The New Museum Triennial Asks: Can Artists Sabotage the Status Quo?

Scott Indrisek
Feb 12, 2018 11:43PM

Installation view of Haroon Gunn-Salie, Senzenina, 2018.

It is fair to say that the world is not in great shape right now. And the latest, fourth, iteration of the New Museum Triennial—which has the seductively punk title “Songs for Sabotage” and is co-curated by Alex Gartenfeld (of the ICA Miami) and Gary Carrion-Murayari, along with Francesca Altamura—seeks to chart some of those fault lines, taking a self-consciously global look at how artists are reacting to the status quo.

It’s a politically inclined exhibition that explodes into a multiplicity of viewpoints, with artists hailing from Haiti, Peru, Russia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Algeria, China, and elsewhere. The works reflect on everything from austerity measures and trade in Greece to police-sponsored massacres in South Africa; despite being the focal point of our daily media diet, President Trump is almost entirely absent here, except perhaps as an extension of larger forces.

“In adopting the notion of sabotage as a model for artistic production,” Carrion-Murayari writes in his catalog essay, “this exhibition posits that what unites young artists is an understanding of the inescapability of global political and economic networks and a desire to respond with individual, localized gestures that work against the ruthless efficiency of these networks, even with little possibility of destroying them.”

Installation view of Claudia Martinez Garay, Cannon Fodder/Cheering Crowds, 2018.


That might sound a bit hopeless—as if the most artists can hope for is to throw a wrench in the gears—but it’s also a refreshingly realistic resetting of expectations.

Yet by focusing on these “localized gestures,” one risk the curators run is an exhibition that, in its ambitious inclusivity, is a bit too diffuse. A room given over to banners, paintings, and drawings by Anupam Roy evince the artist’s activism on behalf of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. Nearby, an installation of textile works and paintings by Cian Dayrit turns into a micro focus on trade, class, and race in the Philippines. Are we negligent if we appreciate these works on a superficial level without fully imbibing their context?

It’s an issue that Claudia Martínez Garay raises, indirectly, through a terrific installation of paintings on wood, Cannon Fodder / Cheering Crowds (2018). The artist pulls elements from various 20th-century propaganda and activist materials, separating out figurative forms on one wall (the Black Panther logo, various octopi and snakes, a woman wielding a rifle) and pure design elements on the other (lush gradients, geometric compositions that evoke rising suns or limitless horizons). In some ways, the work uncomfortably invites us to view activism as a sort of style or aesthetic, divorced from its singular demands.

Installation view of KERNEL, As you said, things resist and things are resistant, 2018.

“Songs for Sabotage” ping-pongs between works that are rooted in a specific set of circumstances and those that nod toward a broader mood or zeitgeist. Some do both. The most successful pieces manage to exist somewhere between a highly specific, local gesture and a more ambiguous universality. Diamond Stingily’s E.L.G. (2018), for instance, is a simple, modified swing set with a single brick perched on its top beam, as if waiting to drop and crack the skull of some future swinger. Like an earlier series of the artist’s not included in this show—assisted readymades of battered doors with aluminum baseball bats propped against them—Stingily’s sculpture is loaded and uncomfortable. The effect isn’t dissimilar to that of Robert Gober’s unnerving baby cribs, which likewise imbue a common object with an air of menace.

Elsewhere, other found materials also do a handy job of standing in for a bigger picture. As you said, things resist and things are resistant (2018) is an installation by the Greek collective KERNEL, comprised of stacked aluminum pallets, copper-plated acrylic resin, and other industrial materials. The combination is meant, according to wall labels, to allude to China’s role in purchasing various components of Greek infrastructure, like shipping ports. But even divorced from this context, the piece has an evocative physicality: the rust-colored resin like an outgrowth of coral, the bound heaps of foam cable-jackets like depleted corpses tossed on a freighter’s deck.

On the same floor, Violet Dennison’s M.O.O.P. (2018) reads like an extension of KERNEL’s sculpture. Lengths of metal tubes sketch out a kind of mangled schematic diagram across two walls, festooned with masses of dead seagrass taken from the Florida Keys. It’s a literalization of a system that is broken and short-circuited.

Detail of Janiva Ellis, Doubt Guardian 2, 2017.

Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Senzenina (2018) is an installation of ghostly sculptural figures, crouching or kneeling. They’re painted an all-over flat black, and the bodies lack heads or hands. An accompanying soundtrack loops audio of singing and gunshots. The work refers pointedly to a 2012 mass shooting of mine workers in South Africa, yet lends itself to any number of other interpretations (including those that are completely unintended, given the loaded implications of “taking a knee” at this current moment in American history).

Julia Phillips’s series of glazed ceramic and metal sculptures, like Stingily’s swing set, tingle with a floating, almost primal unease. Fixator (#1) (2017) resembles an enigmatic medical device: A harness system set at roughly crotch- or belly-button-level, with a beckoning chin rest. The base of the sculpture is a grid of 20 bathroom-style tiles, permanently imprinted with the faux-watery imprint of a set of feet. Hanging on the wall nearby are works from her “Intruder Studies” series: oversized ceramic corkscrew forms that reside somewhere between art object and weapon.

Wilmer Wilson IV’s mixed-media works—appropriated images covered with an impossibly dense layering of staples, a bristly, shiny fur—are some of the most formally inventive in “Songs for Sabotage.” They shimmer and change as you move around them, revealing intricate patterns—maze-like ripples, interlocking circles, a cascade of triangles—and allowing obfuscated glimpses of the imagery buried beneath all that metal. Wilson refrains from stapling over certain elements: a pair of hands, a bottle of Moët, two sneakered feet. There’s an odd disconnect between the visceral impact of the materials (you can almost feel the ka-chunk, ka-chunk of the artist’s staple gun) and the conversely delicate beauty of these...paintings, for lack of a better word.

Detail of Lydia Ourahmane, Finitude, 2018.

Speaking of paintings, there’s a healthy number of them in the mix, almost all of them figurative. Janiva Ellis’s postmodern canvases invite multiple genres to the same party, and expect everyone to get along. Doubt Guardian 2 (2017) mingles a dose of Francis Bacon-esque figuration with a blasé landscape-with-windmill; a red-haired cartoon imp crashes down into all of it without warning. Manuel Solano’s acrylic-on-unstretched-canvas works—all the more notable given that the artist completed them after being diagnosed as legally blind—depict personal subjects as well as borrowed ones. My favorite, I’m Flying! (2017), appropriates the final scene of the 1996 horror movie The Craft, in which Fairuza Balk is strapped down on a hospital bed, wild-eyed and uttering the titular phrase after being drugged by a nurse.

In some ways, “I’m Flying!” could serve as an alternate title for this entire triennial, a sort of desperate rallying cry as we all fall apart and wonder what to do with our pieces. Lydia Ourahmane’s contribution to the show, Finitude (2018), is a purpose-built wall, thickly spackled with white paint. Over time, a mechanism causes it to subtly shake and move, gradually sloughing off some of its material. “This deterioration will unfold throughout the duration of the exhibition,” its wall label explains, to which one can only respond: Indeed.

Scott Indrisek