in a weird way.”
The next day I returned for another look.
“Check this out!” Raza said. “This happened since you were here yesterday.”
He was pointing at the soil, where the tiniest of little plant stems—an inch of green growth topped with what will one day be a bud—was popping up from the dirt.
“This sprouted in a day,” Raza said. “The museum is fertile!”