10 Artists to Discover at the 2021 New Museum Triennial
Sandra Mujinga, Pervasive Light, 2021. Photo by Øystein Thorvaldsen. Courtesy of the artist; Croy Nielsen, Vienna; The Approach, London; and the New Museum.
Under the themes of resilience, transience, and perseverance, “Soft Water Hard Stone” is the fifth edition of the New Museum’s triennial. On view through January 23, 2022, the survey showcases the works of 40 emerging contemporary artists and collectives. Co-curated by Margot Norton and Jamillah James, the exhibition takes place during a time of global disruption and defining change.
Taking its title from a Brazilian proverb, the exhibition borrows from the phrase the notion of limits, tenacity, and inevitable decay, and reminds us that one cannot be understood without the other. Across the various installations, artists reflect on belonging, tradition, and the necessity to reclaim space and narratives. They explore the relationship between hyperproductivity and waste, the value of degeneration, and what to make of this fleeting temporality.
Below is a selection of artists one shouldn’t miss at this year’s New Museum Triennial.
B. 1980, Lebanon. Lives and works in Beirut.
Haig Aivazian, installation view of “Haig Aivazian: All of the Lights” at Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2021. Courtesy of the artist; Renaissance Society; and the New Museum.
All Your Stars are Dust on my Shoes (2021) captures heartbreak and a missed opportunity. The film remembers the gestation and unfolding of the 2019 popular uprising in Beirut, and overlays scenes of hope and violence in slice-of-life vignettes. A bedridden convalescing protester denounces the brutality of security forces. A newsreel pastiche speaks of a turbulent population while young people dance the traditional dabke, peacefully, in the streets. A voiceover (“He has donated his eye to all those who have lost them during the revolution”) leads us to question the organic nature of social movements and solidarity via the image of an eye transplant, the eye evoking clarity and the insight gained.
This work conveys a darker side of an all-seeing present compared to Haig Aivazian’s previous works featured in the Venice Biennale national pavilion, Venice Biennale international exhibition, Istanbul Biennial, and Marrakech Biennale. Its critique of the emergence of surveillance states includes a biometric recording of an Afghan man by a NATO soldier remembering the never-ending “war on terror” and the weaponization of personal data.
B. 1986, Kyzyl, Russia. Lives and works in Moscow.
Evgeny Antufiev, Untitled, 2020. Courtesy of the artist; Emalin, London; and the New Museum.
As we have learned since March 2020, a mask has the power to protect. It also conceals, and in doing so, it allows for metamorphoses. “A mask is a magic item,” Evgeny Antufiev writes in the exhibition’s wall text, underscoring the object’s visual and semiotic versatility, as well as its relationship to shamanic folklore and mythologies.
In Antufiev’s Untitled (2021), masks are artifacts of illusion and encourage us to step into other possible worlds. An austere wallpaper depicting the interior of a third-century Roman sarcophagus illustrates a row of eroded figures, some headless. Between them are theatrical masks, which overlay elements of drama and tragedy to the scene. Antufiev’s work manipulates tropes and archeology to disclose the many layers to our identity.
B. 1984, Liverpool, United Kingdom. Lives and works in Amsterdam.
Kate Cooper, still from Symptom Machine, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and the New Museum.
Somatic symptom disorder occurs when a patient’s excessive thoughts and anxieties about physical symptoms generates other medical disruptions. Kate Cooper’s Somatic Aliasing (2021), which was created for this triennial, uses computer-generated images (CGI) to echo this sensation with projections of reconstituted x-rayed body fragments. Body parts appear abstracted and their large dimensions often bleed out of the installation’s screenlike ruminations of the mind which can’t quite be contained. This suggests a difficulty in holding the human body in place, especially when in pain or subject to deep anxiety. In one of the images, an x-rayed skull is superimposed with images of a brain and spinal column, which are assembled to look like a dandelion. The sharpness of these images fluctuates, creating fleeting moments of clarity and disorientation.
A feminist artist, Cooper’s work advocates against the exploitative effects of images, objectification, and monolithic forms. She has previously created other CGI works featuring female bodies that have been altered to show the distorted gaze of the advertising and social media industries and their influences on beauty standards and selfhood. These include works like RIGGED (2014) or Untitled (After Infection Drivers),created in 2019 and shown at the Stedelijk Museum.
B. 1978, Baltimore. Lives and works in Baltimore.
Cynthia Daignault, Elegy (Hanging Tree), 2019. Photo by Nik Massey. Courtesy of the artist and the New Museum.
Cynthia Daignault’s deceptively still piece As I Lay Dying (2021), we confront history, race, and memory and how these issues—because they are often still contentious—remain relevant to understanding contemporary fractures in American society. At first, the work’s monochromatic trees seem innocuous—potentially a symbol of passing seasons or the aspiration for a time without an ongoing ecological collapse. They stand out in a room otherwise filled with vibrant color and noise from other installations. Upon a closer inspection, however, the trees embody much more. Through these trees, Daignault’s seven panels convey the transgenerational trauma of the American Civil War and its persisting, hurtful legacies upon the long march towards racial justice. These hundred-year-old “witness trees” of the American South populate a crowded graveyard of memory. They could whisper tales of lynching and other atrocities, if one dared to listen and listen only.
At the New Museum, Daignault—whose work Little Round Top and the Valley of Death (2021) was featured at this year’s Armory Show—continues to integrate a political lens in her artistic choices. In the past, these have included themes related to hypercapitalism, gun violence, and the lack of empathy in contemporary American society.
