Ungovernables: The New Museum Triennial

What to see in the second installment of the Downtown Manhattan museum's survey of young artists from around the world.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 - 12:00 AM


In 1971, the artist John Baldessari made a video in which he assumed all kinds of Vogue-ing-like poses and repeated the phrase, "I am making art" over and over and over. The video was part gag, part conceptual work -- riffing on the idea that it's art if the artist says it's art, but also parodying the silly self-consciousness that can saturate the art world.

Well, get ready to get saturated. The New Museum has just unveiled the second iteration of its triennial, titled The Ungovernables, which features the work of artists who were born between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s. The museum has brought these myriad figures together -- from countries as disparate as Vietnam, Argentina and Lebanon -- under a theme that is supposed to be all about a generation that has come of age in the post-colonial, increasingly globalist '80s and '90s.

As a theme, it's a bit of a hot mess (as curator Eungie Joo acknowledges in the catalogue essay, it's damn near impossible to peg what a generation is about while they're "in formation"). But what unites much of the work in the show is the hyper-conceptual language of the work. You can practically hear the artists saying, "I am making art. I am making art." Or at the very least, "I am taking some stuff I found and recontextualizing it within the glaring white walls of a mainstream arts institution."

Though it speaks the international language of art school, the show is nonetheless worthwhile. For one, there's the variety of work. (Kudos to the curators for including a broad array of artists from outside the Bermuda Art Triangle of London, New York and Berlin). And, two, there are some genuinely interesting pieces -- towering sculptures made of clay, videos about destruction, and the pages of a found diary. Here are the must-sees:

  1. Jonathas de Andrade, Ressaca Tropical (Tropical Hangover), 2009, on the fifth floor: The artist takes entries from a discarded diary written primarily in the 1970s and juxtaposes them with images of his hometown of Recife, in Brazil. For the voyeur, the piece is a wonder to behold: mundane entries that document romantic encounters and trouble with the boss surround the occasional deep thought about the nature of freedom (in a bit about Papillon) or reflections on communism (the diary's author found it anti-human) -- all of it, written against the backdrop of the brutal Brazilian dictatorship of the 1970s, which never rears its head in the entries. The piece is a stark record of human ambivalence and contradiction.
  2. Adrián Villar Rojas, A Person Loved Me, 2012, on the fourth floor: Part crash-landed spaceship, part Mayan ruin, Villar's monumental clay sculpture takes us to a retro-future of ossified technology. It's dank and earthy smell makes it feel appropriately graveyard. Double whoa.
  3. Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado, O Século [The Century], 2011, third floor: A nine-minute video shows an overview of an empty street that is slowly filled with flying detritus: plastic hard hats, milk crates, smashed neon tubes, breaking glass and smoke. The viewer never sees who is doing the breaking. A visual poem to the act of destruction.
  4. Hassan Khan, JEWEL, 2010, second floor: Two men dressed in street clothes dance to a thumping mix of Shaabi music (Khan is also a composer), which mixes traditional instrumentation with electronica. Set in a grey room, the men clearly aren't professional dancers, moving in awkward ways and making rather un-dancer-like gestures. But there's something charming and mysterious about their crude movements and the music couldn't be more beguiling.
  5. The Propeller Group, TVC Communism, 2011, third floor: Though it's overwrought in its installation, this twisted piece of video work by a collective based in Vietnam definitely deserves an honorable mention. The premise: the group got an advertising agency to do a new branding campaign for communism. The piece consists of a giant video screen circle that shows the brainstorming process (with white board!), but the real deal is the commercial the team created, off to one side, which comes complete with treacly music, Olympics-style logo and slogan that goes, "This is the new communism. Everyone's welcome."

The Ungovernables opens on Wednesday at the New Museum.

Carolina A. Miranda
'We The People,' by Danh Vo -- in which the artist got craftsmen in China to reproduce the Statue of Liberty -- shown here in pieces. Who knew Lady Liberty was so Frank Gehry?
Carolina A. Miranda
The group Slavs and Tatars focuses on the politics and cultures of Slavic Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Seen here is the installation 'PrayWay,' from 2012.
Carolina A. Miranda
The public is invited to sit on the work -- which set ups a traditional Persian rug in the form of a prayerbook, outlined in neon. Overdone, yet incredibly comfortable.
Carolina A. Miranda
On the fifth floor, the Thai artist Pratchaya Phinthong displays a pile of devalued Zimbabwean money as sculpture.
Carolina A. Miranda
A detail from Jonathas de Adrade's intriguing fifth floor installation 'Ressaca Tropical,' which combines pictures of the city of Recife, Brazil with entries form a found diary.
Carolina A. Miranda
Sharing the same space was an installation by Ala Younis (with Masao Adachi & Koji Wakmatsu), from a forthcoming book that explores the legacy of militarism.
Carolina A. Miranda
A detail from the project 'Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography Project,' in which 12 photographers set out to examine the differences and shared experiences of African communities.
Carolina A. Miranda
The exhibition contained a wall full of canvases by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, an artist of Ghanaian descent who now lives in London.

These were a little staid. The Studio Museum Harlem displayed far more gripping and unsettling work at the artist's solo show in 2010 (more here).

Carolina A. Miranda
Rojas's sculpture certainly sucked the air out of the fourth floor galleries with its scale, its crumbly nature and its earthy smell.
Carolina A. Miranda
You've seen the show, now get the rock band-style T-shirt -- very Metallica.


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About Gallerina

Carolina A. Miranda is a regular contributor to WNYC and blogs about the arts for the station as "Gallerina." In addition to that, she contributes articles on culture, travel and the arts to a variety of national and regional media, including Time, ArtNews, Travel + Leisure and Budget Travel and Florida Travel + Life. She has reported on the burgeoning industry of skatepark design, architectural pedagogy in Southern California, the presence of street art in museums and Lima's burgeoning food scene, among many other subjects. In 2008, she was named one of eight fellows in the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program for her arts and architecture blog, which has received mentions in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In January of 2010, the Times named her one of nine people to follow on Twitter. Got a tip? E-mail her at c [@] c-monster [dot] net


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