‘Everyday objects shriek aloud’
The New Museum’s fourth triennial
By Kerr Houston
To what extent should art aim, in a time of perceived crisis, at effecting actual political or social change? It’s a classic question, of course, and has interested a slew of ambitious minds: over the years, Adorno, Lukács, and Rancière, among others, have weighed in on the issue. And now, apparently, it’s the turn of the New Museum, whose fourth triennial, entitled Songs for Sabotage, celebrates the activist potential of contemporary art. Or, at least, the curators do; the actual artworks offer a more restrained vision. The result is a curiously dissonant show that is at once rhetorically aggressive and conceptually discreet – but that ultimately coheres around the idea that merely unsettling the given order of things can constitute meaningful action.
The show is a handsome one. Occupying three floors (and a part of the lobby), it features more than seventy works by twenty-six artists, artist groups, and collectives. Happily, though, it doesn’t feel crowded. Instead, the curators—Gary Carrion-Murayari of the New Museum, and Alex Gartenfeld of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, with the assistance of Francesca Altamura—grant individual pieces a good deal of room. Despite its scale, then, the show, which runs through May 27, feels ambitious without being overwhelming; the curatorial aesthetic is essentially sleek and generous.
If only the same were true of the related textual apparatus, which is simultaneously intrusive and misleading. From the start, the curators insistently position the show as a call to the barricades. “The exhibition,” claims the press release, “amounts to a call for action, an active engagement, and an interference in political and social structures urgently requiring them.” Many of the lengthy wall texts feature a similarly melodramatic tone: these artists, we read, “offer models for dismantling and replacing the political and economic networks that envelop today’s global youth.” Then, too, there’s the title, which willfully evokes, in its reference to sabotage, the possibility of violent resistance or pointed destruction: a depot blown up, a clog hurled into the gears.
Nothing like that takes place. The museum lights remain on; a studious quiet pervades the galleries; viewers lean in to study the lengthy wall texts—or simply ignore them, photographing the works and then moving on. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss this show as impotent, or merely ineffective. The work on display may not constitute, in the end, a literal call to arms or a substantive disruption of business as usual. But it does suggest, repeatedly and provocatively, that our world is contingent, violent, and strange—and primed for revision.
In this sense, one of the more playful pieces in the show is also one of its most representative. In a three-channel video by Song Ta, a uniformed group of Chinese naval officers boards the Dive Coaster, a raucous amusement park ride in Guangzhou. Once the ride begins, their stiff composure loosens: some of the soldiers begin to scream, while others break into broad grins. Military discipline, it seems, is a fragile artifice. Still, the coaster vehicle in which the sailors ride forces them to remain in a tight formation, and the piece thus also asks a troubling question: “Is military service something like a joy ride, with its alternating moments of yawning anticipation and harrowing freefall?” But the real kicker arrives in an adjacent installation of glossy souvenir photographs of the men, taken during their ride; their images are now surrounded by hordes of tacky, automatically generated eagles and bunnies. The baldly tasteless and eager capitalist logic of the park thus renders the pious platitudes and stock symbolisms of the military into clichéd and vacuous kitsch.
A number of other works in the show share a comparable interest in undermining or re-imagining established institutions and traditions. The Russian artist Zhenya Machneva, for instance, reproduces propagandistic images of Soviet factories in small woven works, gently altering the stark lines and patriotic connotations of the source material. In CHP-14, a factory’s proud smokestacks, now formed of rows of small cotton knots, seem to wobble slightly, and the limited range of colors flattens the complex, reducing it to an abstract pattern. The vast structures are miniaturized; their systematic output gives way to a traditionally feminine mode of production. And the utopian hopes that once surrounded the Russian assembly line are replaced, in a touching sort of regression, by an older, manual, and fallible form of manufacture.
Downstairs, four potent paintings by the Mexico City-based Manuel Solano also complicate an extant iconography. Solano, now legally blind, as a result of an HIV-related infection, uses acrylic paints in an appealingly tactile manner, and frequently turns to popular culture for source material. I’m Flying!, an eerie, life-sized work, alludes to the climactic scene of the 1996 horror film The Craft, in which the deranged Nancy giddily insists that she is flying, even as she lies strapped to a hospital bed. Painted in a primitivist idiom by Solano, the scene acquires a larger and more universal import. It recalls Platonic epistemology or Althusserian notions of ideology, in which enchained subjects embrace an illusion that seems merely to suggest their freedom. Relevant, here, is Solano’s place in a country in which HIV-positive individuals have often been stigmatized. Even the most ludicrous fantasies of flight, in such a grim context, become weirdly justifiable, or even appealing.
