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New Museum Triennial Takes a Subtle Turn

By Vivian Chui  |  New York, 17 November 2021

New Museum Triennial Takes a Subtle Turn

Samara Scott, Gargoyle (Lonely Planet) (2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Much has been said about the biennials, triennials, and large group showings that, like art fairs, have cropped up in cities around the world with seemingly ever-growing frequency. This autumn, there are three such presentations in New York City alone, at MoMA PS1, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the New Museum.

Stacked sculptures besides two small and one large sculpture fronting black and white panel paintings

Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

At the latter venue, Soft Water Hard Stone (27 October 2021–23 January 2022) offers a thoughtful approach to the well intentioned yet overabundant model of bringing together wide-ranging selections to gauge the current pulse of contemporary art.

The institution's fifth Triennial gathers the creative voices of 40 artists, hailing from 23 countries spread across 6 continents, into a successful showing that fills the entirety of the New Museum's building.

Six illuminated hanging head sculptures with roots in dim exhibition space

Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, waves move bile (2020). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Curators Margot Norton and Jamillah James, alongside curatorial fellows Jeanette Bisschops and Bernardo Mosqueira, have gathered a strikingly cohesive body of works created by individuals each addressing themes and issues as different as their media of choice.

Inspired by a Brazilian proverb that alludes to the possibility of transformation against all odds of impermeability, the exhibition speaks to the cultural, personal, and political shifts that humans both contend with and struggle towards within contemporary society.

Damaged shelf installation with purple wall and scattered objects

Gaelle Choisne, Temple of love – Love to love (2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Gabriela Mureb takes direct inspiration from the phrase that birthed the exhibition's title, positioning a kinetic sculpture so that its motor steadily drums a metal extension against an adjacent stone. Left on over a long period of time, the targeted object is eventually knocked over.

The work, titled Machine #4: stone (ground) (2017), is an effective metaphor for the small actions that, cumulatively over time, cause change that may easily be passed off as unthinkable.

Stone attached to drill installation placed on gallery floor

Gabriela Mureb, Machine #4: stone (ground) (2017). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Rather than forcing artists into rooms organised by subthemes, works correspond to one another in a free-flowing exchange that runs through the show.

Jes Fan's glass sculptures Networks (for Rupture) and Networks (for Expansion) (both 2021), containing a strain of black mould known for its asexual reproduction, are placed besides Iris Touliatou's Untitled (Still Not Over You) (2021), an abstract installation of flickering, near obsolete fluorescent light tubes collected from defunct offices in Greece.

Translucent receptacle network installation on gallery floor

Jes Fan, Networks (for Rupture) and Networks (for Expansion) (both 2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo:Dario Lasagni.

Although addressing unrelated themes—respectively, sexual identity and the temporality of human infrastructures—the pairing appears materially harmonious, united visually by the shared use of tubular materials.

One of the show's greatest strengths is the notable subtlety of works on display: a refreshing respite at a time when so many artists have embraced brash, overt political agendas within their practices.

Receptacle tube installation besides dual frame installation on wall

Left to right: Jes Fan, Networks (for Rupture) and Networks (for Expansion) (both 2021); Iris Touliatou, Untitled (Still Not Over You) (2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Among the standout works is Hera Büyüktaşçıyan's sculptural installation Nothing further beyond I (2021), which grounds a second-floor gallery with deft restraint. Based in Istanbul, the artist riffs off the Arch of Theodosius, a site constructed in AD 395 as a display of imperial greatness whose archaeological remnants can still be seen today in a central square within the Turkish capital.

In Büyüktaşçıyan's interpretation, offcuts of commercial, mass-produced carpets are layered atop one another, forming neat, waved stacks of varying elevations and configurations that recreate the architectural contours of the ruins.

Stacked carpet installation across the floor and raised

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Nothing further beyond I (2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

The industrial material, some of which is etched with motifs that adorn the original columns, takes on a sinuous, organic appearance, emulating the gradient lines of sedimentary rock.

In creating this work, the artist demonstrates a mastery of form while skillfully drawing attention towards the imperceptible entrenchment of historical legacies within modern-day lives.

Stacked carpet installation in front of wall sculptures framed drawings and  walled mask installation

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Nothing further beyond I (2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Upstairs, Nadia Belerique similarly repurposes manufactured products—in this case, large plastic barrels used to cheaply transport cargo across international borders. Titled HOLDINGS (2020–ongoing), the installation transposes a medley of photographs, liquids, and objects inside the white containers, which the artist's family used in the 1970s to send goods and gifts back to relatives in the Azores after they migrated to Canada.

Partially obscured by stained-glass pieces that seal the enclosures, Belerique's assemblages resemble vestiges of the lives experienced in native and newly adopted lands alike.

