Politics and social issues dominate the New Museum Triennial 2018

Paul Laster  -  March 20, 2018

The New Museum Triennial’s fourth edition tells about the world’s anxieties through a new generation of artists, who have been experiencing its issues at first hand.

Seeking to define a new generation of artists, the fourth edition of the New Museum Triennial, Songs for Sabotage, presents works in a variety of media by 26 emerging artists and collectives from 19 different countries. Thematically focused on work by artists who are examining the social and political climate of their particular realms, the exhibition highlights issues that ultimately impact all of us.

Entailing two and a half years of research and travel, the timely show was organized by New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari, Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art deputy director and chief curator Alex Gartenfeld and New Museum curatorial assistant Francesca Altamura. Eighty percent of the work was newly commissioned for the exhibition, and for many of the artists it is their first presentation in a museum, as well as their first opportunity to show in New York.

These artists are new voices, but they’re dealing with very old problems: the painful and persistent legacies of colonialism, the historical erasure of victims of state violence and ingrained forms of institutionalized racism that haunt the ways that individuals live and work, to name just a few”, Carrion-Murayari shared at the preview. “All of these structures combined contribute to the precarious position of this generation of young artists around the world”.

Peruvian sculptor Daniela Ortiz proposes the replacement of monuments to Christopher Columbus around the world with figures that honor the female victims of the migration crisis with her painted ceramic pieces, while South African sculptor Haroon Gunn-Salie has created an installation of headless black figures to commemorate striking miners who were the victims of a 2012 massacre by governmental security force in his homeland.

Russian artist Zhenya Machneva fashions tapestries of industrial landscapes and still lives that take their point of departure in the rustbelt of the former Soviet Union. Weaving her works by hand, Machneva draws parallels between the unprofitability of dying Russian industries and her time-consuming craft, which she sees as a form of resistance to the current digitalization of art.

Exploring ideas related to labor, the Greek art collective KERNEL presents a sculptural installation of stacked aluminum palettes with bundles of foam cable covers atop them and organic forms made from copper-plated resin attached to the sides, like barnacles, to comment on new networks of maritime shipping.

Taking on the politics of mass production, Detroit sculptor Matthew Angelo Harrison critiques the representation of blacks in his hometown through a high-tech display of ritualistic African sculptures and animal skulls with references to car culture. Meanwhile, German-American artist Julia Phillips makes ceramic objects that explore psychological and social interactions with the body. Creating imaginary tools capable of providing both pain and pleasure and procedural displays for the examination and manipulation of the human form, Phillips confronts power structures related to domination and submission.

On the audiovisual side, Greek artist Manolis D. Lemos offers an anarchist music video about the relationship between austerity and the rising nationalism with an action capturing staged pandemonium; Hardeep Pandhal, a Glasgow-based British Sikh, uses animation to parody racist and cultural stereotypes in a rap video that appropriates language and a storyline from fictional books about evolution; and Chinese artist Wong Ping creates a cartoon fable about an elephant, chicken, turtle and a tree to critique cultural norms and political incorrectness in his country.

Painting is also strongly represented, with Los Angeles-based Janiva Ellis constructing racial allegories that cross bible stories with cartoons. Mexican artist Manuel Solano overcame blindness incurred from an AIDS-related illness to visualize striking portraits from memory with his hands; Haitian-born Tomm El-Saleh has created mesmerizing abstractions that evoke a trance-like state of mind, related to his native Vodou culture; and Zimbabwean artist Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude mixes the iconography of camouflage with scenes of propaganda warfare and old tribal proverbs to comment on authoritarian power.

“The title of the show, ‘Songs for Sabotage,’ is a paradox—songs are loud and sabotage is quiet,” Gartenfeld revealed on opening day. “In this moment where communication is pervasive—and the louder you are, the more you have to hide—art faces central questions about to whom and how it’s meant to communicate. This title emerged from our thinking that a politically engaged art must address the dominant nature of images today”.