The New Museum Triennial invites 30 artists and collectives from 19 countries to New York.
Titled “Songs for Sabotage”, the Triennial considers activism and political resistance. Art Radar looks at six artists who engage with these themes through different media.
“Songs for Sabotage” is the fourth edition of the New Museum Triennial, an internationally renowned event ongoing since 2009. Devoted to highlighting an international array of emerging artists, the programme’s curators maintain a reputation of pinpointing young, trend-setting practitioners who are setting the future of contemporary art. Previous years have focused on collective action, political activism and globalisation, each edition embodying the museum’s long-standing commitment to exploring the future of culture through today’s budding artists.
The 2018 model takes place at a moment of profound social, economic and political upheaval, not only in the New Museum’s American locale, but throughout the world. The curators – Gary Carrion-Murayari, Kraus Family Curator of the New Museum, and Alex Gartenfeld, Founding Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary (ICA), Miami – have set aside the speculative approach that so often characterises contemporary art curation to focus, instead, on the ways in which younger generations react to political dischord in local and international arenas. Thirty artists and collectives, all between the ages of 25 and 35 have turned “Songs of Sabotage” into a call to action to combat late capitalism and systemic injustice.
Across varying media, artists from Haiti, Peru, Russia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, China and elsewhere track political and economic networks, “linked to entrenched structures of colonialism and racism that magnify inequality”. In the exhibition catalogue, New Museum Director Lisa Phillips states:
Through their distinct approaches, the artists in “Songs for Sabotage” offer models for dismantling and replacing the various systems of power that envelop today’s global youth.
In adopting the notion of sabotage as a model for artistic production, the exhibition claims that what unites emerging artists is an understanding of the confines of global networks and a desire to respond with individual, localised gestures. According to the director, artists must work against the ruthlessness of political and economic demarcations, despite their slim chances of destroying them.
To many of the artists, it is clear that the contemporary art world is situated within these networks, but their response is to produce objects that do not satisfy the desire for escapist or futurist narratives. “Songs for Sabotage” walks the line between “refusal and degradation”, between that which gets labeled as ‘politics’ and that which is beyond visibility, vis-a-vis social and economic imbalances.
Art Radar takes a closer look at six artists who examine such imbalances through storytelling and “aesthetic resistance”.
1. Cian Dayrit
Filipino artist Cian Dayrit focuses on the ways in which economic exploitation and racial discrimination are inherently tied to the legacy of colonialism worldwide. His complex woven paintings create map-like structures that work against contemporary institutional constructs of national identity imposed by governmental and religious entities alike. An ongoing project since 2013, Dayrit’s pieces adopt titles like Civilised Society, Objects of Colonial Desire and Landlessness in the Islands, noting the artist’s didactic and advocacy-oriented position. In conversation with the curators, Dayrit explains that he uses cartography in order “to tackle issues of power, control and memory”, with a critical eye cast towards the colonial gaze and histories of economic exploitation in the Philippines.
Not only do Dayrit’s detailed works offer physical representations of location, but they also provide physical gestures of mythologised space, a “land for the landless”.
2. Zhenya Machneva
Zhenya Machneva’s tapestries take on industrial subject matter, rendering machine parts and factory architecture in picturesque and romantic scenes. The crux of her work, notes her catalogue entry, is a personal empathy for “degradation and decay”. The Russian artist replaces a nostalgic longing for things lost and forgotten with an intimate connection to something which is nearly extinct. Seeking to preserve memories for herself and her viewers, Machneva avoids the pathos inherent in the approach of a museum worker or a documentary photographer, opting instead to capture industrial reality through elegant weavings.
Her labourious process is, in a way, a chance to reclaim and pay tribute to industrial machinery. She carries out an aesthetic project in order to highlight “a bitter industrial reality into a language built from harmonious color combinations”. Beyond this, Machneva’s practice alludes to a domestic realm, one where greasy cogs and gears are brought home and given new meaning.
3. Anupam Roy
Though he approaches power hierarchies through different means, New Delhi-based artist Anupam Roy repeatedly seeks to “obstruct its workings”. Roy’s drawings and painted banners explicitly adopt the tactics of propaganda to document and denounce the impact of political, religious and ethnic violence that continues to trouble India. His works interrogate his local government and large corporations with imagery that offers both horrific images of injustice and tools for political activist novices. Here, traditional definitions of propaganda are reconsidered: rather than subverting and demoralising an audience, as many propagadistic images are wont to do, Roy’s current work strives to mobilise, to construct a horizontal, wide-reaching network of conversations.