Stacked plastic barrel installation with rubbish and painted

Nadia Belerique, HOLDINGS (2020–ongoing). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Though abstract, Belerique's sculptures visualise the familial ties sustained through the exchange of memories and material belongings, in a world defined by constant human migration. As much a creative study on form and colour as it is a work with definitive meaning, HOLDINGS registers as a study on impermanence, harkening back to the Triennial's overarching themes.

Floor installation, stacked sculptures, panel paintings, and monochrome prints in exhibition space

Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Laurie Kang's suspended work Great Shuttle (2020–2021) likewise commands viewers' attention, bisecting a primary room on the museum's third floor. Within the imposing framework fashioned out of flexible track and steel studs are glossy sheets of unfixed film, marked by striations of crimsons and reds that will change over time, as they are subject to shifts in light and environmental changes.

White sculpture on intersecting wooden tables surrounded by panel installations and orange wall sculpture

Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

On the opposite side, magnets attach photograms to Kang's structure in a grid-like formation, bringing biological patterns into dialogue with the industrial steel that props up the sculpture. Some of these evoke the inner contours of the lotus root, a vegetable that also appears in oversized, cast aluminium form as part of the installation.

One of the show's greatest strengths is the notable subtlety of works on display: a refreshing respite at a time when so many artists have embraced brash, overt political agendas within their practices.

Though there is a sense of mechanical precision to Kang's arrangement of objects, the Toronto-based artist embraces biology and nature—through the food that people ingest, and the effects that it extols on our surroundings—as forces to reckon with.

Wooden panel installation attached to machines set besides vertical grid installation framed by chain

Laurie Kang, Great Shuttle (2020–2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Meanwhile, Kahlil Robert Irving's suite of ceramic works, titled Routes&Roots[(SaintLouis«NewYork (returnflight)]MEMORY MASSES (2021), impressively encapsulates the complicated history of his hometown St. Louis.

The Midwestern metropolis has witnessed steady decline from its former stature as one of America's greatest cities. As production continues to be relocated, a gradual exodus has led to a shrinking population and police violence is perpetuated towards the Black community.

Six urban debris sculptures in clay fronting two abstract paintings

Kahlil Robert Irving, Routes&Roots[(SaintLouis«NewYork (returnflight)]MEMORY MASSES (2021); background: Christina Pataialii, from left to right: Night Drills and Footsteps in the Dark (both 2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Taking inspiration from these circumstances, Irving transforms clay into hyperrealistic renditions of urban detritus—what one might find along the sides of a highway, or at a junk yard—and imprints found images culled from popular media. Nestled in the sculptures are, for instance, a meme mocking American colonialists, and a newspaper headline announcing the acquittal of a white police officer who killed a Black man in 2011.

By embedding these cues into the artist's visual lexicon, the works become effective material records of an individual grappling with the tarnished histories and present-day realities that contextualise his life.

Figurative mix-media works hanging on wall besides clay sculptures

Left to right: Blair Saxon Hill, Emergency Contact (2021); Kahlil Robert Irving, Routes&Roots[(SaintLouis«NewYork (returnflight)]MEMORY MASSES (2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Beyond sculptural installations, the Triennial also features a number of video and multimedia works—a notable one being All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes (2021) by Haig Aivazian, which delves into the complex functions that light fulfils within the structure of modern society.

Splicing together footage sourced from the internet and WhatsApp, the Beirut-based artist zeroes in on the 2019 uprisings in Lebanon, during which citizens protested the lack of access to resources brought forth by endemic corruption.

Film shown on large screen in front of two metal benches

Haig Aivazian, All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes (2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Viewed from metal benches that evoke a stark, jail-like environment, the stunning film opens with a montage that speaks to the barbarism with which men once drained the heads of sperm whales in order to produce oil for their lamps.

From that conceptual point, situated in the early phases of global industrialisation, Aivazian goes on to identify light's evolution into not only a surveillance apparatus wielded by the state to control its population, but also a vital necessity for human existence. Its absence equates to an infringement of basic rights and even loss of life, as shown by an aerial view of Aleppo diminishing in luminosity over the course of the Syrian civil war.

Hand resting on metal object from film still with caption 'which can be swung around'

Haig Aivazian, All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes (2021). Exhibition view: Soft Water Hard Stone, 2021 New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (27 October 2021–23 January 2022). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

At one juncture, the question, 'Does the future really have to be this bright?' is posed within the video, causing viewers to wonder whether there can be a possible reality in which humans disrupt the cycles of violence and suppression.

The query feels emblematic of the works presented within Soft Water Hard Stone—an offering of manifold voices that holds a collective mirror against the legacies, traumas, and dangers that those of us living through the 21st century must navigate. —[O]

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