B. 1987, São Paulo. Lives and works in São Paulo.
Clara Ianni, Class Drawing, 2013–18. Photo by Fernando Ortega. Courtesy of the artist and the New Museum.
In her participatory, site-specific artwork Labor Drawing (New Museum) (2021), Clara Ianni weaves together geography and labor conditions. In it, she invited the museum’s staff to contribute their details about their professional life such as their work titles, commuting time, and modes of transportation, as well as what they typically do during their commutes and how often they physically report to the office. Ianni translated this information into enigmatic graphite strokes and shapes on paper, creating a commute cartography for each staff member. The hierarchy of positions, urban landscape and planning, and deep-rooted inequalities all reveal themselves in the single line of a pencil.
Labor Drawing (New Museum) continues Ianni’s ongoing artistic confrontation of class, privilege, and power dynamics. For instance, in her ongoing work Class Drawing (2014–present), she asked domestic workers and their employees in Brazil to share their “home-work” journeys.
B. 1989, Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lives and works in Berlin and Oslo.
Sandra Mujinga provokes a meditation on Blackness in her three-channel video installation Pervasive Light (2021). In it, we see a Black figure with a dark cloak and fiery edges walking in and out of the panels and in and out of light. The choreography is slow and the controlled, yet fluid movements interrogate the visibility of the Black body and the experiential flow of reality. In the video, the man is both himself and an avatar, one and multiple. The work’s three channels form a distorted mirror mimicking an external, often problematic gaze.
The work is part of Mujinga’s larger practice questioning the politics and weight of representation. In a recent solo exhibition at The Approach in London, she presented Spectral Keepers (2021), a gathering of haunting, elongated figures hovering against a neon green background. These silhouettes stand as sentinels and seem to protect and warn.
B. 1985, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Lives and works in Rio de Janeiro.
Gabriela Mureb, Machine #4: stone (ground), 2017. Courtesy of the artist; Central Galeria, São Paulo; and the New Museum.
We find the rock of the exhibition’s “Hard Stone” quite literally in Gabriela Mureb’s grinding installations. Machine #4: stone (ground), created in 2017, encapsulates the philosophy of this triennial. Placed directly on the floor, a small motor repeatedly hits a rod against a stone. The installation channels anguish, which, once accepted, makes way for a kinetic form of appeasement.
We feel the work’s precariousness as the stone can only endure so much before it gives way and is ultimately destroyed. Slowly then, with a carefully staged, rhythmic, and incessant pounding, the humble rod wins. Meanwhile, in Machine #3: belt (small) (2017), a belt spins with fury, inducing a hypnotic haze. It feels as if it’s at the brink of losing control while the motor and parts remain steady in their frenetic loop.
Jeneen Frei Njootli (Vuntut Gwitchin)
B. 1988, Whitehorse, Canada. Lives and works in Vancouver.
Jeneen Frei Njootli, Ache, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; Macaulay & Co. Fine Art, Vancouver; and the New Museum.
Interstitial and enduring are the beads of Jeneen Frei Njootli, which come into view in discreet and haunting apparitions. Scattered throughout the exhibition like Easter eggs, one finds the colorful beads of Fighting for the title not to be pending (2020) in the museum’s corners, cracks, and nooks. In a way, these beads act as a stand-in for Njootli—their cumulative mass weighs the same as the artist. Through this placement, the Vuntut Gwitchin artist reflects upon memory, belonging, and Indigenous narratives by melting into the building’s architecture.
As one navigates the show, one starts to expect and search for the beads, echoing the displacement of the Lenape people on the island of Manahatta (a.k.a. Manhattan). Meanwhile, Ache (2019) hangs two fur coats dipped in concrete, suggesting the impossibility to fully overcome the past and the existential urge to preserve heritage.
B. 1985, Denmark. Lives and works in Copenhagen.
Amalie Smith, still from Clay Theory, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and the New Museum.
Predating the pandemic, Clay Theory (2019) questions what and who we are as humans. The 3D film explores creation myths linked with clay and human intervention, for instance in the tale of Pygmalion or Frankenstein’s monster. The work’s title references a theory that clay crystals mixed with biological molecules are what first produced organic matter and life itself. In Amalie Smith’s film, we follow the clay-covered hands of students and close-ups of the ebbs and flows of the sea, all leading us to ponder how a sign of life becomes its own entity.
Previously, Smith explored the poetic universes of other materials in works like Hypertextile (flipside) (in 2019) and Fabric of the Digital (2018), and in her series “Plastic Age”(2020). When juxtaposed, textiles and plastic objects convey a tension between a desire of durability and finitude. The use of digital and 3D media are a way for the artist to engage with this contradiction and interrogate how humans interact with nature and craftsmanship.
B. 1981, Athens. Lives and works in Athens.
Iris Touliatou, UNTITLED (STILL NOT OVER YOU), 2021. Courtesy of the artist and the New Museum.
Untitled (Still Not Over You) (2021)features two ceiling light fixtures made out of materials foraged from abandoned office buildings in Athens in a poetic ode to “worthless” objects. This material ephemera includes joints, electrical wires, circuits, cables, and flickering fluorescent bulbs. Iris Touliatou’s work speaks to manufactured obsolescence and how societies define value and waste. These objects once used simply to brighten a workplace now call into question contemporary notions of productivity, yield, and what remains when all is exhausted, whether it be after a harsh economic crisis or a pandemic. After such a drain and energy loss, what can we still salvage to sustain us?
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed the curators of the triennial.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the weight of the beads in Jeneen Frei Njootli’s piece.