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Songs for Sabotage: the 4th New Museum Triennial

By David Xu Borgonjon  |  New York, 20 April 2018

Shen Xin, Provocation of the Nightingale (2017) (Detail). Two-channel video installation, sound, colour. 23 min. Courtesy the artist.

Songs for Sabotage, the fourth edition of the New Museum Triennial (13 February–27 May 2018) curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Alex Gartenfeld, assembles a group of works that, according to the curatorial statement, represent 'models for dismantling and replacing the political and economic networks that envelop today's global youth.' Sabotage typically involves screwing up the machinery that makes things the way they are—think rerouted shipments, stolen supplies, broken machines, and more. The term recalls boycotts, picket lines and strikes, or in other words, the disruptive tactics of the working left.

Spanning three floors and the New Museum's lobby, Songs for Sabotage features 26 artists—just over half the number of the manic 2015 Triennial Surround Audience—and gives plenty of space for each artwork. Thanks to the museum's architecture, there are many points of entry, depending on which floor one starts on and whether one uses the elevator or the stairs.

KERNEL, As you said, things resist and things are resistant (2018). Exhibition view: Songs for Sabotage, 4th New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (13 February–27 May 2018). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio.

Industrial imagination and a post-industrial pathos ground this show. Athens-based collective KERNEL (Pegy Zali, Petros Moris, and Theodoros Giannakis) presents As you said, things resist and things are resistant (2018): aluminium pallets that form a scaffolding on which organic assemblies of foam cable jackets are arranged, with acrylic resin splayed across the structure like a parasitic growth—materials that are staples of the shipping industry. The artwork description criticises the privatisation of the Athenian port Piraeus, although the experience of KERNEL's project seems more like a celebration of the materiality of contemporary logistics.

Arrayed behind the KERNEL sculpture—one of the exhibition's highlights is its thoughtful pairings—are Zhenya Machneva's fine painting-like tapestries which also investigate the affect of industry. Bearing titles like CHP-14 (2016) and Project: Landscape # 1 @ 'On/Off' (2012). These glum, geometric depictions of industrial landscapes and boiler room-like interiors read very differently, however—rather than a celebration of industrial modernity, they feel like a Rust Belt elegy, be it Ural, Midwest or Dongbei.

Zhenya Machneva, CHP-14 (2016). Cotton, linen, and synthetics. 135 x 190 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Overall, the quality of work in this show is uneven, but the international representation is not. The Triennial boasts artists from every continent—perhaps a bit loudly. Reading the wall labels, I wondered whether all this World Cup cosmopolitanism was just a reaction to a certain Biennial that is bigger and more American staged nearby. Take Chemu Ng'ok's four oil paintings from the 2016–2017 series 'Self Esteem for Girls', which depict brightly-coloured nearly-abstract bodies seemingly caught in motion, dissolving into lines and cohering into planes. The image ground—in one work, a bloody red, in another, bare primer—seems to peer at the viewer through the figures; it is like Ng'ok wants to show the social without capturing it. (No need to fix what isn't broken.)

Yet, the curatorial text foregrounds her birthplace and education by placing the artworks in the context of Ng'ok's experience of the 'Rhodes Must Fall' student protests in South Africa. It's clear why the curators drew attention to the subject, since the relation between student protest and industrial sabotage immediately recalls the American struggle for graduate worker unionisation in private universities. However, it is hard to see these specific structures at work in Ng'ok's work, which seems to traffic in something more general: an oscillation between collectivity and individuality, as represented by the never-completed, intertwined figures of her paintings.

Chemu Ng'ok, 'Self Esteem for Girls' (2016–2017). Exhibition view: Songs for Sabotage, 4th New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (13 February–27 May 2018). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio.

Darby English, in his monograph 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (2016), critiques the scholarly tendency to analyse abstract paintings by black artists as depicting blackness; he terms this 'representationalism.' Given that the Triennial's greatest success is the room to breathe that it grants each exhibiting artist and their work, it is a pity that the didactics for Songs for Sabotage at times verge on such representationalism, denying works the discursive space that has been granted to them physically.

Whereas KERNEL and Machneva focus on the materiality and spaces associated with industrial labour, artists like Ng'ok seem more interested in examining the politics of the body, in labour, at rest, and among other bodies. The curators draw attention to such artworks as an attempt to imagine new collectivities, invoking poet Fred Moten and management theorist Stefano Harney's concept of 'the undercommons', which is the lived and performed sociality of an underclass that is always being value-captured by capitalism, but always escapes exhaustion.