As these examples suggest, one of the strengths of the show lies in its inclusion of a variety of media and artistic approaches. Works in clay are placed near three-dimensional digital prints, and while some of the works embrace a cool, almost fetishistic clarity, others opt for a DIY aesthetic. There’s also a significant range of tone: a few of the works embody a cool, icy outrage, while others employ humor, intellectual abstraction, or even a quiet lyricism. Moreover, the show implies an evident interest in geographic diversity, as it features work from countries as diverse as Kenya and Peru. As in earlier triennials, though, the emphasis is on younger, emerging artists—none was born before 1982—and the curators have clearly thought at some length about connections between the works on display.
One of the most potent juxtapositions of works appears in the first room. Brooklyn-based Diamond Stingily’s E.L.G. is an aluminum swing set whose familiarly benign aspect quickly gives way to something more disconcerting. A ladder placed enigmatically at one end leads upwards, and a brick is precariously balanced on the round spine of the set, directly above the swing. The hints of latent violence recall early works by Mona Hatoum, and evoke the occasional violence and raw sadism of children’s games. Public space, here, is troubled; an icon associated with play turns out to have a darker side.
Nearby, six striking works by the Philadelphia-based Wilmer Wilson IV also utilize a metallic vocabulary in gesturing toward the violence that can characterize contemporary urban environments. Wilson gathers promotional ephemera—Xeroxed announcements and advertisements, featuring primarily black subjects—and enlarges them, subsequently affixing them to sizable wooden boards. In extended sessions that can last up to thirty hours, he then pierces them with tens of thousands of industrial staples, leaving visible only hints of the original forms. The visual result is jarring and unique: the staples form a sort of prickly carapace that glints and seems to swirl as we move. The bodies are thus armored, frustrating our gaze, but they also resemble martyred saints, shot through with metal. Once more, then, a seemingly non-threatening emblem of city life is converted into the grounds for a sober meditation.
Or at least that’s my reading. In the typically lengthy accompanying wall text, meanwhile, the curators propose that Wilson’s works celebrate the community that can be fostered through the exchange of such pamphlets. Perhaps—but the larger issue here, really, is the consistent and overbearing attempt by the show’s organizers to shape our reactions. Each artist’s work is accompanied by several dense paragraphs of explication, which inevitably compete for our attention, and repeatedly impose specific readings on otherwise open-ended pieces. The effect is enervating and restrictive, more appropriate to a dissertation than to an exhibition of art.
The curators’ overbearingly didactic use of sound as an atmospheric element is also notable. Each of the show’s three floors features a sound piece or two, and the music and voice overs are allowed to bleed into adjoining spaces, inevitably affecting our responses to other works. A case in point is the South African Haroon Gunn-Salie’s impactful Senzenina, an affecting installation comprised of seventeen life-sized, crouching figures. The figures are headless and handless, and colored a deep black, but they are highly detailed: we can plainly see their shoelaces and downturned collars. They form a loose unit, and they seem to shift their weight in anticipation of something: a haunting aspect, once we realize that they are based on footage taken at the Marikana platinum mine a few moments before seventeen striking miners were gunned down by security forces in 2014. This is a monument, then, and it depicts a pregnant moment before a disaster, a fact intensified by the soundtrack, which is comprised of archival recordings of police preparations, and an anti-apartheid song (which gives the piece its title). The effect is chilling. But it’s also, as you explore the rest of the gallery, disorienting and weirdly acontextual; a violent historical incident is converted into an accompanying soundtrack, or ambient aural backdrop.
More broadly, though, such a piece also prompts the question that surrounds this show: to what end, exactly, such work? A piece like Gunn-Salie’s can feel, despite its phenomenological potency, disappointingly obvious or toothlessly uncontroversial—for who, after all, supports a massacre? But it thus seems worth noting, here and elsewhere in the show, the prominent use of Surrealist tactics: again and again, these artists enlarge, distort, pierce, or fragment familiar motifs. The results are frequently jarring, as the obsessive re-workings of given forms hint at an almost therapeutic vision of artistic labor, and the resulting works of art are often imbued with an uncanny energy. In several cases, they also recall Magritte’s claim that "everyday objects shriek aloud.” Moreover, they seem to accept the Surrealists’ central assumption that an art that defamiliarizes the world and that challenges the limits of ratiocinative thought can be meaningfully liberatory.
