Songs for Sabotage, the fourth iteration of the New Museum Triennial, is less an expo of subversive acts documented than a cumulative call of desperation. The show’s titular “sabotage” is mostly limited, in the hands of the twenty-six artists and collectives selected by New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari and the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Alex Gartenfeld, to expressions of dissent. A low bar for treason, perhaps, but one the United States’ current administration seems to endorse as it attempts to silence and discredit its critics as “unAmerican”. Their right to revolution largely abdicated, these practitioners call out injustice but stop short of direct action.
The show is described by Carrion-Murayari as a meditation on the bleak future awaiting society’s precariat, a generation (crucially, that of the artists participating) “beset by economic and social insecurity regardless of the overall wealth of their respective nations”. The pessimism suffusing this curatorial through-line is lightened somewhat by the thoughtful presentation of the overwhelmingly strong works themselves. Carrion-Murayari and Gartenfeld smartly reined in the number of participants, halving the previous triennial’s total of fifty-one, and instead gave this smaller group of artists the opportunity to present multiple works, a gambit which afforded them the chance to demonstrate their continuous engagement with their respective subjects over time, allowing urgency to build from piece to piece.
These young artists, all of whom are under the age of forty (an age cap is one provision that connects the four triennials), have much to say about the bleak current states of their respective home countries. The remarkable geographic diversity within this show is commendable, with artists based not only in the expected American, European, and Chinese hubs but Harare, Zimbabwe; Goiania, Brazil; Grahamstown, South Africa; and others. Indeed, the breadth of the issues tackled here is both the strongest ballast to the curatorial insistence on the dire state of affairs worldwide and, conversely, weakens the show’s thrust. Nearly every artist included has a different political injustice or atrocity to get across. Participants run the risk of the appearance of having been chosen out of a sort of reverse tokenism, with each representing a different localized politics or niche issue.
In five vibrant, oil-on-canvas abstracted portraits that evoke the textiles of his native Zimbabwe, Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude uses the evocative vernacular of local slang as a springboard for compositions in which idioms are represented literally. His paintings, which feature disembodied teeth in a reference to the Zimbabwean mazino (a slang word for the biting cruelty of life), depict both anonymous figures and military personages familiar to Zimbabweans. The Red General, all works 2018, showing a man in red military regalia whose upturned head is dominated by an enormous mouth with a pink tongue emerging from white teeth, references the country’s recent military coup, which many there believe to be merely a reshuffling of power amongst the same corrupt political actors. Taking an alternate tack from Nyaude’s suggestive imagery, Haroon Gunn-Salie traffics in the explicit with a striking suite of seventeen headless, kneeling life-size black cast-resin sculptures, which serves as a memorial to the seventeen striking miners massacred in his native South Africa in 2012. And Manuel Solano eloquently demonstrates how politics shape the personal. Across four massive acrylics on canvas, the artist, who is legally blind as a result of AIDS-related complications for which they received inadequate medical care, recreates visual memories from their Mexico City childhood before they lost their sight. The paintings are by turns tender, as in La Tía Ana Retratada Con Sus Perlas (Aunt Ana Portrayed with Her Pearls), all works 2017, terrifying (I’m Flying, a rendering of the final scene from 1996’s The Craft in which teenage anti-hero Nancy Downs has been banished to an insane asylum and restrained to her bed), and hopeful (Untitled, a reconstruction of a still from Michael Jackson’s 1991 music video “In the Closet,” in which the sinuous singer revels in his gorgeously androgynous body as he and model Naomi Campbell dance side by side—an early example for the trans youth of an artist freely coloring outside the lines of their biological make-up). Solano’s blocky figuration and sometimes patchy surfaces bring these larger-than-life, dynamic compositions back to earth, and the resulting pieces are among the show’s best.
Politics is a challenging subject to tackle via visual art, and attempts are often dogged by two interrelated sticking points. First, assuming political change is the aim, is art really the best means of effecting it? As is the case with much recent political art, a number of the works included here are bogged down by lengthy adjacent theoretical texts that suggest that perhaps their points are better articulated in writing. Greek collective Kernel’s post-apocalyptic aluminium-pallet and cable-jacket assemblage As you said, things resist and things are resistant, 2018, which is tricked out with a robotic mechanism that dictates the movement of the work’s appendage, is admirably informed by Stefano Harvey and Fred Moten’s collection of essays The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, 2013, a treatise on capitalism’s attempts to dispense with human labor. However, the eye-catching installation ultimately comes across as nothing so much as an arty bid for some yet-unnamed public art commission, its message lost in translation. And it is hard not to feel slightly patronized by painter Cian Dayrit’s decision to insert QR barcodes within his cartographic textiles and oil works, which he invites viewers to scan on their phones to access tracts corresponding to developments within his native Philippines. An expedient means of inserting theoretical discourse into the work, but one that nevertheless reads as a gimmick. Worse, it is as if Dayrit is saddling his already sympathetic audience with extracurricular reading to prove a point he has already earned.
Second, who exactly is political art for? These practitioners know that their work will not reverse the course of globalization or change the minds of the ethically bankrupt bureaucrats who privilege corporations over the interests of their constituents. As Carrion-Murayari puts it, “To these artists, it is clear that the global contemporary art world is situated within these [capitalist] networks, but their response is to produce objects that do not satisfy the desire for futurist [uncritically progressive] narratives”. A few of the participants, like Anupam Roy, do just this by following the model of collectives like New York-based AIDS advocacy group ACT UP and others. Roy’s gory, Goya-esque drawings on various scrappy media, which serve double duty as imagery used in the Marxist-Leninist artist’s demonstrations against India’s far-right government, embody activist art. Frustratingly, while hewing closest to the theme of “sabotage,” Roy’s work suffers when severed from its primary context and inserted salon-style into the New Museum’s gallery, where its discordant strain is muted amid a profusion of subtler, more traditional and saleable large-format paintings. Regardless of their espoused politics, taken collectively in this context they have the unfortunate effect of undermining the show’s theme of disruption. The “ennial” exhibition format is indeed inextricably entwined within the globalized nexus of commerce. This is not to say that a socioeconomically critical show like Songs for Sabotage is doomed to fail, but it would have benefited from a greater self-awareness regarding its own role in the equation, as well as from the inclusion of more works that grapple directly with the economic channels by which the whole enterprise is fed.
There are many standouts and few weak links within this show. But one was at times left feeling perplexed. What is the viewer, however sympathetic to their causes, to do with all this evidence of disorder and despair? Critics of the show have objected to its positing the mere act of pointing out injustice as a viable form of protest. Yet Songs for Sabotage ably captures the sense of powerlessness felt by Millenials, who have lived through an age of unbridled and unchecked capitalist expansion, increased suppression of dissent, and the global resurgence of autocracy and fear-based policy-making worldwide. Millenials are compelled not merely by a self-centered notion of being entitled to have it all (a generational stereotype drummed up even in some critical responses to this very show) but by concern for a global balance that has never felt more precarious. The first reassertion of agency is the acknowledgement that the walls are caving in. The next step, however, is offering new structures to replace them.