text > Les Ungovernables: The 2012 Triennial at the New Museum

The 2012 Triennial at the New Museum opened in mid-February under the name: “The Ungovernables.” One can presume that in choosing such a name, the curators Eungie Joo and Ryan Inouye may have alluded to some illustrious event of the past, to something like les refusés or les misérables – names which in the history of artistic and literary modernism have been used to express defiance and revolt on the part of those who have been rejected, ignored, or exploited. Today, in the age of positivism, they are referred to using numbers: “the 99 percent.” Some press reviewers have in fact suggested that the event was inspired by the Occupy movement but, already in their first paragraphs, they cast serious doubts upon whether what they saw carefully ordered on the floors and walls of this museum truly conveyed that state of insurrection that they may or may not have witnessed in Zuccotti or other occupied park.[1] Indeed, for such a carefully administered event to take a name that claims just the opposite seems to be part of the very logic of today’s over-governed world.

What is distinct in the style of curatorial governance rehearsed at the New Museum is the special attention that this young institution devotes to youth. Youthfulness was trumpeted already in 2009 when this new museum announced its first Triennial under the name “Younger than Jesus.” For this edition the organizers have expanded the age limit to include artists who are slightly older than the Son of God was at the time of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The celebration of youth, vigor and energy – which may or may not call to mind certain mid-twentieth century idealizations of youth and regeneration placed by certain radicals at the center of a new social order – is everywhere emphasized. Labels on the walls present each artist first by name and then instantly and resolutely by the year of their birth, as if the curators wanted to suggest that biological age and good health have been major criteria of selection.

There are many ways to begin to describe this large event, which gathered, on five floors of the New Museum, 50 artists and collectives from various corners of the earth. One could proceed according to the artists’ years of birth, by their gender, by country or continent, but rather than opt for one of these simple taxonomies, it might be better to try others, moving for instance from floor to floor – by the stairs or the elevator – and taking a look at those works that have won the public’s approval, or grouping artworks in accordance with certain aesthetic or artistic postulates.

On one floor most of the audience gathers in front of Pilvi Takala’s PowerPoint presentation and video installation titled The Trainee (2008). The artist – who was born in 1981 – comments, and quite hilariously, on the internal life of contemporary multinational corporations. The video, shot with a hidden camera, shows edited fragments from her month-long stay at the international accounting firm Deloitte. The label on the wall explains that after being hired “the artist abandoned all pretense of work, spending her time sitting motionless at her desk, staring out the window of the tax library, or, on one occasion, spending the day riding the elevator.” When her colleagues – all hard-working accountants and business advisors – ask Pilvi Takala what is she doing staring all day at a wall, the impostor responds: “I am doing brain work.” The PowerPoint, in the meantime, positions on the wall of the museum an exchange of emails among the employees, who are asking each other what kind of “brain work” the new “trainee” does at Deloitte. The public likes the work very much, perhaps because it makes evident how easy it is for a contemporary artist to turn something we all deem serious and important into a farce.

One floor up, and here the crowd is gathering inside a pentagon formed by an arrangement of five huge LED HDTV displays (55 inches or more diagonally). The synchronized five-channel video installation by the Propeller group (founded in 2006 in Ho Chi Minh City) is called TVC Communism (2011). The installation introduces the viewer into the internal mechanics of another profitable business in today’s global economy – marketing and advertising. It shows the process of brainstorming for a commercial media campaign, for branding or rather re-branding a new product: Communism. A separate monitor on the wall presents what appears to be the end result of this brain-branding session – an animated commercial showing happy people holding hands, producing cheerful faces and sharing Communism, which takes the material form of multi-colored half-ring objects. The animation resembles an ad for the Olympic Games. The public is again amused but not surprised, knowing perhaps very well that sooner or later they might be ready to buy such a product.

One more floor up, and here people congregate around an enormous object – I am even afraid to call it a sculpture – made by the Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas (born in 1980). The work, which resembles a top-secret military experiment or an alien spaceship that landed some time ago right in between the fourth and the fifth floors of the New Museum, is called A person loved me (2012). The strange object is made out of unburned clay which is quick to develop cracks and splits; it crumbles tiny clay powder onto the fourth floor of the museum, quietly suggesting decay and ruin. People walk around exclaiming in silence: “This is insane!”