Following this, we could venture that the resurgence of figurative drawing/painting among young artists, prominently on view in this Triennial has to do with figuration's never-settled relation to political critique. The artists on view are certainly thinking about it. Consider the corporeal configurations in Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude's oil paintings, on view one floor up. The New Zimbabwe (2018) is a camouflage-like array of blobs within blobs in a rainbow palette with a disembodied mouth embedded in the optical mire, and a banner that reads 'Ushe Madzoro', a Shona proverb that translates roughly to 'every chief takes his turn'. Here, a political critique of Zimbabwean gerontocracy is almost hidden within this celebration of colour—an example of how critique and creativity can cohabit.

Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude, The New Zimbabwe (Ushe Madzoro) (2017). Oil on unstretched canvas. 182 x 265 cm. Courtesy the artist and First Floor Gallery, Harare.

Perhaps artists have returned to figurative painting—an uninformative term that will have to do—because of its utility for inhabiting the space between the collective and the individual. (The institutionalisation of art education the world over, which encourages participation in media with well-defined criteria for success, and the ease with which paintings circulate in the art market, are also partially responsible but more commonly discussed.) The clincher is how methodically a particular painter can deploy her or his vocabulary to explore such concepts.

One outstanding example are Janiva Ellis' riotous, wayward, anxiously joyful oil paintings, which are peopled with figures that are less than bodies but more than images. Her brushwork is precise, her figures doubled, distorted and transposed; they stretch in the way that drawn cartoons do, and this stretchiness takes a beating but is still able to bounce back from violence. This interplay between the formalisms of animation, endowed with their own history of problematic representations, and a latent social critique, is prominently placed facing the elevator as it opens on the second floor, which is as close to a first view as one can get.

Paintings by Janiva Ellis with sculptures by Matthew Angelo Harrison in the foreground. Exhibition view: Songs for Sabotage, 4th New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (13 February–27 May 2018). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio.

Contemporary art is everywhere tied up between political commitments and political inefficacy: it wants to do something about it, but can't actually do anything. To be fair, that's not just an art-world problem. According to Italian workerists who theorised 'the social factory'—the theme of the 10th Shanghai Biennial curated in 2014 by Anselm Franke, which explored the blurred space between social fact and fiction—the standardised mass manufacture of Fordism has been superseded by the flexible service systems of post-Fordism, more call centre than assembly line. (The term post-Fordism is too narrow for some theorists, who instead prefer 'cognitive capitalism' or 'the knowledge economy'.) What does sabotage look like when the factory floor doesn't end at the factory doors, but encapsulates society as a whole? This is a big question, that leads to smaller ones: Why aren't artists unionised? Why are curators either too critical or never critical enough?

Someone has the answers, but the conversation of contemporary art proceeds in hanging questions like a parlour game. This Triennial both plays out this convention whilst also appearing to express frustration with it. Cannon Fodder/Cheering Crowds (2018), by Claudia Martínez Garay, exemplifies this double bind: the two-wall installation of floating, overlapping panels painted with acrylic and varnish was created by collecting 20th-century agitprop posters and separating out the layouts from the motifs into two distinct clusters, mounted on opposite walls. Stripped of their symbolism, the layouts look like a canonical example of post-minimalism: hard-edge abstractions that evoke a thick and masculine nostalgia. Stripped of their context, the graphics look like a children's book spread, full of black panthers and revolutionary snakes, with the presence of old-timey printing artifacts (Ben Day dots, riso streaks). This is a dissection of an era of popular unrest and mobilisation. It is clever, and sad, since dissections only take place on the dead, and Cannon Fodder/Cheering Crowds seems to mourn these movements more than celebrate them.

Claudia Martínez Garay, Cannon Fodder/Cheering Crowds (2018). Acrylic and varnish on wood. 220 x 447 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grimm Gallery.

Stories (songs?) of work and its stoppage tend to be told in a male voice. Metal is preferred, as is the case with KERNEL, and defined muscle will do, as in the hard-edge abstractions of Martínez Garay's decontextualised posters. The Triennial is attentive to these imbalances, and presents a range of work that tries to grapple with an expansive definition of labour that was not just limited to the factory. Accounts of Post-Fordism stress the feminisation (which is not necessarily the womanisation) of labour: technical, emotional, and collaborative competencies are worth more now, money-wise, at least in the (Western, cultural, and advanced) economies that the New Museum inhabits.