In at least a few cases, however, such a reading feels improbably optimistic. A series of small ceramic proposals for replacements to monuments to Columbus by the Barcelona-based Peruvian Daniela Ortiz, for instance, aspires to be savvy, progressive, and global. But it comes across as both predictable and sloppy, as it reiterates clichéd ideas and familiar slogans. Far from a radical, liberatory logic, this is simply slapdash work. Similarly, Violet Dennison’s Stargrass is built around a purportedly significant displacement; on the wall, we see scads of seagrass, suffocated by algae blooms off the coast of Florida, preserved in resin and mounted to the wall in random, cloud-like forms. To be sure, the mass proliferation of algae is an area of grave concern. But does this piece constitute, in any meaningful sense, a viable response? Or does it merely offer the illusion of action and engagement? Regardless: the piece underwhelms, and a few strands of dislodged seagrass rest rather plaintively on the gallery floor nearby.
Ultimately, a similar timidity is apparent throughout this triennial; even the better works propose controlled interventions in artificial circumstances. Consider, for example, a slow-motion video by Manolis Lemos, in which we hover above and behind a group of two dozen hooded figures who jog and scatter down an empty Athenian street in a way that suggests, at once, playfulness, unruliness, and even urban combat. It’s tonally impressive, as it effectively conveys an air of political ambiguity while alluding to cultures of urban surveillance (are we watching, perhaps, from a drone?). In the end, though, it’s also a simple record of a few dozen millennials running on a quiet morning in the city. There are no pedestrians on the street, who might observe such an action; a taxi driver at the end of the street seems unperturbed; nothing is disrupted. Similarly, it’s tempting to wonder how Stingily’s modified playground equipment might gain in effect if it were installed on an actual playground. Or what if Ortiz had actually tried to install her proposed replacements?
Or, to put it differently, it’s notable that the artists in this triennial remain content with a traditional, object-based approach, and conventional gallery displays. As Holland Cotter pointed out in The New York Times, the show feels “oddly removed from the field.” After all, these artists seem to largely concur that the world is in the throes of some sort of crisis. (Although they do disagree about the nature of the crisis: is it environmental? due to the neo-liberal order? a product of colonialism? Each answer has adherents.) Curious to see them, then, respond by making work that is easily commodified and folded into the very systems that they purport to critique.
Clearly, then, we’re far from the ambitiously public and ephemeral creations of, say, Conflict Kitchen, with its provocative menus drawn from regions of the world at odds with America, or Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, a sustained participatory sculpture in the South Bronx. And the openly activist gestures of Wafaa Bilal (who once asked each visitor to a durational performance to donate a dollar to Rally for Iraq) or Mark Bradford (who, in conjunction with last year’s Venice Biennale, established a six-year project that trained Italian prisoners in manual skills and then marketed their goods) find few echoes here. In recent years, the boundary between avant-garde artistic practice and engaged political activism has often been challenged. But this triennial evinces little interest in actual engagement with the world at large; it seems to prefer the clean confines of the gallery to the dusty chaos of the agora.
And yet it would be too simple, I think, to condemn the work in this show, or the show as a whole, as merely misguided or naïve. Applying the language of sabotage to this triennial, as the curators do, is surely too strong. But sabotage is not necessarily always an appropriate political strategy. And art, we would do well to remember, doesn’t have to effect immediate and discernible change to be effective. In his 2014 book Radical History and the Politics of Art, Gabriel Rockhill sketches a sort of taxonomy of points of interaction between artistic and political practices; notably, a literal intersection constitutes only one of his eleven proposed permutations. Art is not a rifle or a stump speech, and a flatly instrumentalist view of art will almost always feel reductive.
Thus, once we brush aside the heated, foggy rhetoric of this show, we’re left with a series of provocative, if modest, forays. This is art that prefers insinuation to instigation; it would rather unsettle than upset. And in that sense, it may be typical of a larger developing tendency. In a different context, Jason Farago recently pointed to a general sense of what might be called creative resignedness in the work of environmentally motivated artists. “More and more,” he wrote, “and not without reason, ecologically engaged artists seem to be moving away from a vocabulary of advocacy and resistance; coming to terms with cataclysm is more the way.” The New Museum’s triennial, similarly, eschews direct confrontation and hints instead at unrealized possibilities in contexts that might usually be taken for granted.
Is that, in the end, enough? That’s an ethical question, ultimately, and one that each viewer will have to answer for herself. Art, it may seem, can only accomplish so much in a time of national alarm and recurring political crises. And an indirect art, content with understatement and traditional forms, may seem especially impotent. But art, again, is not politics; rather, it allows us to see the world from unexpected angles. The smokestacks wobble; the playground looms; the sailors break into smiles as they plunge once more. The familiar, fallen world at large feels imbued with new potential.
Kerr Houston is a professor of art history, theory and criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he has taught since 2002. He is the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (2009) and of a number of articles on Renaissance and contemporary art, which have appeared in journals such as Gesta, Source: Notes in the History of Art, and Art Journal. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and daughter.