The much anticipated New Museum Triennial, titled this year ’Songs for Sabotage’, opened in February presenting the works of twenty-six artists from nineteen countries, some of which are showing for the first time in an institution. The Triennial was born in 2009, and in the spirit of the New Museum’s history, it desired to offer a space for young artists to share their sensibilities and research on some of the most crucial topics of their time. Given the tumultuous period that the entire world has been going through in the last three years, ‘Songs for Sabotage’, curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari, Kraus Family Curator at the New Museum, and Alex Gartenfeld, founding Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, was naturally inclined to pertain to politically engaged artists. The curatorial strategy for this exhibition aims to dismantle the myth of the ‘global contemporary artist’ in favor of artists who operate locally. Therefore, this Triennial focuses not only on the local, to defuse the illusion of the global, but also hopes to erode at large, vast issues that artists undertake individually in their practices, such as patriarchy, colonization, neoliberalism (the usual pariahs of art discourse).
This is a familiar approach for large international exhibitions like biennials and triennials, one in which the artist’s role is emphasized as a gatekeeper of morality. “Songs for Sabotage” surfs the surface of some of the most important issues without provoking much critical, historical or philosophical debate. However, with an emphasis on the artists, “Songs for Sabotage” is successful in two respects: it’s successful in taking the temperature of what’s going on in the world, and in acknowledging how international practices are dealing with a wide range of concerns that exist outside of major power centers like New York.
The highlight of the exhibition is its fourth floor, comprised of a group of works that together create a distinctive and pensive mood. Diamond Stingily’s steel swing, with a brick balancing on top of it, stands tall and austere, and reflects the artist’s ongoing interest in symbolic orders relating to childhood, blackness, collectivity, family, and trauma.
Stingily makes use of cultural references as well as her personal experiences (like her childhood diaries) from growing up in Chicago. Wilmer Wilson IV uses found promotional materials: from church pamphlets to party flyers, that he then transfers on large wood panels. The images are covered almost entirely with metal staples. And while the swarms of staples create a shimmering, dense texture that conceal most of the portrayed figures, only selected portions of their body remain unveiled, an act through which Wilson wants to question how blackness itself is a site of surveillance.
One of the highlights in “Songs for Sabotage” is the work of Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude, who's large, colorful paintings, situated somewhere between figuration and abstraction, convey the emotional, hidden life of his hometown Mibare, in Zimbabwe. While some of his works are candidly titled “If you want to help us you need to understand”, the artist is well aware of the dialogues within the traditions of Western painting, and of his own position in relation to this history. That is why he depicts street slangs and local Shona proverbs, that transform the paintings in radiant visual metaphors. His critique towards the local political hypocrisy, combined with his interest in camouflage, as an ability to hide in plain sight, makes his work one of the best fits for the theme of the Triennial. The other works in the room play well off each other’s aesthetics and approaches, and each one successfully adds to a self-contained feeling of uneasiness in the space. For instance, Tiril Hasselknippe’s metal pieces suspended from the ceiling like ruins in free fall, trigger a sense of peril. And Manolis D. Lemos’ s mesmerizing video, which refers to Athen’s bankruptcy during the world’s economic crises, allows its soundtrack, a nationalist song composed during Greece’s dictatorship, to flood the entire floor.
If this soundtrack sets a reflective, yet chilling mood, the third floor is drowned in songs of protests and gunshots. This is part of an installation created by Haroon Gunn-Salie, which counts 34 headless human figures kneeling. It refers back to the Marikana massacre at the Lonmin platinum mine in South Africa, when, in 2012, the police killed 34 striking miners. This piece feels a bit too representational - and although stories like this must circulate, it brings the show too close to the classic trap of Biennials and Triennials: the fetishization of localized tragedies. On each side of this large installation the exhibition unfolds symmetrically. On one side, Zhenya Machneva creates hand-woven tapestries depicting industrial landscapes. Machneva’s work is another good example that fits into the show’s concept of sabotage. The slow, non-productive, and laborious process of making these pieces, presents itself with an aloof stubbornness in front of the very subjects that they represent (industrialization and mass production), as well as the current context they derive from (existing in the era of high speed digitized technologies). An interesting research is presented by the collective Kernel, formed in Athens in 2009. The large and stylized sculpture composed of aluminum pallets, black cables, and other appropriated industrial materials, draws attention to how the Maritime Silk Road, a Chinese initiative that encompasses the construction of complex infrastructure between Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania, disrupted local industries and led to the privatization of the Piraeus harbor in Athens. Another highlight of the show is Violet Dennison’s work, that channels concern for the rapid environmental change that has occurred in the last years. Dennison collected seagrass from Florida Keys, an area known for the mass death of seagrass that was precipitated by Hurricane Irma. In the gallery, the dried matter has an invasive presence, extending on an electrical metallic tubing conduit that is installed across two gallery walls.
Wilmer Wilson IV - Courtesy the artist and CONNERSMITH, Washington DC
Shen Xin - Courtesy of the artist
Hardeep Pandhal - Courtesy of the artist
A work that has a refreshing tone and aesthetic is Wong Ping’s animation. The artist translates narratives of power relations and complex sociopolitical issues, into colorful fables that are funny, dramatic, violent and absurd, and sometimes all at once. The fable in itself, is already a subversive and critical genre, but Wong Ping’s interpretation makes for a delightful and memorable piece in the show.
There are a few other gripping works in the rest of the exhibition, such as Claudia Martinez Garay’s piece that deconstructs propaganda posters. On one wall the artist presents painted wood cutouts of the figuration that pertains to these posters (this includes their emblems, crests, figures, and animals) and on the opposite wall, she paints the unpopulated backgrounds of the same posters, that end up looking like geometric abstraction. Julia Phillips’s ceramic sculptures start with molds that the artist makes using her own body and that fall somewhere between medical tools and erotic objects. Her work often looks at the ideology that surrounds abortion, and specifically the access that women of color have to basic health rights. Janiva Ellis looks at how associative memories operate on both a personal and a larger social scale, and how perception is manipulated specifically through stereotyping in cartoons. The compositions of her skillful paintings depict common stereotypes of black people, that most of the times exist in plain view without being questioned or disputed.
The title of the exhibition ‘Songs for Sabotage’ hints at a euphoric and optimistic mobilization, but at a closer interrogation it remains unclear what specifically it is in the end that is being sabotaged.
The art world has a tendency to encourage its public to see issues such as “capitalism” or “neoliberalism” like reified outright entities and to exalt artists as moral agents to fight them. It would be much more interesting to use an artist’s research and point of view, to look into the complexity of the situation, or into the possibility of creating and proposing alternative world views.
A more purposeful integration of how these diverse practices can relate with the Triennial’s own contextual specificity - that reads as New York, as New Museum, or even as specific as the Lower East Side - might have been useful in making this exhibition feel authentically engaged. The Triennial’s goal is vaguely optimistic and misses to anchor itself in the very context in which it operates, also leading to a missed opportunity to create and activate a public for itself. With this being said, it is important not to take for granted the indisputable advantages that biennials and triennials have had to offer so far - specifically those of representing local artists and to create interesting cultural exchanges.