Labour engendered as play appears in unsettling form in Julia Phillips' 'Intruder' series (2017), which fills the space enclosed by the walls that Martínez Garay's work hangs from. Some pieces feature ceramic drill bits with dick-like handles that might snap on penetration. The two artists' works play well together, subverting their respective iconographies, either by separating out the parts, or switching in new materials.

Claudia Martínez Garay, Cannon Fodder (2018); Julia Phillips, 'Intruder' (2017). Exhibition view: Songs for Sabotage, 4th New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (13 February–27 May 2018). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio.

Of course, workers make goods, but mothers make workers, with the labour of social reproduction usually excluded from the labour of the working classes and the traditionally marginalised. The closest thing that Songs For Sabotage has to offer in terms of a real plan of action is Daniela Ortiz's four ceramic maquettes, which imagine the selective destruction of monuments to Columbus, and their reconstruction as something better, at sites across New York. (Relevant: Mayor Bill de Blasio recently wrapped a years-long commission on controversial monuments and deemed a local 59th Street monument to the confirmed genocidist Columbus OK to stay.)

One of Ortiz's maquette is titled This land will never be fertile for having given birth to colonisers (Esta tierra jamás será fértil por haber parido colonas) (2018). The roughly modelled sculpture depicts a woman holding a child amid the decapitated heads of conquistadors, standing atop what looks to be a miniature school-like building. Another sculpture replaces a gray stone column of Columbus Circle with a colourful floral stem. A drawing across the surface of the glaze of a woman walking with child and a handwritten slogan bedeck the stem in mixed English and Spanish: 'KEEP WHITE FEMINISTS AFUERA DE MI ÚTERUS' (keep white feminists outside of my uterus). The monument's base is replaced with kneeling, suited men (On the shoulders of the oppressor our pain will weight (Sobre los hombros del opresor pesará nuestro dolor), 2018).

Sculptures by Daniela Ortiz in front of paintings by Tomm El-Saieh on view in Songs for Sabotage, 4th New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (13 February–27 May 2018). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio.

Hinting at Carrion-Murayari and Gartenfeld's vision for the rest of the exhibition, which feels more scattered, is one meditative space that proved a highlight of the show. In a free-entry section on the exhibition's first floor, a darkened glass chamber is dedicated to Shen Xin's four-channel video installation Provocation of the Nightingale (2017), which immerses without overwhelming. Viewers can recline in the darkness, surrounded by the images. In one channel, on a small screen, actors recount their DNA test results to an empty auditorium; Shen has used motion-capture imaging and removed their bodies, leaving behind only floating orange circles and dots that index their gestures. In another channel, projected onto a massive screen, two lovers meander through a conversation, hands touching.

Provocation of the Nightingale does not force conclusions, but instead intertwines identity politics, reproductive labour, and family formations into a single thread that the viewer can pick up. A similar thread winds in frayed form through the rest of Songs for Sabotage, but is not as amply developed when it comes to the way the exhibition deals with its curatorial theme.

Shen Xin, Provocation of the Nightingale (2017). Exhibition view: Songs for Sabotage, 4th New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (13 February–27 May 2018). Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio.

Carrion-Murayari describes the works on view in the exhibition catalogue as 'calls to action against the systems of domination and exploitation characteristic of global capitalism today.' But as a whole, Songs for Sabotage feels more like a staticky long-distance voice message to action. The problem seems straightforward: change can only be achieved through collective action, but the art world is founded on a methodological individualism, which holds that we can only explain social phenomena by the study of the motivations and actions of individual agents. Sabotage, even if called upon, is easily romanticised as an individual act of heroism. This translates into exhibitions featuring individual artists making individual artworks in shows organised by individual curators—even collectives can function 'like' individuals insofar as they are stable, self-contained units. How to balance the commitment to presenting the unique project of each artist against the (necessarily flattening) collectivity that organising demands is a tension that may have been at the heart of Carrion-Murayari and Gartenfeld's project, and it is unresolved.

Throughout Songs for Sabotage, the viewer is left wanting an actual act of sabotage, whether in the form of documentation, a proposal, or an actual instance. Of course, acts of sabotage are not the same as songs for sabotage. We assess the former based on the havoc, the latter on the catchiness of the hook. The New Museum Triennial is full of moments that almost catch, but in the end do not cohere enough to get stuck in one's head. —[O]

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