‘The Ungovernables’ is more serious and political than its predecessor, but still has a hard time defining a generation

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'Eavesdropping (Version #2, large)' by Amalia Pica. (courtesy New Museum)
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At Tuesday night’s opening for The Ungovernables, the New Museum’s second go at its contemporary art triennial, called “The Generational,” a young woman posed for a photograph on the top floor of the exhibition, bathed in two overlapping circles of light, red and green.

The blog photographer who had asked her to pose clicked the button on his S.L.R. a few times, handed the woman a business card reading “BABES AT THE MUSEUM,” and continued circulating through the crowd, most likely unaware that he had just photographed this “babe” saturated in the light of an artwork about some of the worst abuses of the Argentine dictatorship and the dirty war of the 1970s. He likely just thought it looked cool.

After 2009’s Generational show, Younger than Jesus, The New Museum’s first go at this recurring exhibition of young, international artists, the photographer might be forgiven for his willingness to use a work referencing brutal dictatorial repression as a babe-frame. That first show got by on the polemic of its title, multimedia overload, hipness, and zaniness. It was cool and it was certainly young, but what else? Certainly it didn’t have much in the way of politics, but The Ungovernables (on through April 22) is different.   

With this second effort, the triennial series itself seems to be playing out The New Museum’s identity crisis. Exhibitions at the museum have tended to vacillate between the extremes of flashy spectacle and critical engagement, the two most recent shows, Carsten Höller: Experience and Ostalgia, being good examples. The Höller show was relational aesthetics—a movement devoted to social interaction—at its most privatized and spectacularized (people signing releases so they can barrel down a slide is not relational). “Ostalgia,” by contrast, was an ambitious and multifaceted historical look at art under soviet and communist rule and the surprising nostalgic sentiments that many former citizens of the Eastern Bloc retain for those times.

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The Ungovernables falls largely in the latter category. It is a decidedly more somber, serious, and confident affair than Younger Than Jesus. Its title is less provocative too, but that underscores a rather self-conscious ambition. The curator, Eungie Joo, attempts to pack a more substantive punch into this exhibition by asserting highly personal—often political—engagement with the world as the synchronizing force of youth and globalism. In Joo’s words it is “an exhibition that acknowledges its failure to fully represent a generation in formation and instead embraces the energy of that generation’s urgencies.”

Though it’s never said outright, the subtext for all of this is undoubtedly the revolutions in the Arab world and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the West. Joo’s lofty aspirations, which seem to spring from this groundswell, are somewhat incongruous with the format of the museum and the specificity of the individual artworks. The show’s seriousness, however, is often pleasantly and contemplatively played out through the strength of the individual works. In preparing for the show, Joo visited many of the artists in their places of residence, selecting the works she wanted to display with an eye to producing a more cohesive international group show. This is a welcome change from the format of Younger Than Jesus where selection was conducted through a regionalized recommendations process, that contributed to the confusing melee of that show.

The charge of the aforementioned light projection piece, Venn Diagrams, pictured at left, certainly succeeds in being affectingly personal and engaging. The installation, by Argentine artist Amalia Pica, is one of four works that starts out the exhibition on the museum’s fifth floor. From a formal and aesthetic standpoint it’s understandable why the “babes” photographer would select it for his photo; the work is indeed quite beautiful. Though most people will quickly see it as a Venn diagram, the ordering of the two circles also reads like a post-minimalist reflection on perception. The different colors overlap to create a new color zone in the same way that binocular vision is the synthesis of two disparate views.

Yet its initial simplicity, and even its art historical sheen, yields to the sobering account related by its caption which informs the viewer that in Argentina, at the time Pica was growing up, group theory and Venn diagrams were banned from primary school curricula by the repressive Videla government which feared that they inspired subversive forms of group collectivity. The simplicity of the Venn Diagram as a form of data chart, or the humor of it as a laconic meme for countless tumblr blogs, gives way to a very real and very serious traumatic past that was experienced by Pica and an entire nation.

Nearby is Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade’s Ressaca Tropical [Tropical Hangover], 2009, a sprawling installation of reproductions from a diary that de Andrade found in Recife, Brazil, where he lives and works. The work wraps around the entire far side of the fifth-floor gallery’s walls, effectively filling the small space and furthering the exhibition’s initial sense of intimacy. The diary entries are accompanied with old photos of de Andrade’s friends and views of Recife’s architecture.

The photos, often in black and white and of older modernist-style housing projects that have given way to the effects of time, mix with the personal tenor of the texts which charts a straight but unordered path through the scattered images. The private dimension of the text contrasts with the nostalgic sense of loss conjured by the fact that the diary entries are exhibited as reproductions. The photos of bourgeois leisure culture clash with the images of the aging modernist housing projects and illustrate the odd tensions that exist between Brazil’s rising middle class and the largely disavowed poor.

One floor down (though there is no specific instruction to do so, most take the exhibition top-to-bottom), viewers first encounter Hong Kong artist Lee Kit’s Scratching the table surface and something more, 2012, for which, over the course of two years, the artist scratched through the surface of his work table. The work suggests an interest in temporality but also the sort of bored, aimless repetitive effort of someone contained, imprisoned, or censored. Hence the simple scratching is at once an acceptably abstract performative gesture and a refusal, highlighting the unintended ticks and gestures that mark time spent in free contemplation. Interestingly, on the adjacent wall are a pair of rather non-abstract works on paper, both by Indian artist Minam Apang.

