‘The Ungovernables’, the New Museum’s second triennial, is technically not a response to the two key political movements of 2011: the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Instead, its curator, Eungie Joo, carefully describes it as an exhibition about a generation ‘formed by the instability of a period marked by military dictatorships, the IMF crises of the 1980s and 1990s, the spread of global capitalism and the rise of fundamentalism’. The triennial – which Joo spent 18 months researching, and the basis of which was presumably in place before the start of 2011 – is described as addressing the ‘urgencies of a generation who came of age after the independence and revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s’. But it can also be read as emphatically pre-revolutionary, dealing with the conditions that led to the uprisings across the Arab world or a social movement like Occupy.
While about half the work in the triennial was made prior to 2011, ‘The Ungovernables’ often echoes the visual and ideological language from last year, whether it’s the programme of public debates and demonstrations staged by the Israeli collective Public Movement, or the post-riot street debris in Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado’s video O Século (The Century, 2011). It is hard to see the image of street rubble in the latter and not think of Tahrir Square; the filter generates the context, and also the meaning of the image.
That same filter gives the triennial the sheen of present-day urgency, but it’s worth questioning whether this is ultimately in the service of either the triennial or the selected works. Similarly, its title promises a spirit of unruliness that is muzzled by the institutional context in which the works are shown (not to mention the various sources of funding that come into play in the production of the art – O Século, for example, was co-produced with the Pinchuk Art Centre, the private museum of controversial Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk). And although ‘The Ungovernables’ has been curated with a laudable emphasis on artists outside the US – only six of the 34 artists and artist groups included are based in the US, and some of them only partially – much of the work might sit just as easily in the Whitney Biennial across town (the two exhibitions in fact share an artist, the LA-based Wu Tsang). With a few exceptions, both shows place an emphasis on a certain modesty of scale and material; both of them feature a rotating programme of performances, and objects that are concerned with impermanence. Indeed, there are perhaps no manoeuvres in ‘The Ungovernables’ that are even relatively unfamiliar. This could be seen as evidence of the globalized nature not only of our economies, ideologies and consumer habits, but also – more specifically – of art today.
This seems a shame – and also not reflective of the reality of our fractured, transnational state (the New Museum’s own 2011 ‘Ostalgia’ show, for example, featured contemporary work that spoke a distinctly different aesthetic and political language to that typically produced on the biennial circuit). Some of the best work in the triennial makes reference to political specificity. For example, Mumbai-based collective CAMP’s Act I: Swearing in Whispers (2011–12) and Act II: Hum Logos (2012) draw from the tapped telephone conversations between the Indian political lobbyist Nira Raida, and various journalists and politicians. The recordings can be accessed via a New York telephone number, while the transcript is pointedly referred to as a screenplay (the latter is available for download at camputer.org/screenplay). It’s a crash course in Indian politics, and intrinsically a comment on political theatre.
Another work grounded in specificity and location is José Antonio Vega Macotela’s Time Exchange (2006–10). Over four years, Vega Macotela performed tasks at the request of various prisoners in Mexico, ranging from throwing a birthday party to reading letters aloud to a relative. In exchange, the prisoners carried out actions dictated by the artist, such as cataloguing cigarette butts or mapping the flow of a bundle of cash within the prison. Those actions are in turn exhibited as art objects and attributed to the prisoners.
Locating an action in a real world place is one of the reasons why Pilvi Takala’s The Trainee (2008) succeeds in its two-pronged critique of capitalism and the work place. The installation documents the Finnish artist’s month-long employment at the financial services firm Deloitte, which she spent in a state of almost catatonic withdrawal. Her defiantly unengaged presence captures the mundane oppression of the work environment, both physically and ideologically.
Somewhat less successful are the installations that use sculptural forms to loosely reference a political state or ideology. Amalia Pica’s Eavesdropping (Version #2, large) (2011), a wall affixed with dime-store glasses, successfully evokes cultures of surveillance out of humble materials. But ultimately the bright colours and domestic aesthetic creates a gap between the art work and the political context it’s meant to invoke, the meaning of which is unclear. Similarly, Danh Vo’s WE THE PEOPLE (2011), a striking installation featuring shards from a life-size copper replica of the Statue of Liberty, makes bold reference to the failures of Empire without offering particular insight into the actual nature of those failings.
Hassan Khan’s video installation Jewel (2010) also stages no precise critique, but it condenses issues of male intimacy, performance and ego to mesmeric effect. Featuring two men dancing to a rousing track (by Khan), the video had the gallery invigilators dancing along. (In another exhibition, they might have been part of an intervention by Tino Sehgal.) Bona Park’s performance The box in a plastic bag (la boîte-en-sac plastique), New York Version (2012) made reference to the lives of these and other museum employees, but was sadly under-represented in the gallery itself – the performance took place on the opening night.
‘The Ungovernables’ could easily have withstood a little more institutional critique, particularly given the themes of the exhibition and the New Museum’s own complicated history with regard to corporate and private support. If only the New Museum website had been subject to the same hack as that of the Whitney Biennial, in which a fake press release stated that the museum had renounced its corporate sponsors, citing ‘the reckless and even fraudulent behaviour’ of banks, including sponsor Deutsche Bank. As it is, what currently appears to be most ungovernable, and also the most enduring context for art, are the forces of the market and global capitalism.