2018 Triennial: Songs For Sabotage
13 February - 27 May, 2018
Review by Torey Akers
Much has already been made of the New Museum’s move towards a more ‘analog’ Triennial this year; the art press at large seems flabbergasted by the focus on painting and sculpture in a self-consciously cutting edge show, as if innovation can only be defined by its relative proximity to Sophia the AI robot. Words like “safe” and “stale” have been bandied about in response to Songs of Sabotage, the aforementioned collection of twenty-six young and super-young artists from nineteen different countries, but to locate such dismissive critiques in the artworks themselves feels tedious, if not a bit reductive. Besides, disparaging any lone piece on display would require the super-human ability to block out the visual cacophonies of its neighbors - alas, there’s hardly a caesura in sight, and even fewer thought-provoking pairings. Instead, co-curators Alex Garfield and Gary Carrion-Murayari emboldened their respective teams to take up the mantle of garbled pseudo-intellectualism (insert predictably vague press-release verbiage about propagandist imaging here) and attempt the impossible—a diverse, coherent group exhibition that typifies the Now. Not only does this staunchly Modernist approach to a multi-temporal, international art consciousness present endless academic pot-holes, but it also traps its participants in a brutal catch-22; by trying to fulfill their museological marching orders, the artists involved inevitably succumb to the “late-capitalist” thought-crimes they were tasked to resolve.
Beyond the false pretense of geo-political subversion by the art elite, the works themselves barely address what passes as a central conceit in Songs of Sabotage. They just…can’t, given the theme’s opacity. (The museum’s previous show, Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, suffered a similar fate). As a result, chaos reigns, and rarely to great collective effect. Under any other circumstances, bemoaning an excess of good ideas would be considered a fabulous problem to have. In this case, however, too much noise does a disservice to everybody, and an odd one at that; the Triennial of 2015 boasted almost twice the amount of artists, most of whom were working with various forms of immersive tech, but managed to avoid the bloated confusion of its most recent iteration. New Museum’s copy for the show declares, Songs for Sabotage explores interventions into cities, infrastructures, and the networks of everyday life, proposing objects that might create common experience.” If that common experience is “…huh?” then, absolutely.
Still, the individual triumphs abounding in this year’s Triennial shouldn’t be overlooked. ‘Senzenina’ (2018), a disarming figurative installation by South African artist Haroon Gunn-Salie, memorializes the coal-mining victims of a gruesome police massacre. Cian Dayrit’s excellent 2D mappings of Philippine colonial history flank both sides of Gunn-Salie’s floor-piece, much to the detriment of both parties; it is physically impossible to study Dayrit’s work from a practical distance without tripping over Gunn-Salie’s display. A strong series of constructivist-inspired weavings by Russian newcomer, Zhenya Machneva, hides quietly behind a partition, waiting to be discovered. Peruvian artist Daniela Ortiz also delivers a suite of stand-out works - miniature ceramic prototypes for anti-colonialist monuments, a wry, ferocious project that exemplifies the true heart of Songs of Sabotage –resistance as the practice of living, however modest, wincing or still. Lydia Ourahmane’s rending ‘Finitude’ (2018), an invisibly mechanized stucco wall that slowly self-destructs over the course of the exhibition, occupies a stairwell alcove that barely registers as a work of art on first glance. Ourahmane’s piece seizes the viewer in a low, anxious ache, an emotive technique that proves the exceptional power of refusal in contemporary identity politic. Diamond Stingily’s ‘E.L.G.’ (2018) operates in a similar vein. Her menacing, life-size swing-set, modified by a brick placed precariously on its top beam, uses a filmic suspense paradigm to feed the specter of an uncertain future. Despite the projected purpose of Songs, which clumsily demands a “call to action” on the part of its makers, the best pieces on view balk at self-exploitation. Instead, installations like Stingily’s opt for absence, letting the devastating truths of survival grow heavy in the viewer’s gut.
This leads us back to the show’s major curatorial quagmire; it requires air, and there’s little to go around. Songs of Sabotage’s fourth floor is the most successful by far, but the curation still finds ways to shortchange ‘E.L.G’ and Wilmer Wilson IV’s spectacular mixed-media pieces hanging nearby, which feature appropriated promotional images obscured by gleaming, dense ripples of office staples. Plywood portraits like ‘Afr’ (2017) and ‘Bout’ (2017) re-imagine the advertising lexicon of Wilson’s West Philadelphia neighborhood by encasing black bodies in coats of everyday armor, leaving visual gasps like hands or shoes untouched. These tandem themes of humanization through removal grate badly against Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude’s bright, busy paintings next door; they, too, must endure the indignity of low lighting designated for Wilson’s work.
Notably, the paintings chosen or commissioned for Songs of Sabotage feel among the most commercial in its ranks. Miami-based Janieva Ellis’ calculated color bombs cleverly deploy the market-legible brand of pastiche that viewers accept as cool; take ‘Thrill Issues’ (2017), which whips art history, anime, and racial discontent into a frothy, screaming frenzy of light and line. Chemu Ng’ok, a native of Kenya, entangles social commentary with lingering, expressionistic brushwork, but her color palette hums with the same wet greens and booming oranges that manifest in every imaginable Chelsea storefront. Even Haitian-born Tomm El-Saieh’s lush, painful monochromes skew just to the left of decoration.
While each painting on view in Songs of Sabotage might pack a punch on its own, when grouped, this pervasive, globalized homogeneity only undercuts the swollen pomp ascribed to Songs of Sabotage by its organizers, and points, perhaps, to a more sinister condescension afoot in the galleries themselves. Songs of Sabotage does not represent some haphazard convergence of scrappy rebels; any member of the New Museum’s circle knows the sophisticated dance steps required to partake. Art can never cast a vote, or start a war, but in its limpest permutations, art can serve as convenient placebo-penance for white liberal guilt. Songs of Sabotage leaves a mild taste of insincerity behind at the general expense of the voices its curators seem eager to elevate, a shame, given the exemplary quality so palpable throughout. This strange theatre of loose ends and missed connections is summarized dreamily in Manolis D. Lemos’ second floor video projection, entitled ‘dusk and dawn look just the same (riot tourism)’ (2017). A handful of identically dressed figures run in grainy slow motion through an abandoned commercial district in Athens. A haunting Greek folk song can be heard in the background. The actors are anonymous; their world feels infinite in its vacancy. An impulse for flight defines itself by a lack of direction, and fight hardly fits antithetically in that void. What does protest look like in the eye of nothing? Where should everyone be going? These are the kind of questions Songs of Sabotage tries its best to ask, but when curators lobby for a pre-emptive answer, even thoughtful pieces get lost in the shuffle.