But walking out from the short hall that contains Scratching, visitors can’t help but be aware of the massive spatial-void behind them and the gargantuan sculpture filling it. This work, by Adrián Villar Rojas, is a massive mixed media sculpture called A Person Loved Me, 2012. It is the most commanding work in the exhibition and on first appearance feels like a bit of a cheap thrill, looking like a tumescent bricolage of mechanomorphic forms flailing out into surrounding space. On further reflection, the work comes to have a surprisingly gentle touch and the material appears almost light. Though it has a cement-like appearance, the work is made mostly of clay and has a local, craft-like feel to it which contrasts with the robotic forms emanating out of it. The techno-anxiety, the sense of cultural loss and social decline that the work expresses, is mitigated by the surface’s fragile craquelure, and the work feels like less of a comment on technological and bureaucratic control than an emblem of social ossification.

The monumental installation was made on-site specifically for the show and is certainly one of its star performers. Still, it struggles to fully impose itself on the viewer, as others have noted. Rojas installed a forest of similar sculptures at last year’s Venice Biennial and that dense installation was, by all accounts, an impressive and imposing display of anxiety. Alone on the lofty fourth floor A Person Loved Me doesn’t have the same force, but still affords intrigue and contemplation through its forms and materials.

Though it admirably attempts to fill the space, A Person Loved Me unfortunately obstructs another intriguing work, Eavesdropping (Version #2, Large), 2011, the second in the show by Amalia Pica. The work is composed of dozens of found drinking glasses that have been glued to the wall. It would have been interesting to have a full, unobstructed view of the work, but even without that opportunity it, like Venn Diagram, is another soft-spoken, formally engaged installation that upon further reflection has a political edge.

Putting one’s ear to a glass pressed against a wall to hear what’s happening on the other side is both an activity of childhood play, and an intrusive voyeuristic act. In the context of the Museum and of Pica’s upbringing in a military surveillance state, the multi-color arrangement of glasses feels sinister—all the more so for the glasses’ simple, mass-produced innocence. Of course, museums are institutions that package such voyeuristic desires as guilt-free high culture and this is one count where the exhibition, and the New Museum, mostly ignore or avoid their own compliancy. For all of its bravado about politics and youth insurgence against traditional structures and institutions, the one thing the works don’t tend to turn much of a critical eye toward is the museum, and walking around the The Ungovernables, the works often feel quite docile within these sanctified spaces.

Eavesdropping is one exception. Another is Dark Day, 2012, by Abigail DeVille, a Bronx-born artist whose work fills an alcove off of the odd staircase that connects floors three and four on the backside of the museum’s elevator shaft. In this space DeVille has created a cluttered and constricted installation, filled with items from her own home as well as junk found on the street. The work is one of the few pieces whose site-specificity directly intervenes with and disrupts the architecture of the museum by busting upwards through the central shaft of the building. Visitors are invited to enter into the small space (a common artistic breach), but people seemed hesitant to do so. Once immersed, the gaze is directed upwards through the space’s ruptured ceiling and into the shaft  continuing above.

DeVille spent three weeks installing the work and the sense of constriction in the space as well as the implication of unseen refuse expanding upwards is a surprisingly welcome sensation after the vacuity of the fourth floor. The rupture feels like the return of the repressed and is a reminder that the New Museum, located on the Bowery, and has been at the forefront of the neighborhood’s gentrification. At one point DeVille’s clutter would have been a much more common site in this neighborhood than the massive aluminum and steel lattice of the New Museum’s exterior.

The third floor has the most awkward feel of any in the exhibition. The first works encountered are several sculptural works and a painting by Toronto/New York artist Julia Dault. For her sculptures, Dault bent and torqued plexiglass, formica and other industrial materials into balanced poses and shapes that are contingent upon their location and maintained by gravity and tension (and in some cases straps apparent to the viewer). They are historically conscious formulations in the cannon of post-minimalist sculpture, and good ones at that, but felt too embedded in their abstract physicality to match the impact of most of the other work on view. The most conspicuous work on the floor is Prayway, 2012, by the Eurasian collective Slavs and Tatars, comprised an angled steel armature pitched at its apex, covered with a Persian rug, and with a blue glow emanating from beneath it, like a pimped-out magic carpet. Visitors are invited to sit on the rug, and at the opening it was a popular little lounge area. The collective behind the work tends to use modernist and traditional forms and values to create spaces for open dialogue and exchange. That’s about all it does, but the invitation to recline and converse felt refreshing after the introspective character of so much of the show.

At the other end of the floor, placed incredibly awkwardly in a corner, is an immersive five-channel synchronized video installation called TVC Communism, 2011, by the Vietnamese collective The Propeller Group. The videos document an ad agency’s roundtable discussion of the core elements of communism which they discuss in order to develop more effective branding for it. The viewer walks into a circle of screens, giving the feel of being “in” the meeting as it takes place. Outside the circle is the animated advertisement eventually developed by the agency. (The project was done, interestingly enough, by a Vietnam-based ad agency, TBWA\Vietnam.)

The subjects under debate in the ad meeting vary from aesthetic concerns to deeply theoretical ruminations on social progress and revolution. It’s a fascinating look at the commodification of communism, but not as an ironic focus on the contradictions at play, but rather a serious reflection on the state of communication and ideology in the modern age. Compared to some of the other works, it’s a more detached and straightforward look at political realities, but engaging as a document of global and political realities.