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Present in an Age of Chaos: "The Ungovernables" at the New Museum

The day before the public opening of the New Museum's 2012 Triennial, the museum's second iteration of its generational survey of young artists, a water main broke a few blocks from the museum, gushing water onto the street and creating a lake that temporarily flooded the intersection of the Bowery and Delancey.

This literal rupture in the urban fabric halted the normal tidal flow of morning traffic, and it took workers a couple of hours to restore order. The unplanned breakdown and its accompanying visuals - workmen in hardhats tearing up the pavement, multiple police cars with flashing lights, and helicopters surveilling the scene overhead - seemed an appropriate backdrop for the work displayed by the young artists inside the museum. This is their new normal.

Living in an uncertain epoch that teeters toward wholesale breakdown in the social and political order, the artists and collectives in the appropriately titled The Ungovernables display an unwillingness to serve as passive creative interpreters of their unsettling time. In assembling this diverse global collection of under-35 artists and bringing many to New York for the first time, curator Eungie Joo highlights artists whose work involves impermanence, resistance, and a well-researched ideological grounding. Action-oriented interventionists, purposeful and serious, devoid of cynicism and snark, these artists and their good works demand and ultimately earn our full attention.

Adrián Villar Rojas, A Person Loved Me, 2012.

Over fifty artists are participating in the exhibition, counting the collectives, and not all are showing work within the confines of the museum or the time frame of the exhibition dates. Some are performances. Of the works within the New Museum, many are strong and complex enough at first appearance to invite more in-depth questions, certainly in line with the goal of the curator to engage in a dialogue.

An obvious place to begin would be with the sculpture of Adrián Villar Rojas, an Argentinean born in 1980. The floor-to-ceiling site-specific monument in clay, "A person loved me" (2012), appears like a wreckage from the future, a robotic artifact to be deciphered as a lesson for the human race. A similar work of his graced the most recent Venice Biennale. The title of the New Museum work suggests a complicated and indeed emotional relationship between this artifact and a mysterious human counterpart.

Amalia Pica. Eavesdropping (Version #2, large), 2011.
Partially seen in background: Danh Vo. WE THE PEOPLE, 2011.

Sharing the fourth floor space with the futuristic monument are a few pieces of shiny pounded copper by Danh Vo (b. Vietnam 1975; grew up in Denmark; resident of Berlin). While beautiful sculptural pieces on their own terms, these sections of "WE THE PEOPLE" (2011) are actually part of the artist's extraordinary project to replicate the entire thin copper surface of the Statue of Liberty at scale. The gigantic sculpture is imagined, not realized, interrupted by being kept apart in many sections. Thus, the work becomes a meditation on the symbol of liberty and what is surface and what is substance. Nearby, Amalia Pica (b. 1978, Neuquén Capital, Argentina. Lives and works in London) has glued colorful drinking glasses to the wall in an artful configuration for a piece titled "Eavesdropping.” The effective juxtaposition of the above-mentioned works, along with a couple of Mumbai-based Minam Apang's myth-inspired drawings, gives strength to the entire fourth floor.

Jonathas de Andrade's "Ressaca Tropical (Tropical Hangover)," 2009, a sequence of 101 photographs and 140 typewritten pages that wrap around the walls of the fifth floor, is based on a romantic diary dating to 1977 and discovered in a garbage pile. The setting is Recife, Brazil, a large business and industrial metropolis. Images suggest a city of utopian ambitions, with modernist architecture often at the mercy of the climate and tropical floods. As a counterpoint to the conventional images of the city displayed on the wall, ones that suggest only buildings and lack of human presence, the diary entries follow the life of an impulsively romantic and cinema-going city dweller. Our everyman serves as the means to construct a fiction of the city.

Mounira Al Solh. Bassam Ramwali, From waiting blue to lingering yellow (or vice versa), 2010-

Speaking of fictions, particularly intriguing is a set of drawings by Mounira Al Solh, an artist born in Beirut who continues to work there and in Amsterdam. While working as an established artist with gallery representation, Al Solh has constructed a fictional male alter ego for herself named Bassam Ramlawi. This alter ego maintains humble roots and close ties to Lebanese friends and relatives, trading drawings for services. By inventing this alternative self, the artist perpetuates a sense of home as a means to cope with self-criticism of her own status as a "cultural immigrant."

José Antonio Vega Macotela. Habemus Gasoline, 2008.
Partially seen on the right, Kemang Wa Lehulere. Remembering the Future of a Hole as a Verb 2, 2012.

Several other works are worthy of attention including "PrayWay, 2012," a partially folded prayer rug with blue neon lights underneath, by Slavs and Tatars (Founded 2006, Eurasia); a series of portrait paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977 London. Lives and works in London); and the monumental chalkboard drawings by Kemang Wa Lehulere (b. 1984 Cape Town. Lives and works in Johannesburg). Many of the works in the exhibition function as teaching moments, such as an installation by José Antonio Vega Macotela (b. 1980, México City. Lives and works in Amsterdam and México City) titled "Habemus Gasoline," 2008. Part science project, part art, the artist has set up an everyday tequila distillery to comment on the economic exploitation of Mexico's natural resources.

The exhibition includes several time-based media works. Jonathas de Andrade, the creator of the Recife piece, contributes an effective film originally shot in Super 8mm titled "4000 Disparos (4000 shots)." The presentation of speeded-up frame shots of the faces of anonymous men heightens awareness about the ephemeral nature of our everyday peripatetic experiences.

The depth and thoughtfulness of the artworks in The Ungovernables, coupled with a skewing of the demographics toward artists that represent the global future, establishes the exhibit as a refreshing and indeed hopeful statement on the ability of art to live up to the challenging present. These artists present well-researched work that demonstrates focus and engagement. They show a deep love and respect, even at times a homesickness, for the places they love. The artists at the New Museum, in fact, offer a counter argument to those who would characterize their generation as narcissists with short attention spans. Here, instead, we have old souls in young bodies, aware that they, like their art, will not live forever. They are prepared to do the world's work.
_____


The Ungovernables: 2012 New Museum Triennial
Opens February 15, 2012
Through April 22, 2012
The New Museum
235 Bowery

The museum has scheduled public programs in conjunction with the exhibition. For more information, please visit the museum’s website. While visiting the New Museum, be sure to also see the exhibition Head Gas, paintings and works on paper by Berlin-based artist Enrico David, next door at Studio 231.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. February 14, 2012.

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