WHAT: “The Ungovernables”
WHEN: February 15 through April 22
WHERE: New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, NY
WHY THIS SHOW MATTERS: The New Museum has a history of alternating laser-targeted, periphery-focused curatorial efforts (“Ostalgia”) with bigger blockbusters (the recent “Experience”). To its credit, the institution's just-opened triennial, “The Ungovernables,” tilts towards the former category. In her travels to South America, North Africa, and the Middle East, ace curator Eungie Joo has assembled a gathering of international emerging artists who use their work to push at global boundaries of politics and identity.
What to expect? The museum’s lobby gallery provides a kind of preview of the show's ideas, courtesy of the photographs and other media of the collective Invisible Borders Trans-African, a group that travels throughout the African continent testing the permeability of borders that are legally open (and documenting their adventures as art). Testing frontiers is a definite theme here, and “The Ungovernables” includes a number of collectives, ad-hoc groups, and organic support networks that form in the absence of market-driven competition and gallery infrastructure often found in non-Western countries.
Also greeting you on the ground floor are Kuwaiti artist Ala Younis’s forced-perspective floor paintings, “Junior General on Iraq,” which ingeniously form pixelated but instantly recognizable icons of soldiers, terrorists, and guerrillas. The work is a scrappy flashpoint to kick off the show, and its spirit is echoed by the first work seen on the second, Iman Issa’s memorably titled “Material for a sculpture representing a monument erected in the spirit of defiance of a larger power.” That work is a mahogany obelisk laid on its side, tipped over. That the work was made just this year speaks to its relationship with the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring.
Other works testify less directly to politics and more to issues of general identity. Pilvi Takala’s alternately hilarious and sad series of videos depict a month spent working (or faking work) at risk management firm Deloitte. It’s a half-hearted attempt to find a purpose in a world filled with overwhelming purposelessness and pointless industry. Jonathas de Andrade’s “4,000 Shots” submerges individual identity in a cavalcade of faces captured on film on urban streets.
Throughout the show, conceptual power underpins aesthetic delicacy. Mariana Telleria’s “Days of Truth” (2012) are ephemeral (one assumes) assemblages created from a hodgepodge of everyday objects; the most poetically sublime is a tree branch upended into a group of coffee mugs. Julia Dault’s precarious sculptures torque Plexiglas and Formica into shimmering towers, each one named for the date of its creation.
By all rights, the fourth floor should have been the crescendo of “The Ungovernables,” with massive works by Danh Vo and Adrian Villar Rojas. Vo has replicated the Statue of Liberty’s pounded-copper exterior and deconstructed it into panels, laid out like debris from some Frank Gehry building — a slick piece of visual and conceptual play. Yet the work is dwarfed by Rojas’s floor-to-ceiling clay-and-Styrofoam sculpture “A Person Loved Me,” which looks like a broken-down alien spaceship or a grounded Gundam robot — a clunky, cartoony finale that would better fit at an anime convention. Despite the awkward top floor, "The Ungovernables" sticks in the mind, and should propel Joo on to even greater platforms.
To take a virtual tour of “The Ungovernables,” click on the slide show.