Going up and down the floors of the building and noticing the most popular works is not the only way of talking about the works at the Triennial. My favorite way of dividing artworks is according to the categories of “works that do not know what they are (or what they want to say)” and “works that know very well in advance what their message is.” It must be noted that it is the latter category that is especially popular with the audience. I can see how an old school aestheticians might find, in this reaction of the public, traces of a philistinism that demands something meaningful, enjoyable, beautiful or at least promising from art. But in any case, works that do not know what they have to offer look a bit abandoned and solitary. ALL THIS THIS HERE (2012), by the Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle (born in 1974) consists of a bucket placed in the middle of a small puddle. That’s it, no less no more. The work raises a series of questions and doubts: what liquid is that; was the liquid initially in the bucket; is there a hole in the bucket; how small is the hole; how long did it take to form the puddle; and so forth. The work might also raise another serious question: what can it tell us about the world outside the museum’s walls?

Another contribution that would I like to bring under the category of works that do not know what they are is the video Jewel (2010) by Hassan Khan (born in 1975 in London). In the video two men dance to a loud electro-oriental score composed by the artist. The label tells us: “…Khan creates an unmarked, neutral grey space (echoed by the installation space itself), in which two men interact with each other through dance… Jewel explores the compression of an era reflected through the vernacular languages it has produced.” Frankly, I failed to see any “gray space” or even “the compression of an era,” but stood there and watched in a hypnotic trance (like a bunny watching a snake) the beautiful dancing of these two men.

Works at the other extreme of this comparative model might include WE THE PEOPLE (2011) by Dahn Võ (born in 1975). The artist worked with craftsmen in China to produce for the Triennial fragments of the full-scale exterior skin of the Statue of Liberty. This is the type of work which I regard as knowing in advance what it wants to offer. It rises forward in a language very familiar to the viewer: from the first words of the U.S. constitution (in the title) to one of the most exploited symbols of our age (Miss Liberty), and from its being “made in China” to “disassemblage” and “deconstruction” as some of the most favored techniques of contemporary art. All of this rushes to place in the minds of the viewers ready-made words and images, easing the work of journalists and bloggers. No wonder perhaps that it is precisely this work that has been most reproduced on the pages of the major newspapers that covered the Triennial.

Another way to talk about the Triennial is to mention those works that quote already established “classical” approaches in contemporary art. Take for instance the work of 1979-born Mariana Telleria entitled Days of Truth (2012). Arranged on the shelves, the viewer finds a collection of interacting objects: a basketball wrapped in tree twigs, which brings to mind the crown of thorns on the head of a martyr; packages of different sizes tightly packaging each other; a bottle with its label attached inside-out; stones, roots or leaves having a tête-à-tête with man-made products. All of these interactions, meditative and subtle, instantly bring to mind the rich Latin American tradition of concrete art, conceptualism or of those thoughtful sculptures made by such artists as Cildo Meireles or Gabriel Orozco. Then, walking down by the stairs from the fifth floor, one pauses to sneak into a niche filled by Abigail DeVille (born in 1981) with various materials collected in the streets. Dark Day (2012) looks like the place from which someone has just flown into space, though not from a Soviet apartment as did one of Kabakov’s older characters, but from an elevator shaft at the New Museum.

But I would like to conclude now with youth, which occupies such a prominent place at the New Museum.

During the period of the Soviet revolutionary avant-garde, Alexander Bogdanov – one of the ideologues of the Proletkult – was reflecting on how a new socialist art could be different from its capitalist version. One of the distinctive features he proposed was the idea of  “generational friendship,” which is to say that a new socialist art would strive toward establishing new forms of cooperation among various generations of artists. It was unification and merging, rather than separation and exclusion according to the criterion of age, that Bogdanov found essential for a true socialist art. For an event that claims to have been inspired or set within the left-wing rhetorical context of the Occupy movement, such “radical” principles might have been something to take note of.


Octavian Esanu, Published in ArtExperience: NYC, Spring 2012, Vol. I, No. 7

[1] See for instance Holland Cotter, “Quiet Disobedience,” New York Times, February 16, 2012.