4. Song Ta
Guangzhou-based artist Song Ta uses video to intervene in the functioning of governmental bureaucracies that control daily lives of Chinese citizens. By regularly collaborating with other practitioners and like-minded thinkers, he encourages individuals and groups from all walks of life to break from their highly regulated routines.
In his seminal work, Who Is the Loveliest Guy (2014), Song Ta convinces an entire unit of the Chinese navy to ride an amusement park rollercoaster, documenting the adventure with video and kitschy souvenir photographs. The key to interpreting the piece, scholar Anthony Yung suggests, is the word ‘lovely’, which is kě ài (可愛) in its original Chinese. The work was inspired by Wei Wei’s 1951 political essay “Who are the Most Beloved People?”, which translates the same word into English quite differently. Deeply moved by the stories of Chinese soldiers in the Korean War, which he declared “the most beloved people”, the essay was regarded highly by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and was soon widely distributed in school textbooks. Despite its militaristic and propagandistic efforts, the text remained in schools until 2007. Though undoubtedly humorous, Who Is the Loveliest Guy serves to visually undermine the authoritarian charade that soldiers are meant to uphold.
5. Wong Ping
Along a similar vein, Hong Kong-based artist Wong Ping looks at the obstacles facing Chinese youth in urban environments. His self-taught animation style takes the form of surreal short stories, often decoyed as children’s fairytales, yet which depict goofy cartoon characters who are sexualised, exploited and threatened. Their juvenile and often comical surface narratives disguise a sharp critique of Hong Kong city life since its 1997 transition from the United Kingdom to China.
Yung Ma writes for the Triennial’s catalogue:
Wong’s work uses satire to express political smallness in the face of autocracy: it proffers a twisted realignment of the traditional relationship between a granddad and his grandchildren in a darkly sweet world from which there is little hope of escape.
With much of Wong’s work being accessible via YouTube or Vimeo, widespread audiences are unknowingly introduced to his neon shorts and their bleak underlying prerogatives. They emit tales of toxicity and tension brought about by insecurity, a misogynistic and hegemonic culture, and an increasingly controlled society that perpetuates these inherited norms. For Wong, the absurd is undoubtedly connected to the banal just as fiction is rooted in truth.
6. Shen Xin
Born in Chengdu, China and based in the Netherlands, Shen Xin considers the complexity within interpersonal relationships and normalised power structures. A no-nonsense kind of player, the artist “rejects the fundamental, abstract essentialism in social relations or forms of political resistance”, and instead focuses on what is enabled by being hyperaware of routine daily occurrences. The video artist ponders whether or not power is – in the traditional sense of the word – harmful or wicked. From this ambivalence rises an ethical question: with every act towards dismantling authoritative power structures, how do we avoid establishing another?
Shen’s moving image work, Provocation of the Nightingale (2017–18), has travelled between London, Beijing and New York, each iteration gathering more and more traction. This transformation reflects Shen’s commitment to complexity and her openness – nay, enthusiasm – towards deconstructing and re-imagining power structures. The two-channel installation holds the capacity for reflection and affective openness, a field of provocation and questioning that urges us to imagine a politics within everyday life that moves through, and is mobilised by, the processes globalising the present.
A short quote is referenced at the start of the exhibition’s catalogue:
To work today is to be asked, more and more, to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to act without question, to translate without pause, to desire without purpose, to connect without interruption.
Alluding to the scholar and poet Fred Moten’s manifesto The Undercommons, the remark comments on the ever-expanding role of young creatives working in a globalised industry and the detached, uninspired practice that the system fuels. It is a curious passage to introduce the exhibition, yet with further thought leads to an understanding of what the curators may think is the reality of the contemporary artist’s role; to be an artists today is to be an activist, a role-model, and thinker and a theorist. To exhibit today is to activate and energise others against systems of domination and exploitation that are characteristic of today’s global dilemmas.
The Triennial “Songs for Sabotage” is on view from 13 February to 27 May at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002.
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